That time when we missed out on all of our plans but had the time of our lives in Kosovo and Valbonë, Albania.
Where? Kosovo & Albania
When? October 2017
With whom? Martin
We were trying to check out of our hostel but there was nobody to be seen until 9am, despite us okaying it with the woman on the desk the previous day. We waited around eventually for someone to turn up, not able to leave because they kept hold of our passports. Our check out drama delayed us enough to make us nervous that we would miss the Koman ferry. If you have researched going to Albania, this is the number one thing that continues to come up again and again because the views are stunning for an hour and a half as you glide through the valley. The roads around FYROM, Kosovo and Albania are the polar opposite to as the crow flies, so a destination that was 100km away became a 300km drive that took us over six hours.
Kosovo has a bad rep because of its disputed border with Serbia (still a dotted line on Google maps), so our plan was to avoid it entirely, however, things were not going to plan on this day, so we ended up on a diversion through Kosovo. It was an immediate transition as soon as we crossed the border; the buildings and the surroundings looked a lot poorer than what we had seen from Macedonia, but weirdly the people were well dressed and had the latest gadgets on their person; a strange juxtaposition. We spent less than a day in Kosovo but we feel like with the time we had we made the most of it.
We had resigned ourselves to missing our ferry so we decided to take our time exploring Kosovo. Our last minute Google searches led us to Ura E Shejt to ogle at the gorge and we pulled over when we saw some wonky bridges parallel to the road bridge to race each other, cars, and a giant flock of sheep. The sheep won.
For lunch we pulled up in Gjakova which is the last town before the Albania border and found an area that had cobbled streets and loads of bars spanning the entire street. We sat for a while with a couple of beers and people watched, creating back stories for the lingerers. From the parts of Kosovo we saw, we understood that they identify more with Albania than with Serbia, perhaps for obvious reasons.
The border crossing was easy enough and we continued to drive to Valbonë, a recommendation from someone we met in Mavrovo National Park (read about how we escaped a bear attack here). Everywhere takes cash, not card, so as we were taking directions to the nearest ATM, our hostel host in Valbonë told us that it’s totally fine to drink and drive. His exact words were “If you see double, it’s okay, but don’t park badly.” When in Rome..
We had dinner in a cool place that was hard to find but worth it. It’s called Mostafa’s, and is so low key that there is no web link that I could find. We ordered food that was cooked in front of us on the open fire and it was delicious. Our drive back was slow and careful as we had not factored the winding roads into our beer quota.
With an early start we got up to hike the mountain. Most commonly this is done either from Valbonë to Theth or vice versa, but because of the car we hiked to the top of the mountain and then back down the same side. The hike started on a bed of stones that looked like it used to be a river bed, then quickly inclined towards the peak giving us a great view of the autumnal colours that covered the valley. Trees bent over the path shedding their leaves like rain as we climbed up.
About 20 minutes from the top we came across a “café”. It was a hut built from dead wood and the autumnal leaves that had been shed. As we approached we noticed the DIY beer cooler using the glacial mountain water to keep the drinks cool. We purchased one each to have as victory beer from the top.
When we reached the top of the hiking trail we looked around to see how we could get higher. I found a way up and scrambled up to “death rock” and we sat there with our victory beers taking in the view. Everywhere we looked was stunning; autumn is the perfect time of year to travel to this part of the world. The valley floor was completely hidden with autumn leaves with a very satisfying crunch when stepped on. The tree-covered part of the trail rained autumn on us as the leaves spiraled down like snowflakes. We basked in the sunlight and our glory for reaching our mountain’s peak before heading down to the café again.
We got chatting with Peter, the owner, who had some epic stories to tell. He lived in NYC for seven years on a fake passport, was targeted to kill by his girlfriend’s mafia dad, and sadly, he lost his son when he was very young. The café was named Simone, after his son. He was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met; he cooked us carbonara and fed us, gave us another beer each, a shot of rakija (urgh) and an Albanian desert, all in kind. A couple of Kiwis joined us who had hiked up from Theth and decided to spend the night with Peter and camp at Simone, and we made our way down to get back before dark.
Info: This part of our trip is definitely doable using public transport. It is easily organised from most hostels in Shkoder, on the coast of Albania with its own airport. We stayed at Wanderers Hostel which has a great location and very friendly hosts. It also has its own bar with beer for less than a euro! As mentioned, Autumn is the perfect time of year to travel to the Balkans as it’s so beautiful with all the colours. Avoid rakija where possible. This is the Balkan spirit and it’s bad, worse than bad, but you constantly get offered a shot wherever you go, often for free. We found it cheaper to fly into FYROM than Albania, by a substantial amount. Car hire was very cheap though so we weren’t limited in where we could go!
Product of the week: If you are as much of a mountain fiend as I am then you need a decent pair of hiking shoes. I have had the same pair that I bought for my Duke of Edinburgh award in 2007. They’re falling apart now, ten years later, but they have got me up Kilimanjaro, Vesuvius, trekking round Nyungwe Jungle in Rwanda (read about that here), trekking Batoka gorge down the Zambezi, and many more adventures over the years. Try Vibram Trespass UK boots; they are waterproof and comfortable and an ankle support is a must.
Tip of the week: It was great to have the freedom to be flexible on this trip. We only booked accommodation the day that it was needed. It meant that when we missed the Koman ferry we were not out of pocket when we didn’t turn up to Shkoder as planned. In some places this is an impossibility, for example, mainland Japan (read more about it here), but it worked really for us in Albania. Had we booked everything in advance, we would never have made it to Valbonë, which was a real highlight of our trip.
Other places to visit nearby: I keep harping on about the Koman ferry, and you’ll find plenty of recommendations for it online. There are lots of different ferries that go so you can decide to get a slow one or a fast one. The fast one isn’t exactly speedy so I would suggest this one as you still get to take in all the views. Shkoder is a great pit stop for a day but I wouldn’t suggest much more than that. Stay in Wanderers Hostel for a friendly vibe and bar on site. Tirana is Albania’s capital and has loads to do. My favourite part of it, tragically, was the souvlaki we had from Original Souvlaki. I still drool when I think about it now.