The Accursed Mountains, sworn virgins, blood feuds and 15th century codes of honor called kanun. It sounds like an experiential blend to inform the writing of a Game of Thrones season. Instead, it’s the cultural and historical backdrop of a 200-kilometer trekking experience we recently took through the hills of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo called Peaks of the Balkans.
The reasons to take such a long walk through once forbidden and foreboding areas are many. The views, varied and seemingly endless, are remarkable. Northern Albanian Malësi (highland) culture where you encounter shepherds of differing stripes — some lifelong, others seasonal; some longing for the return of days past, others indifferent to changing political systems — lives on, scattered across green valleys and chiseled peaks.
Moments of humbling granite uplift, a lingering innocence and a fiercely independent yet hospitable culture not only coexist, but seem to belong together in some inseparable way.
The Peaks of the Balkans experience offers current context, too: a sense of the evolving politics of the region, out from under the shadows of the Cold War — a unique totalitarianism in the case of Albania, and Tito’s socialism elsewhere — and the Balkan conflicts of 1990s and early 2000s. Each day and human interaction fills in the lines of a puzzling region, shedding just enough light and understanding for you to withstand the possibility that the pages of history might turn and reset the region once again.
At this point you might be thinking: “OK, the trek and cultural context sound intriguing, but what will I experience along the way? What do these countries and this trekking route actually look and feel like?”
To answer those questions we will take you through our Peaks of the Balkans trek, day by day. The goal: give you a sense of the diverse landscapes and experiences. Even if you don't have a full two weeks to explore like we did, there are ways to shorten it — to slice off visual and experiential segments that will leave you invigorated, but perhaps not as breathless, as an almost two-week journey might.
Summer 2020 COVID-19 Update (7 July, 2020): Before embarking on a Peaks of the Balkans trek this summer be sure to do your research on possible travel restrictions and closed border crossings to/from and between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro due to the coronavirus (COVID-19). At this time (July 2020) a full Peaks of the Balkans trek is not possible and cross-border permits are not available. Kosovo does not permit green border crossings and Montenegro is updating its travel restrictions list regularly based on the number or cases in the country. Albania's borders are currently open to most nationalities. If you are planning on trekking this summer in the Balkans consider doing one-country treks (e.g., only in Albania or only in Kosovo) vs. cross-border treks. Most guest houses along the trail should still be open and have received special COVID-19 hygiene and safety instructions. However, it's always best if you can call in advance to be sure they are open and so that they can expect you.
Note: To answer all your questions regarding logistics and how to organize your own Peaks of the Balkans trek, we have published the Peaks of the Balkans Beginner's Guide that includes detailed trail options, accommodation, costs, and more.
Peaks of the Balkans (Modified), Our Route: 12 Days on Trail, 14 Days Total
We blocked out 14 days total for our trek, including 12 days on the trail, a one day transfer at the beginning and a day of rest — a “cultural” day visiting monasteries and mosques in Kosovo — in-between. The route we took also included a couple of jeep transfers to avoid long walks on asphalt roads and to better use our time. We started and finished our loop in Shkodër (Shkodra), Albania. The stunning views on the Lake Koman Ferry offer reason enough to begin this way.
We assembled this itinerary with the help and guidance of Endrit Shima and Ricardo Fahrig of Zbulo! Discover Albania. They are avid trekkers themselves and have not only guided on the Peaks of the Balkans trail and nearby routes outlined here, but have also been heavily involved in rural and sustainable tourism development projects that underlie the Peaks of the Balkans experience. In other words, they know this region and these peaks.
Note: When we cross a border, the country being entered appears in ALL CAPS. Additionally, the trekking times below are “Dan and Audrey trekking times,” not official ones. This means when the weather was nice we moved more slowly to enjoy our surroundings and take a lot of photos. When the weather wasn’t so great and visibility was poor, we moved more quickly. The transport and transfer costs are what we paid based on the arrangements made by the trekking agency and our guide.
Day 1: Shkodër (ALBANIA) – Lake Koman Ferry – Fierzë – Bajram Curri – Dragobi – Valbona
Hiking Distance / Hours: 4 km / 2.5 miles | 2-3 hours from Dragobi to Valbona
The highlight of this day is the Lake Koman Ferry (Fierzë-Koman-Fierzë Line Ferry), during which you’ll find yourself overwhelmed, wondering “why hadn’t I heard of this amazing ferry ride before?” One of the most beautiful boat rides you will take in your life. After a transfer to Bajram Curri from the ferry arrival dock, you can transfer further to Dragobi and finish your day with an easy three hour forest walk to the valley of Valbona.
Notes and Alternatives: The minibus (furgon) will pick you up at your hotel in Shkodër at 6:30AM (500 lek/ $4 per person) to take you the ferry departure port on Lake Koman. If you are not part of a tour or with a guide, ask your hotel in Shkodër to call the driver to secure your seat.
There are multiple ferry options, but we recommend the Berisha small car ferry at 9:00 (500 lek / $4 per person) that takes three hours. There’s a one-hour ferry that departs at 11:00, but I cannot think of a reason why you’d want to rush this journey. Once off the ferry, private transport from Fierzë to Bajram Curri (where you can eat lunch) and to the trailhead at Dragobi costs 3,000 lek ($24) and includes waiting time. Alternatively, you can take a shared taxi from Fierzë to Bajram Curri (200 lek / $1.60 per person) and then the bus from Bajram Curri to Valbona at 2:30PM (250 lek / $2). You can find more information on transport to Valbona here.
Day 2: Valbona – Qafa Perslopit – MONTENEGRO – Stanet e Derzhanes (ALBANIA) – Shpati I Mijushes (Çerem)
Hiking Distance / Hours: 16 km / 10 miles | 8-10 hours
This segment was one of our favorites, though it begins with a long, strenuous 1200m (nearly 4000 ft.) climb from Valbona Valley, through forest, rocky terrain and even a snow field or two before arriving at the first border crossing at Preslopi. After another long forest walk, you’ll descend into a gorgeous valley populated by shepherd families living in the shadow of a stunning Yosemite-like wall of granite uplift. We unexpectedly spent time with a local family after they invited us into their shepherd home for coffee — at the rather innocent urging of their teenage son. Both the landscape and gesture were enough to bring us to tears.
Notes and Alternatives: There are actually two routes from Valbona to Çerem. The one we took is the more challenging — and purportedly more beautiful — of the two.
Day 3: Shpati I Mijushes (Çerem) – Dobërdol (Albania)
Hiking Distance / Hours: 14 km / 9 miles | 7-8 hours
Vast, deep looks back at the granite uplift and layers of mountain passes frame the walk until you reach a makeshift cafe set up by a man from the town of Bajram Curri. Take a break and refuel with a coffee and rakija (fruit brandy), the local cafe tradition. Continue until you reach Dobërdol, a valley where a handful of shepherd families live. Until recently there were no roads leading to this area. Even today, the shepherds walk two to three days with their animals from their farms just outside of Bajram Curri. After several months of allowing their animals to graze in the high pastures, the shepherds take their animals back down to their more permanent homes for the winter months.
Day 4: Dobërdol – KOSOVO – Mt. Gjeravica – Gropa Erenikut
Hiking Distance / Hours: 18 km / 11 miles | 8 hours
From the shepherd valley of Dobërdol, you climb up to the border with Kosovo and realize that less than 25 years ago, these border areas were dangerous, heavily guarded no-go zones. Nowadays, you can effortlessly cross the invisible border, have lunch at a heart-shaped turquoise lake and continue to the top of Mt. Gjeravica (2,656m/8,713 feet), technically the highest mountain in Kosovo and Montenegro.
Notes and Alternatives: Private transport from Gropa Erenikut to Prizren (2-3 hours, €100). We stayed at Hotel Prizreni right next to the main mosque. If you are traveling on a budget, there is also a hostel in town that costs €10-15 per person.
Day 5: Cultural Day: Prizren – Velika Hoxha – Rahovec – Gjakova – Dranoc – Decani Monastery – Pejë / Patriarkana e Pejes – Reka e Allages
We opted to incorporate a detour rest day into our itinerary. It allowed us to experience some of Western Kosovo outside the mountains, including a stop at a Serbian family-run winery (Kosovar wine, who knew?!) and several historical and religious sites. We learned a fair bit about Kosovo's distant and recent history, and witnessed evidence of the destruction wrought by the war with Serbia in 1998-1999.
However, we felt that the expense of private transport and a guide was quite high for one day, particularly for just the two of us (100€ driver and car, 70€ guide for the day, plus accommodation, food, and entrance fees). The itinerary was a bit rushed, we missed one site altogether and arrived too late at one of the other monasteries. If we had to do this all over again, we would instead visit Kosovo after our trek, rent a car on our own and drive around (very easy and very safe) for a day or two with flexibility and adequate time to see the different sites listed above, as well as a few others, at a more relaxed pace.
Day 6: Reka e Allages – Mt. Hajla – Drelaj
Hiking Distance / Hours: 16 km / 10 miles | 8-9 hours
On our approach to Mount Hajla, we encounter three wolves scouting their next meal in an unattended herd of cows. Fortunately for the cows, our movements distract the wolves. Like a scene from grand cinema, the lead wolf stands atop a rock outcrop for two seconds and looks over at us in one of those “only to be appreciated, yet not to be captured on camera” moments. The wolf and his two companions then shoot up the mountain, making five minutes work out of what will take us 90 minutes or more.
Standing in the valley at the base of Mount Hajla, it’s difficult to imagine how stunning the views will be from above. At the top, the ridge-line views of Kosovo and into Montenegro make for an unbelievable walk and feature a high “wow” factor.
We walk straight back down the mountain through a series of valleys and meadows to the village of Drelaj, where we will eat beautifully and spend the night. Some of the best food along our trek was served at Shqiponja guesthouse, the home of Ilir Shala and his family.
Day 7: Drelaj – transfer to Liqenat – MONTENEGRO – Babino Polje
Hiking Distance / Hours: 16km / 10 miles | 7 hours
Weather begins to really catch up with us, underscoring that Mother Nature is in control of these parts. Unfortunately, fog obscures the views from both the Jelenka and Ravno Brdo overlooks. On the approach to the village of Babino Polje, the overcast day highlights the depth of color in a fantasy-like pitched field of wildflowers.
Take all the wildflowers we’d seen in our entire lives to that point and it would not have come close to the reach and depth of those growing on the hillside approach to Babino Polje. Within minutes of our arrival at our guest house there (Triangle Wood House, run by Armend Aliaj, the Kosovar musician known as Indigoman, and his wife), a downpour turns to sleet and light snow. If there is any place along the trek to wait out a storm, it is this one. The fireplace and living room envelop you in quintessential cozy.
Notes and Alternatives: We took private transport from Drelaj to Liqenat (€15) to avoid what we are told is a boring and primarily asphalt segment of the official Peaks of the Balkans circuit.
Day 8: Babino Polje – Lake Hrid (Hridsko Jezero) – Treskavica – Skic – Plav – Lake Plav (Plavsko Jezero)
Hiking Distance / Hours: 25 km / 15.5 miles | 8 hours
Another foggy rainy day obscures views of Lake Hrid and almost tricks us into thinking a tiny pond just before it is the big lake we see on our map. Despite this, or perhaps in light of it, the atmosphere at the lake is mysterious and serene, hinting at how peaceful and removed this area likely feels after most have departed in late summer and early fall.
Sacirov Vrh and Veliki Hrid views are also fogged in, but clouds begin to lift atop the hill at Treskavica (Treskavički Katun). We field plenty of offers of coffee from local Montenegrins at their summer houses and enjoy the banter in the villages leading up to the police/border guard station at the edge of Plav (where you need to check in with your cross-border permit). This is not a particularly challenging trekking day, but the long asphalt stretch at the end proves a little monotonous.
Notes and Alternatives: If we had to do this again, we would stay in nearby Vermosh at a family-run guesthouse just over the border in Albania rather than in Plav at Hotel Kula Demjanova (€27.50 per person including breakfast — watch your bill as they attempting to charge us for more people). To accomplish this you need to arrange transport (in advance) for a pickup to take you to Vermosh, from either the beginning of the asphalt road between Treskavica and Skič (outside of Plav) or from the police station (cost: approximately €30).
Day 9: Plav (Lake Plav) – ALBANIA – Vermosh – Mt. Grebenit – Qafe Perdolec – Lëpushë
Hiking Distance / Hours: 16km / 10 miles | 8 hours
We arrange for a transfer over the border back into Albania and spend some time walking the town of Vermosh, whose fields are dotted with farmhouses in various stages of operation, repair and disrepair. Inexplicably, there's a special feel in Vermosh. Among the towns we visit, it becomes one of our favorites.
After finding the trailhead (with the assistance of our iPhone, the PocketEarth app and a friendly Albanian man who gives us a ride on his way to church, we make our way up to the shepherd meadows just below the peak of Mt. Grebenit. Although we fumbled around in our approach, we recommend approaching Mt. Grebenit from the western ridge. The views, particularly when the weather is clear, are excellent; they foreshadow some of the dramatic landscape you’ll see from Mt. Taljanka (Mt. Talijanka) the next day.
There appear to be at least two options to descend from the Mt. Grebenit ridge, including to the southeast, following the path down into Qafe Perdolec, where if the weather is nice, it makes for a fabulous coffee, rakija or beer stop. Our online maps indicated a beer garden (the existence of which all members of our party, the author excepted, doubted). In fact, there were at least three or four in the village. Qafe Perdolec is also a transport hub for Albanian and other travelers taking the bus to and from Shkodër.
In the nearby town of Lëpushë, we stay at the house of the burmesh, or “sworn virgin”, a title that dates back to the Middle Ages when local women would take on the role, responsibility and fighting duties of a son if the family happened to be without one. Today, however, the tradition seems to allow an acceptable and graceful way for a woman to avoid the traditional path to marriage.
Notes and Alternatives: Transport from Plav to the Albanian border costs approximately 10€.
Day 10: Lëpushë – Mt. Taljanka (Mt. Talijanka) – MONTENEGRO – Grbaja Valley (Grebajska) – Gusinje
Hiking Distance / Hours: 12km / 7.5 miles | 8 hours
Mt. Taljanka summit and the descent from it down the Taljanka ridge towards the Grbaja Valley arguably offers the best views of our entire trip. What’s ironic is that Taljanka itself is not part of the official Peaks of the Balkans trail. Because weather is changeable, especially as you ascend — and the views atop Mt. Taljanka are so spectacular — it’s imperative that you allow yourself enough time to spend on the peak and wait out any fog. We did and were duly rewarded for our patience.
Notes and Alternatives: Our itinerary included an overnight stay in Vusanje, but the family there decided to disappear without honoring our reservation. So we coordinated an alternative plan over coffee and rakija at Eko Katun Grebaje, and stayed overnight in Gusinje instead (€10 taxi). We stayed at the very clean and friendly Hotel Kula Gusinje (10€ per person including a very basic breakfast). Run by a helpful and pleasant Montenegrin guy who calls himself Eddie, the hotel also features a restaurant that offers tasty bean soup and stuffed peppers. The next morning we took transport to Vusanje (10€) to continue our trek.
Another possible overnight option includes staying at Eko Katun Grebaje, then transferring through Gusinje to Vusanje (20€) the next morning.
Day 11: Gusinje – Vusanje – Grbaja Valley – Maja e Harapit (Mt. Arapit) – Theth
Hiking Distance / Hours: 19 km / 9 hours
The walk from Vusanje is popular and approachable, as we stop to talk with other travelers walking from the opposite direction (only the second group we'd seen in 10 days). The river and the dirt trail carve their way into hills, then through a forest that leads to a meadow lake (dry at the time of our walk). After you cross the border from Montenegro back into Albania, the ascent into the hills becomes rugged again. Shepherds squatting in old military barracks, their scattered herds of sheep, and a couple of vocal, angry guard dogs all serve to capture the essence of this remote area.
You will pass the impressive Mt. Arapit and then begin the descent on rocky trail into the valley and village of Theth.
Day 12: Theth – Kulla Tower – Grunas Waterfall – Nderlysa
Hiking Distance / Hours: 10km / 6 miles | 5 hours
This is a very easy day. From whichever guest house you happen to be staying, make your way to the center of Theth, poke around the village and spend a bit of time with the family at the Kulla Tower. Listen to the story of the valley and its fabulous, fantastic history, including the paradoxical views of hospitality, revenge killing and cross-family bonding built into the penal code, the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini. From there, make your way to Grunas Waterfall, have lunch and slowly meander your way down to Nderlysa.
The highlight of this day for us was Nderlysa, including the farm where we stayed and the family that ran it. Watch out for the daughters — they play a mean game of soccer/football and are very sweet.
Day 13: Nderlysa – Blue Eye (Syri i Kalter) – Shkodër
Hiking Distance / Hours: 5 km / 3 miles | 2 hours
Wake up and make your way to the Blue Eye, a small lake or watering hole depending on your perspective. Although the Blue Eye is often described as “must-see”, it’s difficult to hold it up to all the other truly astonishing visual and atmospheric experiences along the Peaks of the Balkans route. This is to say, if you sew the Blue Eye into your itinerary, enjoy it, but you should not feel compelled to include it should your itinerary be bursting at the seams already.
Notes and Alternatives: Minibus from Nderlysa to Shkodër costs 1000 lek ($8) and takes about four hours.
What if I don’t have two weeks to trek? Can I hike or trek a shorter route?
Yes, of course. You can always piece together segments of the trek as many of the sites and views we mention can be reached by a variety of walking trails and transport methods. Instead of beginning and ending in the same location (e.g., Shkodër in our case) you can get off the trail to arrange transport or take a public minibus to whichever town or trailhead you’d like to approach next.
Overwhelmed? Don't be. Feel free to ask questions in the comments below. You can also buy and download our Peaks of the Balkans Beginner's Guide that will fill in some of the logistical and practical information gaps.
The Peaks of the Balkans region features a rich history and is currently in the process of figuring out ways to share that history with others. Armed with the right information, you can have a transformative experience and take in some of the most surprising experiential landscape that the Balkans — and Europe — have to offer.
Update: You can now buy the Peaks of the Balkans: A Beginner's Guide with all the information from this site plus lots of extra details and other goodies in an easy ebook that you can download and take with you.