Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans:
This is the first in a series of posts about our experiences taking on the Peaks of the Balkans trekking circuit. I traveled with my daughter Rebecca and a friend Nev Chamberlain from the UK. We decided to make this journey without hiring a guide. In these posts I will not only tell our story, but also point out the pros and cons of hiking independently.
In the last post, I will provide the resources that we used to make this excursion a success.
What Made us Choose this Challenge?
Back in 2017, I walked the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago. It took me 50 days—staying in 40 different albergues (hostels) along the way. I found that I really enjoyed this “village to village” walking style. Every night there was an inexpensive and comfortable bed waiting for me with hot showers. I did not have to carry a lot of heavy food or water because villages appeared about every five kilometers or so. There was camaraderie with other pilgrims, our hosts, and others we met along the way.
Soon after I completed the Camino, I started looking for other similar kinds of village-to-village walks around the world. I am compiling a longer list for some future blog post, but here are a few:
- The Lycian Way in Turkey
- The Zagoria Valley in Albania (You can read my account of this three-day trek here.)
- The Via Francigena in France and Italy
- The Fisherman’s Way in Portugal
- Mestia to Ushgali in Georgia
And, the Peaks of the Balkans trail is one that I came across as well. I was planning to join my daughter for 3 months of travel in the Balkans and we decided to put this on our agenda.
We did a LOT of research, debated whether or not to hire a guide, enticed my friend Nev Chamberlain to join us, and spent much of our time between May and June training for mountain trekking. Part of our training included taking on the three-day village to village hike in the lovely Zagoria Valley near Permet, Albania.
Including a Friend
I became acquainted with Nev in passing in 2018. We were both in Kyrgyzstan and we met on a walking tour of Karakol in eastern Kyrgyzstan. We only talked for about 20 minutes, but we exchanged Facebook information and over the years we followed each other’s adventures.
Nev travels much the same way as I do…seeing only a few of the iconic sights; traveling cheaply, independently, and mostly solo; and engaging with locals who share similar interests (Nev joins in half-marathons and other community runs around the world.) Nev is an avid runner, walker/hiker, and cyclist; and now he is also traveling full-time. I thought he would enjoy this trek, so I asked him to join us.
(During certain challenging parts of the hike, Nev claimed that I “twisted his arm,” or he mused out loud, “Now when exactly did I let you talk me into this?”)
Nev arrived at our guesthouse near Tiranna, Albania on June 20. After few days of final preparations, we set off for Valbona, Albania to begin our hike. We felt ready but shared a healthy bit of trepidation that would keep us on our toes through the entire journey.
We decided to start our journey in the small town of Valbona, then hike counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise for my British friends) around the trail circuit ending in Theth. We chose not to do the final stage to complete the circuit (Theth to Valbona). We figured we would be tired of hiking by then and that last stage is a VERY POPULAR section for day-hikers and can be quite busy with several escorted groups taking that stage every day. This turned out to be the right decision.
Traveling to Valbona
I learned that the ferry ride up Lake Koman is especially beautiful, and this is the fastest way to get from the city of Skhodër to Valbona. It is easiest to arrange a shuttle to the ferry dock at Koman, ride the ferry up to Fierza, then take another shuttle to Valbona. We arranged our trip through KomaniLakeFerry.com.
I had no idea that this ferry, which used to be used mostly by locals as their water “highway,” had been so “discovered” by tourists. I doubt that there was one local passenger on board. And the little ferry was crammed with people—with barely any place to sit. But that did not matter much. We stood up most of the 3-hour trip because the views were so engrossing.
Once we arrived in Fierza, we found that there was not enough room in the shuttle vans for all the people pouring off the boat. The drivers were moving people from one van to another and in the end, our driver resorted to pulling out a little stool to put in the aisle for Rebecca to ride on. It wobbled back and forth every time the van would go around one of the many switchbacks.
Rebecca was not very happy. She was sitting facing backwards and has a tendency to get motion sickness anyway. About halfway to Valbona, I switched seats with her and turned the stool around so I faced forward. It was not too bad, but I had to hang on to the seats in front of me to avoid tipping over on every curve.
I planned to tell the driver that we should only be charged half price for THAT seat; but he beat me to the punch, asking only 400 LEK instead of the regular 800 LEK fare. Good for him!
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We were left off in front of our first guesthouse: Rilindja, which is part hotel and part hostel. We were the only ones staying in the hostel, so it was the same as having a private room!
Motion-sickness had taken its toll on Rebecca, so she took a nap while Nev and I scouted out where the trailhead was for our first day’s hiking. It turned out to be 2.5 kilometers from our hostel, up a gently-climbing paved road. We thought that would be a nice warm-up distance since the trail started with a very steep up-hill for the first four kilometers.
We ate from the menu for the evening meal as we sat outdoors on the grounds of this lovely guesthouse. It was early to bed since the next day would be a LONG one.
Other Blog Posts You May Find Interesting
It was not without some trepidation that we started out on our Peaks of the Balkans circuit … We knew that our choice to go over the Prolipsit and Borit passes would test our strength—almost 20 kilometers with an elevation gain of 1422 meters.