Albania – An overlooked Gem

When I told people I was going to Albania almost everyone asked me what the heck I was going to do there. Unfortunately, most people still associate Albania with a rather unattractive and dangerous country somewhere near the Balkans. Nothing could be less true! Albania is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to and the people are among the friendliest I have experienced.

This is the reason why I decided to come back to Albania. Two years ago I was in Albania at the end op April. I wanted to do the famous hike from Valbona to Theth, but the mountains were still covered in snow. Since I had already fallen in love with the country, it was an easy decisions for me to come back this summer (end of August-mid September).

Valbona

Koman Ferry

Seven hours after I landed in Tirana, I was already in the bus on my way to Valbona. I am not a big fan of Tirana and I just couldn’t wait to go back to the mountains! Every day there is a minibus going from Tirana to Koman at 5am. From there you take the ferry to Fierze. From Fierze there are minibuses that take you to Valbona.

This sounds a bit complicated, but it is so much worth it! The ferry is an attraction in itself! If you take this ferry, be prepared to two and a half hours of breathtaking views of the mountain gorges.

Unfortunately, it was pretty windy this year. When I made this trip two years it was the exact opposite. This brought about some amazing special effects as you can see on the picture below.

The village of Valbona

Valbona is a very small village in the north of Albania. Through a conversation I had with a hostel owner, I found out that this region of Albania is responsible for the its bad reputation. He told me how surprised he was to see thousands of tourists going on the ferry to these mountain villages. Not even ten years ago, the ferry was escorted by special units in order to prevent crime. The mountain villages were known to be inhabited by the mafia (who were hiding there) and by villagers who were still active in blood feuds.

When I heard this, my jaw dropped! I have never felt unsafe in Albania, neither this trip, nor the previous one (and yes, I have walked alone past midnight, much to the surprise of the locals). I couldn’t imagine the transformation the country has made in this short time. Nowadays, the region equals hikers heaven. No traces of criminality whatsoever. Only beautiful mountain views and pretty ice blue stream that flows through the entire valley.

I noticed most of the people make the mistake to stay in Valbona only one night, before heading to Theth. In my view this is a mistake. The hike to Theth is beautiful, but to honest, I found the day hikes I did in Valbona more beautiful, such as the hike towards the peak of Maja e Rosit.

Maja e Rosit

This is a pretty well marked trail which leads through beautiful mountain views. If you want to reach the peak, you better start early. From the start of the trail it takes about six hours without breaks (one- way!). I was in my holiday mood, so I decided not to aim for the peak, but for a place called Piramidas. From Piramidas you have a really nice view over a sea of mountains on the Montenegrin side.

The trail is not that difficult and has loads of awesome viewpoints. I took my sweet time soaking in the beauty of the different viewpoints. If you like the savor the beauty of nature as much as I do, I would definitely recommend to calculate some extra time for this hike.

Potet Loop

The Potet Loop is a shorter hike (5 hours in total) which leads to a beautiful viewpoint. Since it’s a loop, you can choose which way to start and I decided doing it counterclockwise. Normally, it’s advisable to do it clockwise, because there is one left turn which is easy to miss. But doing the loop clockwise involves a steep and rocky descent. I have weak ankles and I know steep descents can easily cause my ankles to twist.

As you can see above, it is indeed pretty steep. I have to admit it looks a lot harder than it actually is. After this steep start the trail fortunately continues through the forest. This part is almost flat and really easy. And obviously, once you reach the viewpoint you get rewarded with a jaw dropping view over the valley.

From there, the way down is steep again, but not as steep as the way up. Most of the trail is through the forest. Since I couldn’t focus on the views around me and had to keep an eye on the trail in order not to trip, I got intrigued by the flora and fauna, such as the butterflies in the flowers.

The hike from Valbona to Theth

This hike is considered the highlight of Albania. And it’s the very reason why I decided to return to Albania. As I had mentioned, I liked the hike, but wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the most beautiful in the region. To be honest, my opinion might have been a bit influenced by the fact that I fell ill the night before I did the trip. I barely slept that night and even vomited. You can imagine, the next morning I wasn’t too excited about the hike.

Since I had already arranged everything (a horse to carry my luggage and my accommodation in Theth), I decided to test my strength and just do it. It was probably one of the toughest days in my life. With only two oranges in my stomach and two hours of sleep, I dragged myself (and fortunately not my luggage!) for six hours through the mountains. All I could think of was reaching the hostel in Theth and SLEEP!

The hike was in fact not that though. Obviously, the trails are very well trodden (though I met some people that got lost, so be aware that other trails exist and make sure you follow the right trail!) and not extremely steep. It felt very steep to me, but I am well aware my sensations might have been influenced by my state.

Even though the hike was tough for me, reaching Theth made me feel very proud. Once again, I had proven myself how extremely strong our human bodies are. We are capable of a lot more than we think. Which by the way doesn’t mean we have to overstretch our limits if it’s not necessary. I had to learn this the hard way, but more about that in the next section.

Theth

After a solid 14-hour sleep, I woke up all energized and ready to explore Theth. I knew it was wise to not tackle the next mountain, but I definitely didn’t want to stay in the hostel. Theth was just far too beautiful not to explore it! At the information center (yes, Theth is a bit bigger than Valbona and even has an information center which recently opened!) I was told about the waterfall and the Blue Eye. Both seemed to be easy hikes and easy to combine in one day.

The waterfall

The hike to the waterfall was indeed a very easy one. The waterfall is pretty and definitely worth hike. Unfortunately, I happened to arrive in Theth the day before a big jazz festival. Of course, I was happy to be able to attend the concert, but this also meant that all the attractions in Theth were crowded since half of Shkodra and Tirana decided to come to Theth for this event. I hope by the time you will arrive at the waterfall, you will enjoy its beauty in more quiet circumstances 😉

The Blue Eye

The Blue Eye is a phenomenon I have so far only seen in Albania. Two years ago I went to the Blue Eye near Saranda and this year to the one in Theth. In fact, the Blue Eye is nothing more than a small pool of water in which there is a sudden very deep part. This part is dark blue and makes it look like an eye in the midst of the lighter blue colors of the shallower water.

On the way to the Blue Eye I already started to feel I was stretching my limits. The hike to the waterfall, to the Blue Eye and back again seemed to be short and very possible for a day trip, but turned out to be too much for my body. It is definitely possible, but was not what my body was waiting for after the strenuous previous day. I almost wanted to turn back in order to make sure I was going to be back on time (since I also wanted to attend the concert that evening). Eventually, I decided to go all the way. I was already that far and didn’t want to repeat the hike the day after.

Just before I reached the Blue Eye this girl in front of me suddenly started talking to me. She turned out to be from Tirana. Together with her ten friends they came for the weekend to enjoy the mountains and the concert. I started chatting with her and her friends. Not only were they incredibly awesome people, but they also ended up giving me a lift back to Theth 😀 Can’t describe of not having to hike back! Unfortunately, I didn’t exchange contacts with them, expecting to meet them at the concert later that evening. So, if anyone recognizes one of them, let me know 😉

Without my new friends, I would have never made it on time back to Theth and to the concert. With my last energy, I went to the concert (my hostel was a 30-45 minutes walk to Theth), enjoyed the concert and went back again.

I had a beautiful day and was all energized by the beauty of the surroundings and the friendliness of the people (I ended up getting two more lifts from people  that day (without asking!)), but my body was not amused. The day was far too strenuous and now my body decided to strike. It wouldn’t let me have any breakfast, nor did it take me on any mountains anymore.

Under these circumstances, I decided it was best to move on to Macedonia. I was sad to leave, but on the other hand I know this was not my last time in Albania and I’m happy to still have some unexplored places in Theth!

Himarë

After spending a week in Macedonia, I came back to Albania to spend my last week on the Albanian Riviera. I first wanted to go along the Riviera and stop in different places, but fortunately decided to stay in Himarë and make day trips from there. And believe me, there is enough to explore! I stayed eight days in Himarë and wasn’t bored even one day.

I was very happy with the hostel I stayed in (Himarë Hostel) which is a fantastic hostel! It’s a perfect place to relax, meet people and just feel at home. I rented a tent in their beautiful backyard which even made me feel more like having my own “home”.

Himarë is just like most Albanian cities rather unpretty, but greatly compensates with its beautiful beaches! There are several beaches in hiking distance, others can be reached by car or hitchhiking (which is really easy in Albania). Boat tours are offered as well, but are in my opinion pretty expensive. I didn’t really see the added value, since the beaches are so easy to reach without a boat. Bu the way, if you go by foot, try to wear good shoes, as most of the trails leading to the beaches are hilly and rocky.

One thing you might want to know about Himarë is that it’s really close to Greece and the Himarans consider themselves Greek. I had a conversation with one local who almost got angry at me when I told him how much I loved Albania. He told Albania is a horrible country and in fact we were not in Albania, but in Greece right now. Not all locals are this extreme, but be aware… Generally, the locals are just as friendly as the rest of the country 😉

Livadhi Beach

On my first day I hiked from Himarë to Livadhi beach. There are two ways to get there: the scenic and long way or the rather boring short way. I took the scenic way the first day. In order to take this way you start at the local Spile Beach. At the end of the beach there is a long stairway going up. From there you can either follow the signs or just stick as much as possible to the coast side.

Spile Beach

Below some pictures of the scenery along the way.

The only tricky part is a sudden left turn somewhere halfway. The trail is marked, but you have to pay attention. After passing the point on this picture above, you will walk on a paved road. This road leads you up the hill. Before you reach the top you will see a marked rock in the bushes on your left hand side. From there you just follow the marks until you reach Livadhi Beach.

Livadhi Beach

Filikurit Beach

This beach is in my opinion one of the most beautiful beaches I have been to in Albania! It’s easy to reach if you know the way, which I didn’t the first time I went there. I got confused by maps.me and started following a trail which was blocked by a gate. Later, I found out the best way is to just follow Potami Beach until the end. There you continue following a paved road which leads up the hill. If you see a way leading to your left with abandoned house on the right, then you are on the right way!

Left turn to Filikurit Beach

From there, there is no clear trail. Just make sure to zig zag down. Somewhere in the middle (more towards the right), there is small trail leading down. After this you will have to climb a bit down. But there is a rope to support you, so it’s not dangerous at all. Make sure you don’t rush down too quickly, because the view from up there is simply breathtaking.

Porto Palermo

Porto Palermo is a bit further away and, unless you’re super fit, involves going by car or hitchhiking. I wasn’t too impressed by Porto Palermo Beach. It’s a very small strip of land, connecting the main land with a tiny island on which the Porto Palermo castle is situated. The castle is quite big and worth a quick visit.

Porto Palermo Beach seen from the castle

Our actual plan for this was actually not to go to Porto Palermo, but to a peninsula before Porto Palermo. However, the man that gave us the ride didn’t want to let us off there. He told us that the military base is there and it’s forbidden to go there. His English was not good enough to understand that we didn’t want to go the base, but to a beach we were told about on the other side.

So, we just decided to walk back to the peninsula. It was a long, hot walk along the “highway”. When we arrived at the peninsula and started walking down, we weren’t sure anymore whether this beach we were told about even existed. Fortunately, we didn’t give up and ended up at this beautiful, tiny beach. Since the peninsula was deserted, the beach was as well. The entire day we didn’t see a single soul, it was wonderful!

If you continue walking a bit, you will end up at a huge door in the water which looks like the entrance for a submarine.

Akuariumit Beach

Akuariumit is a small beach between Livadhi and Jalë. In order to get there you first need to pass by Livadhi Beach. From there you go up the hill and follow the road. As a bonus for hiking up the hill you get a beautiful view over the beach.

At a certain point you have to turn to the left, but the marks are not very clear. We missed it, but fortunately we realized it pretty quickly. Once you pass by a beach directly on your left hand side, you know you’re too far. Turn around and you will see there’s an entrance that leads to another path. Once you found this path it’s a short walk.

To be honest, I didn’t really like the beach. First of all, there was quite a lot of litter for such a small, “tucked away” beach. Besides, from this point on I wasn’t too impressed by any beach anymore. It started to be pretty windy, which turned the normally crystal clear water into a milky liquid. But well, I will visit all these beaches again on my next trip to Albania 😉

Dhërmi

Despite the wind and the clouds, me and my friends from the hostel decided to go to Dhërmi. Dhërmi is a small town about 30 minutes by car from Himarë. In other weather conditions it seems the beach is really beautiful. But we were unlucky and could only see a deserted beach with brown waves and overcast sky conditions.

Gjipe Beach

Gjipe is a beach between Himarë and Dhërmi. Once you leave the highway, you can either choose to go most part of it by car and walk the last bit on a paved road. Or you can take the scenic road with two viewpoints by foot. From the viewpoints you can look over the small canyon that’s right behind the beach and over the beach. Many people spend the night on the camping site, but it’s perfectly possible to come for a day trip.

Llamana Beach

The last beach I visited was Llamana beach. On maps.me it looked like there was a trail along the water leading to the beach. To me and my friend from the hostel this looked like the perfect walk. I knew from my previous attempt to reach Filikurit beach that the trail is blocked by a closed gate at a certain point, but someone told me it’s easy to get around and continue the trail.

I don’t have the faintest idea how this person ended up on that trail. We were on top of the hill and could see the trail at the foot of the hill. We didn’t want to climb down the hill, because there was no clear trail going down. So, we decided to just make our own path and walk towards the direction of the beach. It was not particularly easy. There are many sharp rocks on the way, but with good shoes it’s definitely possible!

The “trail”
Llamana Beach

General impressions

I guess it’s quite obvious that I LOVE Albania! The country is incredibly beautiful and the people are very friendly. It’s a bit sad though that Albanians in general have a rather negative view about themselves. I noticed that they are generally surprised to hear that I am so crazy about them. I don’t know whether this has anything to do with the horrible stigma the country still carries or the fact that they are a bit of an outcast in the region.

Generally, Albania doesn’t have good ties with any of the neighboring countries. I tried to figure out were these tensions come from, but the history of the Balkan countries is so huge and complicated it’s not easy to grasp it in such short time. To be honest, Albania is the first country that has intrigued me to an extent that I actually want to learn about the history and culture. I hope to know more about it when I come back and I will definitely share my insights and experiences with you again 🙂

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