Northern Albania is home to the Albanian Alps or as they call them in Albanian “Bjeshket e Namuna” translating to Accursed Mountains. Amongst these humongous mountains lies an old village with stunning scenery. That village is called Theth. Theth is set at the peak of the Shala Mountains and most times during winter is almost completely isolated. Edith Durham, a famous English writer and traveler, had this to say about Theth while on a visit there in 1908:
‘‘I think no place, where human beings live, has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from the entire world. It is a spot where the centuries shrivel; the river might be the world’s well-spring, its banks the fit home of elemental instincts–passions that are red and rapid’.Edith Durham
What I am saying is that it’s a hiker’s paradise.
Where did the name “Bjeshket e Namuna” (Accursed Mountains) originate from?
Many Balkan historians and ethnographers believe that the Accursed Mountains comes from Albanian “Bjeshket e Namuna”. However, there are many facts and coincidences to dispute this claim. The name “Bjeshket e Namuna” regarding the Albanian Alps, is found in the Albanian language around the 1960s. Before that, there is no mention of these mountains or Alps by that name. An Albanian ethnographer by the name of Sylejman Ahmeti insists in his belief that the name comes in fact from Serbian “prokleti” (accursed). According to Ahmeti, the autochthonous populace never referred to their mountains as cursed. In all three countries that these mountains spread, Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo, no one that lives in these highlands, Albanians that is, calls them that.
Ahmeti believes that the migrating Slavs, during the dark ages around 700 AD, pushed the Illyrian (present-day Albanians) people away from their native lands. That land being present-day Serbia and the Dalmatian coast, which prompted the natives to find shelter on these mountains. The Illyrians multiplied and grew to know the Alpine area. They would probably carry raids against the Slavs that had seized their old lands. The Serbians, on the other hand, could not send their armies into these mountains as they would suffer great losses. The “Accursed Mountains” were an enemy to the Slavic invaders and a natural shield to the autochthonous Albanians.
Ahmeti also states that the communist regime of Albania started using this Serbian toponym in a bid to please the Yugoslavian government. They did this because they owed them. The Yugoslavs helped the Communists in Albania gain power.
We will probably never know how the “Accursed Mountains” got their name. To the Albanians however, they are a source of pride and natural beauty.
How to get there to Theth
Reaching Theth in the winter is difficult; the dense snowfall makes it almost impossible to reach this village, which is also a national park. If you are a crazy adventurer and want to visit the village during the winter, you must hire a local guide in advance. A local guide is the only one that can get you there through the snow. Now that we’ve got that out of the way lets proceed with getting there during the other seasons.
There is no airport close to Theth. The only airport close enough is Mother Teresa airport in Tirana Albania. When you land in Tirana, I suggest you rent yourself a 4×4 wheel drive car. This will make navigating the difficult off-roads easier. Firstly, you must head toward the northern city of Shkoder. From Shkoder to Theth it is roughly 72 km, about a 3-hour drive. The route you must take from Shkoder to get there is:
Shkoder – Koplik – Dedaj Shkreli – Boge – Fusha Okolit(Okoli field) – Qafe t’Thore – Valley of Shale (Lugina e Shales)-Theth.
Where to stay in Theth
If you want to stay in Theth for a few days, they have many inns available for a good price. I’m going to mention three of the most popular ones.
Guesthouse Villa Gurra
This beautiful hotel is found right at the entrance of Theth. To me, it looks a bit like the alpine hotels of Switzerland, and it has been open for ten years. It’s made of wood and stone, typical of the buildings in the area and has one of the best restaurants around. The owners are a lovely young couple who are very happy to point visitors towards the best sites in Theth. They charge anywhere from 25 to 50 euros in the summer and about 40 euros in any other season.
Highly recommended, Villa Gjecaj, is located in the heart of the national park of Theth. It’s only 250 meters from the village center, and it’s made almost entirely of stone. Probably the most beautiful building in Theth, it provides cozy accommodation as well a wonderful native cuisine. The accommodations are a bit steeper than the other inns. They range from 35 to 40 euros on the weekdays and 45 to 50 on the weekends. The location, beauty of the building and outstanding cuisine make it a great choice.
Pracja Tower (Kulla Pracja)
Pracja Tower is one of the oldest houses in Theth. Located near the center, Pracja Tower was built in 1820 from carved stone. As a guesthouse, it offers cozy accommodations. The best aspect of this inn is that the Shala River is very closeby. The flowing river makes for a fabulous ambient sound to help you sleep at night. It also keeps the land near the inn cool during the hot summer day.
The food at Pracja Tower is homemade. This means that the owners make everything from the milk, cheese, and all other products themselves. All have that organic alpine taste. I would recommend you try the dairy products first; they are of really high quality and very fresh. My recommendation is a glass of fresh milk in the morning. Accompany this with some eggs and a loaf of freshly baked bread and you are good to go explore.
Local legend and presumed history
The locals say that the village of Theth was founded by six brothers about 400 years ago. Theth was established as an escape from Ottoman invasions of Shkoder and the surrounding area. Many historians support this thesis as there are very few documented internal conflicts. Something that was very high in northern Albania. There is no doubt that Theth as a region has been inhabited by ancient Illyrian tribes and later their descendants the Arbanon or Arbri (medieval Albanians). The people of Thethi are of the Catholic faith and share a kinship with what the Northern Albanians call the people of Dukagjin.
Blood Feuds and the Tower of Isolation
The Tower of Isolation (Kulla e Ngujimit) in Theth is the only one of its kind in all of Albania. But to understand its function, we must dive in a little deeper into the ancient Albanian laws of vengeance codified in the “Kanun of Lek Dukagjini”.
It is believed that a famous Albanian prince called Lek Dukagjini (Alexander Duke of Gin) gathered the ancient laws of the northern Albanians and codified them or canonized them into a set of laws to not only govern the various tribes but also help preserve the unique and ancient culture and way of life from the Turkish invaders. You can find The Canon of Lek Dukagjini translated in English if you want to learn more about this codex, but we will focus on its most famous codification, that of vendetta or the taking of one’s blood.
The “Kanun” states that if a man were to kill another man, then the murdered man’s closest male relative is obliged to vindicate him by killing the murderer or someone with equal stature part of the murderers family. This is known in Albanian as “Gjakmarrje” or the taking of one’s blood, settling of scores. Although it sounds barbaric in today’s standards, it is commonly accepted by historians and lawmakers, that by 15th century standards, it was quite forward thinking.
Killing someone was a no-no even in medieval times, but the Albanians had a code of honour very rarely seen in medieval Europe.
An example of the “Kanun” in the Albanian highlands of Mirdita region.
A man had killed someone, and he sought refuge in a nearby house, the hostess, an old woman, accepted him as the Albanian honour did not permit the refusal of a guest when asked.
When her two sons arrived home, they informed the old woman that the man she was harbouring had killed her youngest son, their brother. The two brothers wanted to take the murderer outside and take their owed blood (Gjakmarrje), but the old woman stopped them and repeated to the Albanian law or “Kanun”, that if you offer hospitality to a guest, you cannot harm them in any way, whoever that guest may be. She allowed the guest to leave and told him that he would not be harmed until he exited the village, but after three days they would come for him as the “Kanun” required, taking her son’s blood.
The “Kanun” wasn’t only, kill the killer.
There was a council of elders or “Kryepleqni” that would pass down judgment and consult the victim’s family. If the murderer was from the same village as the murdered, then the council of elders would gather and pass down judgment on the murderer. It was usually banishment of him and his entire clan.
Now we come to the Tower of Isolation in Theth. Many people, Albanians as well, believe that the tower was used by those that had killed someone, to hide there with their families, to escape retribution. This is a mistaken conception. The Tower of Isolation or Kulla e Ngujimit in Albanian was used to imprison the murderer until the council of elders would reach a verdict on how to punish the criminal.
The elders would appoint guards at the tower and question the murderer on why he committed the heinous act and also call upon witnesses to ask about the man’s character and his relation to the victim. It functioned like the Tower of London, a prison to hold a criminal until proven guilty.
If the elders believed that the killer was acting on self-defence, they would call upon the men of both houses, of the victim and the killer and would try to persuade the victim’s family to spare and forgive the accused.
A fascinating way they handled a blood feud, as witnessed personally by the famous English writer and traveler Edith Durham.
After the men from both families were present in the tower, they would bring in a baby, from the accused family, tied to a cradle. The elders would put the baby upside down with the cradle and leave it like that. Everyone present knew that a baby could not survive for long this way. They would then ask the head of the victim’s family “Will you let this child die or will you spare its life”? If the head of the victim’s family spared the baby’s life, which they almost always did (who would let a baby die), then the elders would tell the victim’s family that if they spared one life from the killer’s family, then they must spare the killer as well. Either you kill them all, or you spare them all.
Something I’d like to mention that is quite interesting and unfortunate is that the law of “Kanun” is still in effect in northern Albania with hundreds of families in blood feuds today. It seems like such a medieval custom, but for many families it is real and something they face on a daily basis. Fear of being murdered to justify a murder that one of their family members may have committed over a lifetime before they were even born. Although it being real and happening in this century, the country is trying to settle the few remaining feuds, which has led to a decrease of such a phenomenon in recent years. Thus, fewer incidents related to it are being recorded in the Northern part of Albania.
The Blue Eye Fountain
The Blue Eye Fountain or Syri I Kalter in Albanian is a real treat. It has some of the most transparent water I have ever seen. First, let me tell you how to get to this alpine fountain.
The Blue Eye is located in what is known to the locals as Kaprre e poshtme village (Lower Capre). To get there, you will have to pass by the Grunasi Waterfall (Kanioni I Grunasit). Another beautiful scene of the Albanian Alps. As you cross the Waterfall, you head down to the central hydroelectric station of Nderlyses. On the station’s side is the village of Nderlys. Once you arrive at this village, you can ask a local which direction is Pusi I zi. If you have gotten this far by car, it’s time to get off and start walking, because there is no road for cars, even off-road ones.
I suggest you park your vehicle near the ruins of the old school; they are easy to spot. There should be a small bridge in the vicinity, you must pass over that bridge and head on towards Kaprre. After a short walk, your eyes will gaze upon a fantastic site of waterfalls, canyons and the Blue Eye Fountain. From the ruins of the old school to the Blue Eye, it’s around 40 minutes if you walk at an average pace. The walk is a relatively easy one. You won’t be tired at all. The fountain is around 100 square meters wide and 3 to 5 meters deep. The water is formed by the melting of the Alpine snow at the peaks of the mountains.
Albanians are renowned and take great pride in their hospitality. Northern Albanians, especially the “people of Dukagjin”, consider hospitality a sacred duty, virtually a law. Even though you might be paying for the stay, the people of Theth will go out of their way to ensure that you have a great stay and will provide private tours of the surrounding mountains. Always good humoured, they love hearing about their guest’s origins and daily lives and what they think of their little village.
Is it warm, or should you bring a coat?
Well, when you hear the word Alps, you will immediately think of cold high altitudes, and you would be right, but don’t forget that Albania has a Mediterranean climate and Theth itself gets 110 days of sunshine per year. Temperatures in June can go as high as 26 degrees Celsius and as low as minus 20 in the freezing winter. Yeah, it might get a bit chilly, depending on where you are from. You must also remember that you will probably be hiking most of the time. That will keep your body temperature up, so it all depends on what season you go there.
That’s just a few things about Theth. You need to go there to understand what it is like. To put it mildly, your senses will be bombarded by large mountain peaks, fresh alpine air, cold running waters, and a sweet scent of flowers and fresh aromas of pine trees.