Hiking the Balkans: Conquering the Peaks of Balkans

Imagine a hiking trail connecting the most majestic peaks of the Balkan region, weaving through mountain landscapes and local villages even crossing international borders. This is what the founders had in mind when they established the Peaks of Balkans hike: an 11-day loop covering 200 kilometres in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.

With relatively short sections and plenty of guest houses on the way, Peaks of the Balkans is a great hike for those who want to explore the rugged Balkan wilderness but also experience local village life, fill their bellies with delish Balkan home cooking and hike light without needing to carry a tent. (Sleeping bag is still recommended.) The trail is also relatively well marked, making it easier to follow compared to many other Balkan hikes.

The peak hiking season runs from mid-June to mid-September – if you decide to go earlier or later, you might find yourself paddling in snow and knocking on closed doors since the guest houses close for the winter.

Ready to pack your backpack and pull on your hiking boots yet? Check out this excellent guide to the hike by Uncornered Market

In September last year, I covered six days and 84 kilometres of Peaks of the Balkans. This is the day-by-day account of my adventure, sprinkled with little gold nuggets of wisdom and tips for future hikers. Also includes a fair amount of getting lost. You have been warned.

Arriving in the village, a loud little boy runs to me. ‘Hello! Where are you from? Guest house? Come! Come!’

Guest house Relax

Look, I’m not the biggest fan of children. But this kiddo is real cute. I look uphill towards the big, wooden resort, the guest house that I was aiming at, and decide that supporting a small farming family is a better idea. That’s how they get you, man: beware of anything cute. On the mountains and in life.

I sit under a gazebo at Guesthouse Relax, journalling and sketching the landscape while sipping tasty mountain tea and sweet coffee that the owner’s wife has brought me. He came to greet me himself – probably because he’s the only English-speaking person in the house – before getting back to construction work. The peaceful afternoon is frequently interrupted by the sounds of drilling, hammering and sawing. The guest house is so brand new that technically its doesn’t even exist yet, at least not in its entirety.

The physical infrastructure is not the only thing lacking. (And I’m not talking about the shirts of these old sweaty Albanian farmer brothers, even though that’s definitely true as well.) Later in the day, an Israeli couple shows up slightly suffering. Both have contracted some weird Balkan stomach bug, and they’ve been basically living on unseasoned soup and nuts for the past few days. They’re left without dinner over a minor misunderstanding – dinner that’s served at 4.30 in the afternoon – and as I’m getting settled at the table alone with the family, the owner is busy yelling at the two for being stupid. For what reason? Albanian mountain gods only know.

Guesthouse Relax, not very relaxing.

DAY 3.

Cerem to Doberdol, 15 km

Wherever you hike in the Balkans, the breakfast always seems to be the same: hard, home-baked white bread, tasty mountain cheese, a cooked egg and marmalade. Good luck being vegan here – it’s bread and marmalade for you folks.

After finishing my breakfast shivering in the cold morning air, no one except for the owner’s German speaking brother seems to be around, so I go to him to pay for my stay. At 3,500 lek (29 e) per night, Guesthouse Relax is already more expensive than other guest houses in the area (usually 1,000-2,000 lek less) with no added value to this place. Now this man pretends to not have change and overcharges me. I’m only two euros poorer but left with a bad taste in my mouth.

One of the kids, a young girl shows me the way to the trail head. I take after a small boy rushing a herd of cows but not before she has extended her hand towards me. “Two euro, two euro”, she chants. I just shake my head and go on my way. Like girl, what are you doing. I don’t have that because your greedy dad didn’t give me my change. Go ask him.

Theth to Valbona is the most popular stretch of the route with a lot of dayhikers from Shkoder, but even now the trails are not empty. It’s easy enough to lose others still and enjoy the natural beauty of this border area. The path trails through pine forest and mountain meadows, skipping through Montenegro for a few kilometres before returning to the right side of the border and granting me the last view of the majestic Albanian Alps before smoothing into a pleasant downward path, so ingrained in the ground that at times the edge of the trail comes halfway up my calves. At least getting lost is impossible: I don’t think I’ve turned on my GPS all day.

The path runs on the side of the hill, high above a grassy valley, and that’s where I catch my first glimpse of tonight’s accommodation. Doberdol is a tiny village at the foot of a steep hill, just a scatter of farm houses in a green valley now turning yellow in the wake of the upcoming autumn. In a few weeks when the hiking season is over, the families here will pack their bags and head to Tirana for the winter where they will live off city jobs and the money they have saved over the summer accommodating tourists. Hiking the PoB has been more expensive than most of Via Dinarica – about 25 euros per day – but I don’t mind since it goes directly into supporting locals, most of whom are below poverty line. In return, I get to enjoy unparallel Albanian hospitality and incredible local food.

I meet Lisa just before the village as I’m crossing a small rivulet. She’s nine years old, wearing a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt and speaks excellent English. (‘When I was your age, the only thing I knew to say in English was ‘ice cream’, I tell her.)

‘Looking for a guest house? Come to Leonard!’

Leonard turns out to be one of my favourite hiking huts of all time. As I’m walking in, I spot several people I know: the Israeli couple, two pairs of Germans throwing frisbee with Nila, Lisa’s six year old sister, an older English lady who’s stopped to say hello to me earlier in the day. The Israelis have been given the honeymoon suite, the only private room at the guest house, while the rest of us share a dormitory up the creaking, narrows steps. They have deserved it. Over dinner, they excitedly talk about their upcoming wedding in October, and our little hiking family becomes so friendly I think they are close to inviting all of us to witness their happy day.

Lisa and Nila help their smiling mother serve a simple but filling dinner. After all the salad, soup and spaghetti, I barely have space for the cake that’s for dessert. (Who am I kidding – cake goes into a different stomach.) The family is so, so lovely and I the girls are energetic and fun – later, as I’m photographing the sunset, Nila comes to chat with me in her surprisingly good English, and I show her how to use my camera. She takes multiple shaken, unflattering selfies of the two of us. They’re my favourite photos from the hike.

 

DAY 4.

Doberdol to Milisevac (Kosovo), 16 km

Even after the sun comes up, the morning air is still chilly. The day starts with a steep climb to the country border, and by the time I get to the top, I am panting and sweating. It doesn’t last long: freezing windchill blows up from the valley below, leaving me in an awkward crossfire between the biting elements.

I take out my gloves and a bag of M&Ms and settle on the grass anyway. The view from up here is gorgeous. I’m looking down onto Doberdol and the green, pine forest covered valleys that stretch back into the Albanian wilderness, bathed in the golden rays of the first sun of the day. And then I turn and behind me opens Montenegro, like a scene from another world: dark clouds threatening storm (which thankfully never comes) around its sharp mountaintops.

And there, just out of sight, behind the next mountain: Kosovo, a whole new country for me – a country that’s technically not even a country at all. 

The PoB crosses several country borders. Since there are no official border crossings on the trail, hikers are required to apply for border crossing permits. Most of the time no one will be up there to check if you have it; I didn’t encounter anyone. What a change from Albania’s communist times when this border leading to Yugoslavia was one of the best guarded borders in the world. However, it’s your own risk to choose whether you’re getting a crossing permit or not.

The group of elderly Dutch hikers that’s stopped to rest in this beautiful spot with me continue towards Tromeda, a peak that straddles all three countries. I rush forward, eager to be rid of the group and enjoy some quiet solitude.

This mountain range is known as Prokletije – the “accursed mountains”, possibly because they used to be viewed as impenetrable and hopelessly wild. One thing they for damn sure are is beautiful. It seems like autumn has come in full force: burning red and orange heathers colour the meadows and mountains in warm shades, contrasted by the dark grey of the sky ad the blue of the distant mountains. As I walk down the ridge that saddles Montenegro and Kosovo, I have to laugh at the ridiculous, wild beauty of it all. ‘I love my life’, I say out loud to no one in particular.

Maybe to bears. Apparently there have been some bear sightings here as well, although given the trail’s proximity to so may farmer villages, it would be unlikely to spot one. Still, every time I stop to scoop another handful of blueberries by the side of the trail, I mentally apologise to local ursa population for eating their snacks.

In the middle of the day, I get lost in the criss-cross of zigzagging pathways. The trails here are well worn and easy to follow – although ending up in the right destination might not be quite as effortless. I try to regain my route for a bit – to no avail – before giving up and picking a new one. This is where having satellite maps comes in handy. I use Maps.me that allows me to download maps before going into the wilderness, and unlike Google Maps, it shows even the smaller hiking trails. I walk through a beautiful valley, pretty certain no one else today is taking that same route.

I’m staying at Guesthouse Lojza today. It’s about two kilometres off my goal, on a forest road and surrounded by small, pine-covered hills, but the rest of the bunch seem to be staying there too so I choose being social over some silly hiking plan. As I sit in the afternoon sunlight, the owner brings me mountain tea; her fluffy white dog is going around, begging for pets from all the hikers.

This place is a small oasis. We sit in the living room talking, glad that for the first time in days we all actually feel warm. A fire crackles happily in the wood stove and I conquer a spot in an armchair right next to it. The walls of the cottage are lined with memorabilia: old board games and books, simple paintings, woolen socks and hats that the wife and the children have knitted to make a few extra bucks.

The family running the guest house is lovely and they speak good English. And the dinner – have I gloated enough about Balkan food yet? Spaghetti soup for appetizers, then a heaving plate of stuffed spicy bellpeppers and grilled vegetables with potatoes and goulash – this is the first day in almost a week I have had meat. In these parts, meat is often precious; cooking vegetarian dinners is much more affordable for these families.

Through the whole trail, I’ve carried my tent with me. I was wondering if I should try and cut my costs and camp some nights; now I realise how rude that would be. On Via Dinarica, camping was a fine option, but on this trail – more populated with tourists – local families depend on the money that hiking tourism brings in. With a daily budget of about 25 euros, PoB ends up being my most expensive hike in the Balkans. I don’t mind. I am happy to support the people who could really use my Finnish wealth – and eating glorious meals like this every night sure beats ready-packaged pastas.

 

DAY 5.

Milisevic to Reke e Allages, 17 km

As most days, the morning starts with a massive climb up a steep hill. I stop multiple times to catch my breath – although it helps to know that the rest of the day will pretty much be going down.

I’m glad I downloaded the GPS tracks for this hike. Originally I was just going to use apps and buy a map, having heard how well marked the route is, but with all the crossing trails, it hasn’t always been easy to determine where the trail is trying to lead me. Plus, for someone who hikes this much, I really, really suck at reading maps.

After a few days on the countryside, it’s shocking to catch the first glimpses of the highway below. A steep descend leads to a big roadside hotel complex that however seems to be empty – I’m the only hiker in their restaurant, and even the serving staff seems confused as to what I’m doing there. The lunch is unrivalled though – I pay three euros for a plateful of small, delicious Kosovan pancakes.

It’s my last full day on the trail and unfortunately I haven’t been graced with the best for last. The trail follows along an asphalt road for a kilometer or two before leading back uphill, through a couple of small, hopelessly touristy villages and past loud construction sites in the middle of the forest road.

Ariu Guest House isn’t technically hard to find but it isn’t exactly where it seems to be on the map. I glance at the farms that I pass, and grazing cows glance back at me, looking equally as confused. Eventually I come to the end of the road where the house stands. It’s a beautiful, two story log cabin with the family’s living quarters and a few guest rooms and a social, spacious kitchen downstairs, and a big mixed dorm in the attic. Next to it stands a concrete monstrosity. They are currently building an extension to the guest house, a more hotel-like experience for those who want to stay in private rooms.

As I arrive, the little trail family I’ve got to know over the past few days greets me happily. I’ve got in late; there isn’t even time to shower before dinner is served. I sit between an older Dutch gentleman and a young German girl as our smiling hosts fill the table with so many goodies that even with about twenty of us, we are not able to finish everything.

Bellpeppers stuffed with minced meat, savoury cakes with thick cream, spinach pastries and leek pies, peppers in cream sauce, two different kinds of home-baked bread, salad, soft cheese – and raki, that notorious brandy that is so popular all over the Balkans. You can buy it in the store but there really is no need – everyone makes their own. The best rakia I’ve had has been served from clear, unmarked bottles, and the strength of the alcohol really is Russian roulette. I also buy a Peja beer, a Kosovan brand named after the nearest town that is known as a launching pad for all sorts of nature adventures around this area.

It’s the last day of the last trek of the summer, and I toast equally in celebration and nostalgia.

 

DAY 6.

Reke e Allages to Drele (to Pristina), 11 km

Final day!

I could complete the full loop. I have the time. But then I would just end up right back where I started from, without living all the adventures I would have further in Kosovo.

In the morning, we gather in the kitchen for another full breakfast. Almost everyone else is continuing the trail and staying in Drelaj tonight, hiking on to Montenegro tomorrow. The atmosphere is light and happy. It has been great to share the trail with these people for a few days but I don’t think I’m going to miss them.

The sun is breaking through the thick pines as I take to the forest road that will eventually lead me up another hill and through the last bit of wilderness on the route. I take a break at a picnic table that’s been posed at a crossroads and let my eyes wander over the forested hills and blue skies before continuing.

The gravel road slopes down gently. It’s easy to follow but I take my time descending. I pass Drelaj, the town where most of the others will be staying after conquering the Hajla peak – one that I’ve skipped in order to get to the capital quicker – and continue towards the road. At the last curve, I stop to leave my stick leaning against a tree and take off my hiking cap – the one that says LOVER in big letters.

The first car on the road picks me up. The two young men speak barely any English so after a while the conversation stops, and I am concentrated on the countryside flashing by my window.

After 84 kilometres, I feel a little wistful to have completed the last long-distance hike for the summer.

But in a few short hours I’ll be in Pristina – where new adventures await.

 

Have you heard of Peaks of the Balkans? Would you hike it?

The trail running from Theth, Albania into Kosovo is a part of an intended extension to the Via Dinarica trail. Interested in hiking the Balkans? Check out my earlier posts on hiking in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.

Theth

DAY 0.

Shkoder to Teth, 0 km

Shkoder, the gateway to Albania to most backpackers arriving from Montenegro, is not only an excellent base for exploring Lake Skoder – the largest lake in the Balkans – but also an easy starting point for the Peaks of Balkans. Which I will from this moment refer to as PoB since I keep typing ‘pekas of balkns’ and my backspace is starting to get tired of me.

One minibus takes hikers to the village of Theth daily – at 7.30. Alas, my hostel starts serving their (free) breakfast at 8, so I decide to stick out my thumb and hope for the best. Hitchhiking in Albania seems popular among backpackers, so I expect competition. However, when I arrive at the roundabout and settle at the right exit, I am the only one around. Other prospective thumb-riders have probably started a lot earlier. Smart of them; only a few cars go all the way to Theth.

I manage to catch a lift to Koplik, a town further up north, with a young man who speaks just enough English to tell me that his daughter’s name is Jennifer. ‘Like Jennifer Lopez’, he says proudly. ‘And you? Baby?’

‘No baby’, I can’t help but laugh. ‘No, no baby. My backpack –‘ I gesture towards the backseat where my beaten and battered backpack sits ‘- my backpack, my baby.’

After insisting to buy me a Fanta, the driver drops me off at another roundabout right behind Koplik, and the first car turning my way picks me up. This time we don’t share enough languages between us to even introduce ourselves. All I can do is smile and repeat falemindierit.

Albanian is a difficult language and completely different from the other Balkan languages that I’ve been subtly (badly) learning for the past three months. No problem: the driver calls someone and sticks the phone to my ear, and I have a short conversation with his son who is very confused to find himself on a call with a random Finnish girl. Later I’d find that this happens a lot in Albania – if they don’t speak English, they’re quick to find someone who does.

He drops me off at a curve leading up to the mountains in Bogë, a village that isn’t much more than a few farms and a community centre. Standing there, I realise I might not make it: Bogë is the last village at the end of the asphalt road, meaning the only people to pass by now will be tourists headed to Theth, and it’s already one o’clock – most traffic towards that direction would have passed already.

But I’m lucky. Some Albanian angel must be looking over me. A big, white Range Rover – the kind that would never stop for me in the city – pulls over, and a young girl with curly chestnut hair hops out to help me lift my backpack into the boot. Her accent is so American I ask her where they’re from, and she says Tirana, she is taking a weekend trip with her dad. She’s about my age, maybe a few years younger.

The road snakes up the mountain in sharp switchbacks before ending on a little clearing and turning into gravel and loose rock. The forest road till Theth is only 13 kilometres long but it takes us almost two hours to reach the town. The road is narrow and its sides unprotected. One slip-up would send us hurdling hundreds of metres into the canyon below. Luckily the view is breathtaking enough to take my thoughts off of the possibility of the impending doom.

Halfway down the mountain we blow a tyre which definitely doesn’t help.

The Albanian Alps rise up all around us, sharp and defined, standing tall, their grey stone jutting out from green forest below. White streaks decorate the sides like someone had raked their fingers across the mountainside. At first I think it might be snow; but no, it’s just a frozen cascade of white rock. Or maybe some of it really is snow. It’s colder up here, and the hiking season is nearing its end. All trails are closed during the winter as snow covers the valleys and the villages, and farmers and guest house keepers move to lower altitudes to avoid getting snowed in.

In Theth, I take a room at Hotel Garra, a guest house whose wooden façade is a reminder of Alpine mountain huts, or perhaps of a cozier version of Hotel Overlook. For the dazzling amount of 3,000 lek – 25 euros – I get a private room with a double bed, my own bathroom, dinner and a breakfast – and a killer view of the mountains.

Theth will be the first and the last village on my route to have a mini market, so I make my way over there to have a healthy lunch of Snickers and crisps. I had planned to do the 6-hour return hike to the Blue Eye Lake today but seeing how late I’ve arrived, I’m quite satisfied to just sit there, munching some discount brand of Doritos, staring at the mountains all around in awe.

I think, this is my happy place.

 

PoB – DAY 1.

Theth to Valbona, 16 km

I am not a morning person. If I ever doubted it, it’s been proven to me countless times during the hikes this summer. Even when I rationally know that I should be getting up early, hitting the trail with the sun, yadda yadda, the morning chill almost always keeps me wrapped up in my blanket or my sleeping bag long past sunrise.

I start my uphill hike at ten and soon remember just why it is that the early bird catches the worm – because the late bird gets fried. The temperatures in September drop to ten and below at night, but during the day the sun beats on me mercilessly. During the hottest hours – from ten to two – the temperature can still climb up to high twenties.

The first part of the trail rises stark uphill for two or three hours. As I slowly drag my feet forward, early hikers from Valbona start to pass me by. One of them stops and warns me about rain: it’s supposed to start in a few hours, and yesterday it poured.

But I couldn’t will my feet to move any faster if I tried. Most of these hikers have the advantage of walking with the bare minimum, whereas I’m still carrying everything I currently own. Still, I am grateful to be here. The Albanian Alps are possibly the most beautiful trail I have hiked so far. Behind every bend peeks a new mountain, majestic against the green valleys painted golden by the occasional strain of sunshine that manages to escape the dark clouds gathering above. The trail is well marked and so clear that it looks like a prop in a movie studio, like I wasn’t actually making my way through a forest of aspen trees but a set for The Wizard of Oz.

A few trail cafés have been set along the way to provide hungry hikers with cold beer and small snacks. Sitting down for a break, I can hear Spanish, Czech and German spoken around me. PoB is a relatively popular trail, especially frequented by older folks who have already conquered the Dolomites and the Pyrenees and have now come here to see what Eastern Europe has to offer. Even at the end of the season, the trails are surprisingly busy; in the summer, many of the guest houses would be packed full with tour groups.

Finally, at the top of the pass I’ve been climbing all morning, I let my backpack fall to the ground and make my way to the nearby viewpoint without the heavy burden. From there I can see in all directions: Theth and its numerous guest houses as small dots, the dry river bed leading towards Valbona on the other side, and the path snaking steeply towards the bottom. Halfway down I have to stop and put on the elastic knee supports I’ve been avoiding using since I found that they made my knees stiff; now, however, the descend is too steep to do without them.

The mountain trail descends into the valley and continues for a few kilometres along a rocky jeep path on even ground. Selena Gomez’ Back to You has been stuck in my head all day but I’m passing too many villages and other hikers to be able to sing out loud. Gosh, I miss not seeing other people in days. How Finnish of me. I don’t remember all the lyrics anyway.

As I arrive in Valbona, I crash on the first sittable thing I see and stretch my aching shoulders. Well, when I say arrive in Valbona, it’s not exactly as glorious as you’d imagine. The start of the village of Valbona is just a parking lot and large mountain hotel at the beginning of an asphalt road. It still takes me an hour more to scramble four more kilometres up to a guest house I like, having already passed a few and crossed them out as having too many children. Guest House Natyra costs me 2,000 lek – 15 euros – a night with breakfast included.

And then I realise I have made a horrible mistake.

When I go to pay for my chicken dinner – 600 lek! 4 euros! – I realise I’m coming up a 100 short. ‘Do you take euros at all?’ I ask the man with short-buzzed brown hair hopefully, and he just waves me off. ‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’

Fuuuuuck, I think climbing up the rickety stairs to my room. I feel bad for unintentionally shorting the man on my bill.

I mean, I knew I would need to budget about 25 euros per night for this hiking trip because I’d be staying in guest houses or at least eating their food. Rationally, I knew all this, but it must have been the part of me that was still living in Via Dinarica and in days when I’d literally spend zero that made me not count my money as I left Shkoder. And now I’ve got two more nights left on the trail in Albania and thirty lek in my wallet.

Luckily, I find that there is a Reiffeisen bank a couple of towns over. All I have to do is hitchhike there in the morning, get some money out, then hitch back to town.

The group of Albanians that gave me some nuts earlier – I don’t know what they are but they looked like walnuts – is well drunk and merry now, and I can hear them clearly from the bar shouting and turning up their music. I am exhausted, though, too tired to even take off my bra before collapsing into bed. I can tell my body will be sore tomorrow. I drift off to the sound of the loud party, but when I randomly wake up again at three a.m., the night is quiet and pitch black.

DAY 2.

Valbona to Cerem, 9 km

Getting out of bed is the worst thing to ever happen to me, and it keeps occurring every single morning.

But today when I open my eyes and sit up, alone in the cold dormitory, I am greeted by the sight of tall, sharp mountains, their tops coloured golden by the morning sun. Suddenly, getting up doesn’t seem that bad.

After breakfast, I collect my things and walk up the road to hitch a ride to town. The first car I see stops, and after flinging my heavier-than-life backpack to the back of his pickup, I’m on my way. The man’s a trucker and doesn’t speak one word of English,  and in a polite attempt at small talk I point at his radio blasting the cheesiest europop I’ve ever heard and give him the thumbs up. ‘Good music!’

For him, this must mean that this is my most favouritest song of all time. He immediately turns the volume up by ten notches and puts the song on loop. I’ll go the rest of the day with my ears ringing with ‘can’t come down, must get the stars now’.

 I get my cash and hitch a ride back with a couple of young guys. Again, they speak no English, but both are fluent in Italian and we get friendly with my broken Spanish and the few phrases I remember from my Italian lessons from ten years ago. (Due to its close proximity to Italy, many Albanian speak Italian even better than English.) At one point we slow down to let a farm dog cross the road. “Che!” the driver tells the Albanian word for dog to me excitedly. He sticks his hand out of the window and waves and whistles at the dog. When the pup barks back in response, he bursts out in laughter.

The guys leave me at an uphill junction leading towards my today’s accommodation. This little road trip has actually been for the best, otherwise I would have had to hike up on the asphalt road for an hour or two to get here. Would definitely make a stupid mistake and hitchhike with some fun Albanians again, 5/5.

The trail is easy to walk but boring. The sharp-edged Albanian Alps that followed me from Theth to Valbona stay behind as the mountains turn smaller and softer, their tops covered in green grass and forest more than snow and scree. On a few occasions, an old farmer car or trucks transporting cattle rattle past me. PoB is not as wild as most of Via Dinarica was but it does show a different side to the life in the Balkans, that traditional life of farming villages.

As I’m closing in on Cerem, an old man on a white mare rides by. A wobble-legged little foal follows closely behind. The man looks at me and smiles, so I point at the baby and yell out: ‘Cute! Very beautiful!’

I don’t think he understands me but he insists on shaking my hand with the biggest smile on his face. Albanians and their neverending friendliness towards tourists never cease to amaze me, and it shows in the littlest gestures.

Arriving in the village, a loud little boy runs to me. ‘Hello! Where are you from? Guest house? Come! Come!’

Guest house Relax

Look, I’m not the biggest fan of children. But this kiddo is real cute. I look uphill towards the big, wooden resort, the guest house that I was aiming at, and decide that supporting a small farming family is a better idea. That’s how they get you, man: beware of anything cute. On the mountains and in life.

I sit under a gazebo at Guesthouse Relax, journalling and sketching the landscape while sipping tasty mountain tea and sweet coffee that the owner’s wife has brought me. He came to greet me himself – probably because he’s the only English-speaking person in the house – before getting back to construction work. The peaceful afternoon is frequently interrupted by the sounds of drilling, hammering and sawing. The guest house is so brand new that technically its doesn’t even exist yet, at least not in its entirety.

The physical infrastructure is not the only thing lacking. (And I’m not talking about the shirts of these old sweaty Albanian farmer brothers, even though that’s definitely true as well.) Later in the day, an Israeli couple shows up slightly suffering. Both have contracted some weird Balkan stomach bug, and they’ve been basically living on unseasoned soup and nuts for the past few days. They’re left without dinner over a minor misunderstanding – dinner that’s served at 4.30 in the afternoon – and as I’m getting settled at the table alone with the family, the owner is busy yelling at the two for being stupid. For what reason? Albanian mountain gods only know.

Guesthouse Relax, not very relaxing.

DAY 3.

Cerem to Doberdol, 15 km

Wherever you hike in the Balkans, the breakfast always seems to be the same: hard, home-baked white bread, tasty mountain cheese, a cooked egg and marmalade. Good luck being vegan here – it’s bread and marmalade for you folks.

After finishing my breakfast shivering in the cold morning air, no one except for the owner’s German speaking brother seems to be around, so I go to him to pay for my stay. At 3,500 lek (29 e) per night, Guesthouse Relax is already more expensive than other guest houses in the area (usually 1,000-2,000 lek less) with no added value to this place. Now this man pretends to not have change and overcharges me. I’m only two euros poorer but left with a bad taste in my mouth.

One of the kids, a young girl shows me the way to the trail head. I take after a small boy rushing a herd of cows but not before she has extended her hand towards me. “Two euro, two euro”, she chants. I just shake my head and go on my way. Like girl, what are you doing. I don’t have that because your greedy dad didn’t give me my change. Go ask him.

Theth to Valbona is the most popular stretch of the route with a lot of dayhikers from Shkoder, but even now the trails are not empty. It’s easy enough to lose others still and enjoy the natural beauty of this border area. The path trails through pine forest and mountain meadows, skipping through Montenegro for a few kilometres before returning to the right side of the border and granting me the last view of the majestic Albanian Alps before smoothing into a pleasant downward path, so ingrained in the ground that at times the edge of the trail comes halfway up my calves. At least getting lost is impossible: I don’t think I’ve turned on my GPS all day.

The path runs on the side of the hill, high above a grassy valley, and that’s where I catch my first glimpse of tonight’s accommodation. Doberdol is a tiny village at the foot of a steep hill, just a scatter of farm houses in a green valley now turning yellow in the wake of the upcoming autumn. In a few weeks when the hiking season is over, the families here will pack their bags and head to Tirana for the winter where they will live off city jobs and the money they have saved over the summer accommodating tourists. Hiking the PoB has been more expensive than most of Via Dinarica – about 25 euros per day – but I don’t mind since it goes directly into supporting locals, most of whom are below poverty line. In return, I get to enjoy unparallel Albanian hospitality and incredible local food.

I meet Lisa just before the village as I’m crossing a small rivulet. She’s nine years old, wearing a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt and speaks excellent English. (‘When I was your age, the only thing I knew to say in English was ‘ice cream’, I tell her.)

‘Looking for a guest house? Come to Leonard!’

Leonard turns out to be one of my favourite hiking huts of all time. As I’m walking in, I spot several people I know: the Israeli couple, two pairs of Germans throwing frisbee with Nila, Lisa’s six year old sister, an older English lady who’s stopped to say hello to me earlier in the day. The Israelis have been given the honeymoon suite, the only private room at the guest house, while the rest of us share a dormitory up the creaking, narrows steps. They have deserved it. Over dinner, they excitedly talk about their upcoming wedding in October, and our little hiking family becomes so friendly I think they are close to inviting all of us to witness their happy day.

Lisa and Nila help their smiling mother serve a simple but filling dinner. After all the salad, soup and spaghetti, I barely have space for the cake that’s for dessert. (Who am I kidding – cake goes into a different stomach.) The family is so, so lovely and I the girls are energetic and fun – later, as I’m photographing the sunset, Nila comes to chat with me in her surprisingly good English, and I show her how to use my camera. She takes multiple shaken, unflattering selfies of the two of us. They’re my favourite photos from the hike.

 

DAY 4.

Doberdol to Milisevac (Kosovo), 16 km

Even after the sun comes up, the morning air is still chilly. The day starts with a steep climb to the country border, and by the time I get to the top, I am panting and sweating. It doesn’t last long: freezing windchill blows up from the valley below, leaving me in an awkward crossfire between the biting elements.

I take out my gloves and a bag of M&Ms and settle on the grass anyway. The view from up here is gorgeous. I’m looking down onto Doberdol and the green, pine forest covered valleys that stretch back into the Albanian wilderness, bathed in the golden rays of the first sun of the day. And then I turn and behind me opens Montenegro, like a scene from another world: dark clouds threatening storm (which thankfully never comes) around its sharp mountaintops.

And there, just out of sight, behind the next mountain: Kosovo, a whole new country for me – a country that’s technically not even a country at all. 

The PoB crosses several country borders. Since there are no official border crossings on the trail, hikers are required to apply for border crossing permits. Most of the time no one will be up there to check if you have it; I didn’t encounter anyone. What a change from Albania’s communist times when this border leading to Yugoslavia was one of the best guarded borders in the world. However, it’s your own risk to choose whether you’re getting a crossing permit or not.

The group of elderly Dutch hikers that’s stopped to rest in this beautiful spot with me continue towards Tromeda, a peak that straddles all three countries. I rush forward, eager to be rid of the group and enjoy some quiet solitude.

This mountain range is known as Prokletije – the “accursed mountains”, possibly because they used to be viewed as impenetrable and hopelessly wild. One thing they for damn sure are is beautiful. It seems like autumn has come in full force: burning red and orange heathers colour the meadows and mountains in warm shades, contrasted by the dark grey of the sky ad the blue of the distant mountains. As I walk down the ridge that saddles Montenegro and Kosovo, I have to laugh at the ridiculous, wild beauty of it all. ‘I love my life’, I say out loud to no one in particular.

Maybe to bears. Apparently there have been some bear sightings here as well, although given the trail’s proximity to so may farmer villages, it would be unlikely to spot one. Still, every time I stop to scoop another handful of blueberries by the side of the trail, I mentally apologise to local ursa population for eating their snacks.

In the middle of the day, I get lost in the criss-cross of zigzagging pathways. The trails here are well worn and easy to follow – although ending up in the right destination might not be quite as effortless. I try to regain my route for a bit – to no avail – before giving up and picking a new one. This is where having satellite maps comes in handy. I use Maps.me that allows me to download maps before going into the wilderness, and unlike Google Maps, it shows even the smaller hiking trails. I walk through a beautiful valley, pretty certain no one else today is taking that same route.

I’m staying at Guesthouse Lojza today. It’s about two kilometres off my goal, on a forest road and surrounded by small, pine-covered hills, but the rest of the bunch seem to be staying there too so I choose being social over some silly hiking plan. As I sit in the afternoon sunlight, the owner brings me mountain tea; her fluffy white dog is going around, begging for pets from all the hikers.

This place is a small oasis. We sit in the living room talking, glad that for the first time in days we all actually feel warm. A fire crackles happily in the wood stove and I conquer a spot in an armchair right next to it. The walls of the cottage are lined with memorabilia: old board games and books, simple paintings, woolen socks and hats that the wife and the children have knitted to make a few extra bucks.

The family running the guest house is lovely and they speak good English. And the dinner – have I gloated enough about Balkan food yet? Spaghetti soup for appetizers, then a heaving plate of stuffed spicy bellpeppers and grilled vegetables with potatoes and goulash – this is the first day in almost a week I have had meat. In these parts, meat is often precious; cooking vegetarian dinners is much more affordable for these families.

Through the whole trail, I’ve carried my tent with me. I was wondering if I should try and cut my costs and camp some nights; now I realise how rude that would be. On Via Dinarica, camping was a fine option, but on this trail – more populated with tourists – local families depend on the money that hiking tourism brings in. With a daily budget of about 25 euros, PoB ends up being my most expensive hike in the Balkans. I don’t mind. I am happy to support the people who could really use my Finnish wealth – and eating glorious meals like this every night sure beats ready-packaged pastas.

 

DAY 5.

Milisevic to Reke e Allages, 17 km

As most days, the morning starts with a massive climb up a steep hill. I stop multiple times to catch my breath – although it helps to know that the rest of the day will pretty much be going down.

I’m glad I downloaded the GPS tracks for this hike. Originally I was just going to use apps and buy a map, having heard how well marked the route is, but with all the crossing trails, it hasn’t always been easy to determine where the trail is trying to lead me. Plus, for someone who hikes this much, I really, really suck at reading maps.

After a few days on the countryside, it’s shocking to catch the first glimpses of the highway below. A steep descend leads to a big roadside hotel complex that however seems to be empty – I’m the only hiker in their restaurant, and even the serving staff seems confused as to what I’m doing there. The lunch is unrivalled though – I pay three euros for a plateful of small, delicious Kosovan pancakes.

It’s my last full day on the trail and unfortunately I haven’t been graced with the best for last. The trail follows along an asphalt road for a kilometer or two before leading back uphill, through a couple of small, hopelessly touristy villages and past loud construction sites in the middle of the forest road.

Ariu Guest House isn’t technically hard to find but it isn’t exactly where it seems to be on the map. I glance at the farms that I pass, and grazing cows glance back at me, looking equally as confused. Eventually I come to the end of the road where the house stands. It’s a beautiful, two story log cabin with the family’s living quarters and a few guest rooms and a social, spacious kitchen downstairs, and a big mixed dorm in the attic. Next to it stands a concrete monstrosity. They are currently building an extension to the guest house, a more hotel-like experience for those who want to stay in private rooms.

As I arrive, the little trail family I’ve got to know over the past few days greets me happily. I’ve got in late; there isn’t even time to shower before dinner is served. I sit between an older Dutch gentleman and a young German girl as our smiling hosts fill the table with so many goodies that even with about twenty of us, we are not able to finish everything.

Bellpeppers stuffed with minced meat, savoury cakes with thick cream, spinach pastries and leek pies, peppers in cream sauce, two different kinds of home-baked bread, salad, soft cheese – and raki, that notorious brandy that is so popular all over the Balkans. You can buy it in the store but there really is no need – everyone makes their own. The best rakia I’ve had has been served from clear, unmarked bottles, and the strength of the alcohol really is Russian roulette. I also buy a Peja beer, a Kosovan brand named after the nearest town that is known as a launching pad for all sorts of nature adventures around this area.

It’s the last day of the last trek of the summer, and I toast equally in celebration and nostalgia.

 

DAY 6.

Reke e Allages to Drele (to Pristina), 11 km

Final day!

I could complete the full loop. I have the time. But then I would just end up right back where I started from, without living all the adventures I would have further in Kosovo.

In the morning, we gather in the kitchen for another full breakfast. Almost everyone else is continuing the trail and staying in Drelaj tonight, hiking on to Montenegro tomorrow. The atmosphere is light and happy. It has been great to share the trail with these people for a few days but I don’t think I’m going to miss them.

The sun is breaking through the thick pines as I take to the forest road that will eventually lead me up another hill and through the last bit of wilderness on the route. I take a break at a picnic table that’s been posed at a crossroads and let my eyes wander over the forested hills and blue skies before continuing.

The gravel road slopes down gently. It’s easy to follow but I take my time descending. I pass Drelaj, the town where most of the others will be staying after conquering the Hajla peak – one that I’ve skipped in order to get to the capital quicker – and continue towards the road. At the last curve, I stop to leave my stick leaning against a tree and take off my hiking cap – the one that says LOVER in big letters.

The first car on the road picks me up. The two young men speak barely any English so after a while the conversation stops, and I am concentrated on the countryside flashing by my window.

After 84 kilometres, I feel a little wistful to have completed the last long-distance hike for the summer.

But in a few short hours I’ll be in Pristina – where new adventures await.

 

Have you heard of Peaks of the Balkans? Would you hike it?

Leave a little love!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: