The Accursed Mountains
Hans Avontuur travels to Albania in search of a fierce, rugged mountain range. He finds exactly what he is looking for. Blood feuds, loneliness, legendary hospitality, an illegal border crossing and one of the most spectacular rock formations in Europe.
It’s so foggy you can’t see a hand in front of your eyes. And adding to that, the mountain pass through northern Albania has more potholes than it has surface.
I hold my breath as the 4×4 inches carefully along chasms and ravines. We are aiming for Theth, a village where blood feud was an accepted custom until well into the twentieth century.
Theth is a hidden place where the residents make the rules. In the past and in the future. Even the Ottoman pasha, who controlled half of the Balkans until 1912, quickly understood that this valley was too remote to be suppressed with a hard hand.
It is still a poor region. People possess little more than their pride and legendary hospitality. As a visitor you are more than welcome. But don’t abuse their generosity, it could cost you dearly.
A few years ago, a hotelier, a newcomer from Tirana, threatened some locals with a gun. A fatal blunder. He was later found dead, the hotel burned down. Everyone knows the story and also perhaps those involved, but if asked, no one answers. Here the people are used to do things their own way.
There is the village – finally. At the bottom of the valley. The jagged peaks and mighty steep walls enclosing the village make the houses appear as tiny specs. It is exactly as Dutch writer A. den Doolaard described this view in the 1930s: “… a laughable attempt by man to confront nature.”
This is why I came to this mountain region on the border of Albania, Montenegro and a tip of Kosovo. I love the Alps, but the increasing amount of ready-made tourism bothers me there. The neatly maintained paths, the duration marked route signs, the theme walks, panoramic terraces, mountain huts with e-bike charging points.
I visited the heart of the Pyrenees searching for wilderness and it came pretty close, but I was convinced that Europe must still have even wilder spots. And then in a dingy cafe in Kolašin in Montenegro I heard the name: “the Cursed Mountains”. It turned out that the man was a mountain guide and simply said: “that’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
Arriving at my guesthouse, the hospitality was underscored by a table full of local delicacies: cheeses, dried meat, grilled vegetables, home-baked bread. As harsh and hostile as the mountain world is on the outside, so warm and soft it is on the inside, of people’s homes.
“I was born here.
Life is hard, but beautiful”
Den Doolaard used Theth’s dramatic setting as the setting for his classic ‘The Inn with the Horseshoe’. The rectory where the story of blood feud is set has since disappeared, but the church and the defense tower are still there. This is where threatened families withdrew until the dispute was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Catherina, dressed in black, hangs up the laundry at one of the very old farms: ‘I was born here. Life is tough, but beautiful.”
The isolated valley – forbidden for visitors during the communist era – is of incredible beauty. The kind of place where every sound echoes ominously, where you hear things that aren’t there and where you look over your shoulder at dusk even though you know that nobody is walking behind you.
150 families used to live here, now there’s little over 20. But people are slowly coming back now that they see that you can build a life here with nature and tourism. There’s so much beauty. Walk any path out of the village and nature completely embraces you. I follow a mountain stream up through a landscape of boulders and pools with crystal clear water. Up, down a little, up further.
I hear a murmur in the distance getting closer with every step. Descending along a rickety wooden staircase, climbing up the other bank and … look out at an azure blue, almost perfectly round mountain lake, filled by a waterfall: the “Blue Eye”. A little further on, I find a wooden seat, which appears to float above the lake.
I follow a mountain creek upstream through a landscape of boulders and pools of crystal clear water
Dream Now, Explore Later
Discover the South of Albania by Horse
One of the best ways to get to know a country is travelling the back-roads, through nature on horseback. Caravan Horse Riding Albania wants you to discover other mountain ranges in Albania – less cursed but equally spectacular. The tour operator is based in the small village of “Asim Zeneli”, in the South of Albania, and has been welcoming horse, nature, history and culture lovers since 2011 together with their stable of forty three, perfectly maintained horses.
Their stable is situated amidst scenic hills, green valleys and surrounded by high mountains and rural life. It is just a few kilometers away from Gjirokastra, a UNESCO protected city in the South of Albania.
Experience the Albanian hospitality
Showing the Albanian lifestyle to every traveler: that’s been the goal of Off Limits Albania since 2013. Even if it’s in the heart of winter and in the middle of snow-covered Accursed Mountains. They have been pioneers of community-based tourism since the day they started. It means that the aim of the company is to create meaningful relationships between travelers and local communities while benefitting the people and places you visit.
When you travel with Off Limits, you aren’t traveler. You are more a friend that is part of, and a contributor to, the Albanian community. Giving back and making the world better while enjoying enriching experiences.
Albanian heritage and much more
Albania is very pristine and has not been discovered by many. Forget about mass tourism, it does not exist in Albania, but think authenticity and true discoveries. Adventure & Fun Albania has tried every path and trail in search of the best kept secrets in the land.
Since ancient times, Albania has seen different cultural influences come and go, leaving behind archaeological and historical treasures, such as Roman or Greek cities, walled towns, monasteries and other interesting jewels.
Adventure & Fun Albania offer journeys through places full of majestic scenery, spectacular mountains such as the Accursed Mountains, remote valleys, deep gorges, small hidden bays and crystal-clear sea.
Theth. It is difficult to get there and difficult to get out. But I want to go to the valley of Valbona. Reachable on foot via the nearly 1,800 meter high Valbonapass or by road and water from Koman Lake. The four-hour crossing with a creaky, pounding old ferry is like a dream cruise: emerald green water, a gorge that opens and closes, eagles float through the grey sky.
It rains softly and there is a cutting wind. Most passengers are in the warm galley, but I head to the top deck to miss as little of the trip as possible. For an hour, nothing is visible, nothing at all that indicates the presence of people. And then suddenly there’s a farm that seems to cling to the mountainside, along with suitable livestock grazing.
Since 2015, a good asphalt road leads from Fierzë to Valbona , which has made the valley more accessible and also more vulnerable. Although it is a National Park, there are plans for a large cable car and work on a hydro power plant is already underway. The residents oppose it, but the power of capital is greater.
In 2009 the American Catherine Bohne went on holiday to Valbona for 11 days, met the Albanian Alfred on the ferry and never left. “It is so unbelievably beautiful here. Take the wild cherry, plum and apple orchards, where the bears like to come. Or take the mountain hamlet of Çerem, where, without electricity, hot water or telephone reception, you automatically disconnect from everyday life “
These are the unique qualities of Valbona with which you can develop sustainable tourism, fitting for a National Park. But the valley is threatened because the Albanians from Tirana have a completely different idea of the experience of nature. According to Bohne, they prefer to drive their Mercedes to a lift station, take a cable car up and eat luxury food with a view …
For the time being though, peace still prevails in hamlets like Dragobia, Çerem and Kokaj. And farming families still spend the summer months on pastures like Bruni Brahimit, Devoid of luxury and comfort, they live by the rhythm of the sun, with bears and wolves, and with a small strong horse to bring cheese down and supplies back up.
Despite my better instinct, I hope it will stay that way. Here on the border of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo there is still an opportunity to keep it more pristine, smaller and more sustainable than in the Alps. Without making all the same mistakes as in the Alps, where unique scenery was ruined forever. I sleep badly that night, plagued by images of cable cars, wellness hotels and self-service mountain restaurants.
Persistent heavy rains force me to leave Valbona early. Tomorrow on the other side of the range, in Montenegro, the sun will shine. From Albania I steer towards the city of Pejë in Kosovo. Over coffee I get into conversation with locals who tell me that there is a shortcut that bypasses the closed border crossing – there is discussion about the right location – with Montenegro. Illegal indeed, but with a bit of luck there won’t be any border police and it’ll save me hours of detour.
With my heart beating in my throat I drive into the valley. There’s nobody around, my optimism grows with every kilometer. Asphalt turns into a gravel road, then into cart track, just as the locals described it to me. Just a short distance to the border. Oh no! Bad luck! Two police cars. That is not what I need in an area torn apart by many border conflicts after the Yugoslavia war.
Just when it gets a bit uncomfortable, the chief of police appears. He looks at me kindly and smiles: “No problem. We are here to help you”
No more time to quickly put ten euros in my passport. That sometimes helps. Stop. Open the window. Hand over passport and drivers license. There you have it, it’s your own fault… if only I had just turned around.
Agent 1 wants to know where I’m going.
Agent 2 where I come from.
Agent 1 wants to know why I’m taking this route.
Agent 2 asks if I asked for permission at the police station in Pejë.
Just when it gets a bit uncomfortable, their boss appears. He looks at me kindly and smiles: “No problem. We are here to help you. “
He wants to take a selfie with me and the other agents and then wishes me a safe journey.
Dream Now, Explore Later
A trip to Albania
The founding group of Albanian Trip consists of travel enthusiasts born and bred in Tirana, the capital of Albania. They are passionate, friendly, knowledgeable and with connections to almost every pocket of this diverse country.
Albanian Trip has proudly shown off Albania to thousands of travelers, and yes, they also offer trips to the Accursed Mountains.
Their main focus is to provide travel services while always keeping in mind that Albania and the Balkans (just like the rest of the world) need to be preserved for future generations. Responsible and sustainable tourism, for both the people and the environment, is a philosophy inherent to Albanian Trip.
Most diverse nature
The team that started Xplore Albania wondered why and how it is possible that the nature and sites of their country were still so unknown. Blessed by a Mediterranean climate, with approximately three hundred days of sun, Albania is one of the most naturally diverse countries. Around 70% of Albania is covered with rippling mountains, Ottoman architecture, endlessly hospitable locals. and it boasts a coastline of 476 km full of pristine beaches. Xplore Albania offers a great variety of tours; walking Albania’s untamed paths in the Accursed Mountains or sailing the Ionian Sea, through the Albanian Riviera. Go, immerse yourselves in the deep turquoise waters and incredible panoramas.
Stretch your mind
In the philosophy of Sondor Travel, which we share, travel stretches your mind because of the myriad of new amazing landscapes you will see, and unknown smells and sounds you will experience, and above all because you will get to listen firsthand to stories told by people who live differently. You will rethink what you believe to be right and learn new ways of doing things.
Operating in Albania and the Balkans, Sondor Travel offers travel packages, day tours and activities tailored for everyone. Check out the many different, unique tours, ranging from relaxing cultural holidays to invigorating snowshoeing in the Albanian Alps.
Surprised and confused, I enter Montenegro over an abandoned mountain pass.
The grass grows through the road because hardly anyone comes here. It is a fascinating ride with views, old farming villages, communist concrete behemoths, a lovely terrace in Plav and a good conversation in Babino Polje.
“Did you come through Pejë?”
Finally I have a view of the over 2,500 meters high mountains. Depending on where you are, the range is called Prokletije, Alpet Shqiptare or Albanian Alps. The wild face popularly gave it another name: the Accursed Mountains. They belong to the Dinaric Alps, which stretch over 650 kilometers from Slovenia to Albania.
Sleeping in Grbaje, in a simple wooden house with a gabled roof, typical of the katuns, as alpine pastures in Montenegro are called. It has just a bed and a wood stove. Breakfast, walking shoes, backpack on and out the door. The path zigzags steeply up through a fairytale forest until it finally opens on a plateau. Behind it is my goal: a view of the Karanfili, one of the most spectacular rock formations in Europe.
Every night, the animals have to go inside to protect them from the roaming wolves
I walk in complete solitude, not encountering any other hikers. There is only the distant sound of a flute. Somewhere in this mountain world a shepherd plays a melancholy song. I continue on to the mysterious tunes.
Just a little bit and… Karanfili! An impenetrable wall of peaks and points. Inhale and admire, shut up and look.
My path follows the ridge. To the right the plateau below, left the mountain spectacle. The further, the higher, the more beautiful it gets. Only at the very top of the 2,056 meter high Talijanca do I meet people. Shepherdess Ardita and her two sons. They only speak Albanian – we are literally on the border of Albania and Montenegro – and we communicate with hands and feet. I show them photos of the Netherlands on my phone, green and flat.
They scream and make gestures: “Flat, flat, flat!”
After we’ve said goodbye I watch them walk down the slope with playful ease and climb the other side of the mountain to herd their sheep together. Every night the animals have to go inside to protect them from the roaming wolves. I follow the path to the descent to Grbaje and turn around one last time. Ardita and her sons are standing on top in the distance.
They wave and disappear into the lap of the Accursed Mountains.
Dream Now, Explore Later
Away from mass-tourism
Although Albania is very close to most European destinations, even by train, it has not been developed for mass-tourism and it never will. That makes it a country for people who really would like to discover something genuine and would like to do it in a sustainable way. Enter Ecotour Albania.
Albania has so much to offer: the Albanian Alps are suitable for hiking; the beaches in the Riviera are perfect for relaxing, Albania has 13 National Parks, 3 UNESCO sites and many other interesting places that are not famous at all. Ecotour Albania want to help you discover them all.
Leave nothing but footprints
The Peaks of the Balkans or The Albanian Alps are a hiker’s paradise. And Outdoor Albania would gladly be your guide. Make your way to Valbona on a boat through Koman Gorge and begin your walk to Thethi. Watch the eagles fly over you. As you are getting deeper and deeper into the mountains, you’ll see large populations of mountain goats. See them scramble down the steep rocks.
Outdoor Albania’s specialties also include one-day and multi-day hiking tours and heritage tours. They have also established themselves as an authority for outdoor adventure activities in Albania such as cycling, sea-kayaking, rafting, snowshoeing and canyoning.
Zbulo isn’t just a made-up word, it actually means discover or explore in Shqip (Albanian). And that is exactly what the people at Zbulo want for you: to discover their amazing Albania, probably one of the safest, most welcoming yet undiscovered destinations in Europe.
The great unknown of Albania lures people in and the friendliness and hospitality, paired with some of the most amazing landscape, do their part to make the visitor fall in love with the country.
Zbulo offers expert-guided and self-guided individual walking holidays in the Albanian Alps (where the Accursed Mountains are), as well as hiking and trekking tours.