After you have visited Theth village, it’s time to head over to the jewel of the Albanian Alps, or as the locals call them ‘The Accursed Mountains’. Valbona Valley National Park is considered the gem of the Accursed Mountains in Albania. With an area of 8000 hectares, Valbona is the name of the river that flows through the valley. The village of Valbona takes the name from the river itself. The beauty of Valbona Valley is without parallel in Albania, perhaps even in the Balkans.
How to get there
Valbona has had a few investments over the recent years and getting there is easier than Theth. Valbona is located in the Tropoja and Kukes districts in northern Albania. It borders Kosovo to the northeast and Montenegro to the northwest. You can even get there straight from these two countries. The best way to get there though is from Tirana to Bajram Curri because on the way there you can take a ferry through Lake Koman. You can get there faster from the center of Tropoja district called Bajram Curri. However, the ferry ride is a journey you should consider taking.
The view from the ferry ride alone is reason enough.
While you surf through the water, you will see a spectacular view of high cliffs that seem to shoot straight out of the water. They form a magnificent canyon. You will also see beautiful small villages on either side of the lake and many abandoned stone houses. The few people that still live in these villages have no other way of visiting each other except by boat.
On your way by ferry, you will also see two big hydropower plants among the Drin cascade. The ferry trip will last about 2 hours, and prices can vary from 5 dollars per person to 20 dollars if you wish to ferry your car as well.
My personal experience traveling to Valbona
When I visited Valbona, I chose to go via the national highway from Tirana to Kosovo. While in Kosovo, I visited the ancient city of Prizren. Afterwards, I took the southwest route towards the city of Gjakova which borders Albania. Gjakova is a small but charming city with great hospitality from the locals.
After having a coffee in Gjakova, I took the route towards the Albanian border. On the way there, you can see the Alps in the distance. The roads are also well paved, so there’s no need for an off-road vehicle. After going through the border check (which is most likely removed by now as Albania and Kosovo have signed an agreement to eliminate their border checks), I headed to the principal city of Tropoja District, Bajram Curri.
Valbona is roughly 25 KM away from Bajram Curri. To get there you first need to go through the Shoshani canyon (another breathtaking view), Klisyra pass, Dragobie narrow and then Dunisha.
As you make your way there, you will see a narrow pass beset by mountains on each side. You must be a bit careful if you are driving as the road is a bit tight (think Montenegro tight if you have been there) and incoming traffic can be a bit dangerous. Locals often beep when coming around turns to let others know they are in the way, so feel free to do the same.
Apart from Lake Koman, there is another body of water that you should not miss when going to Valbona and that is the Shala River. The water from this river is crystal clear and has an azure colour.
It flows for around 34 Km through the Shala Valley, and it’s a deviant of the famous Drin River. You can take boat tours along this majestic river from beginning to finish. The river is beset on both sides by high rocky cliffs. Don’t be surprised to see locals and tourists diving from these cliffs, or see them spearfishing. The trout of the river Shala is famous in Albania and very delicious. If you crave fish when reaching Valbona, ask for the Shala trout.
The ferry Berisha, leaves from Koman towards Fierza at 09:00 in the morning and departs Fiarza at 13:00, while the ferry Dragobia leaves at 06:00 from Koman and arrives to Fierza at 09:00, so if you want to catch the boat for a fantastic tour, you have to get there early. The cost is 5 euros per person and 5 euros per square meter for the vehicles. It is a highly recommended trip, don’t be surprised if you can’t find a place on the 09:00 am ferry. I suggest you take the earlier one, Dragobia for two reasons. Firstly, there is more room if you plan on bringing your vehicle and secondly, nothing beats seeing the sunrise through the Shala river canyons. It is mesmerizing.
What you will find there
My first thought when I reached the valley was how huge the mountains on both sides were. In the middle, there is a valley with a river flowing beset on both sides by massive mountain peaks. Looking at the mountain peaks on both sides, you get the feeling that you are just a speck of dust compared to them. After you get over your initial amazement of the high mountains, try to find a little patch on the side of the narrow road, there are usually dozens. Park your vehicle if you have come by car, and head towards the village.
The village of Valbona is the focal point of the valley. The buildings are in the traditional style of “Kulla’s” or towers, as the locals call them, made of carved stone. Many of the houses have been turned into inns and hotels since that’s become the primary income of the valley for nearly ten years now. During my visit, I simply walked towards the first inn I saw and asked if they were also a restaurant, which they were, and sat down. The only cuisine that you can get at the inns and restaurants of the village is traditional northern Albanian cuisine. So if you are in the mood for Italian or Mexican or any other type, you are well out of luck.
Food in Valbona
The cuisine consists mostly of local cheese, baked cornbread with yogurt on top, goat, sheep or pork meat and vegetables and almost all dairy products. I asked the waiter to bring me a bit of everything. However, I didn’t finish it all. I recommend you do the same and make sure to get the dairy products as they are not only very fresh but also a specialty of the village of Valbona, sorry if you are lactose intolerant. Getting a bit of everything is well worth it.
After overeating on everything I could, I asked the waiter if I could go hiking on one of the mountain passes, as I’d heard that the view from the peaks was breathtaking. The waiter advised me against it. He said that going up there alone could mean death. The local guides had gone off with a bunch of tourists and that they had no one who could accompany me.
Beware of hiking without a guide
The waiter told me a sad story of two tourists from the Czech-Republic that had gone up and lost their way. One of them had died, as he had fallen from a high cliff and they miraculously found the other after four days.
My hiking ambitions were cut short, but I didn’t want to give up on exploring a little. So I asked the waiter what else I could visit, and he pointed me in the direction of the cave of Dragobia. He said the cave is in many local legends.
The Dragon and Kulcedra legend
They say that a dragon once fought the Kulcedra. A little explanation on the Albanian myth of the hero fighting the dragon:
In old Albanian myths, the Kulcedra is what they call a dragon. So a Kulcedra is your standard fire-breathing dragon. The hero that fights and defeats the Kulcedra is called a dragon. I know it’s a bit confusing, but also quite interesting. Some scholars say that this belief came from the bible and Albanians associate the archangel Michael as the dragon and Satan as the Kulcedra that battled him and lost. Other scholars believe that the Kulcedra and the dragon represent the duality of good and evil, Yin and Yang in a way. Both of the Kulcedra and the Dragon are the same beings but on opposite sides of the coin.
Cave of Dragobia
After the brief explanation from the waiter about the myth, I headed towards the cave of Dragobia, asking almost everyone along the way because there were no signs to point you to its direction. I finally arrived there after 20 minutes, and it was worth every step. I didn’t go in the cave per se (I do not like closed spaces that much), but the entrance to it reminds you of something ancient, like a Celtic holy place, like Stonehenge but formed by nature and not humankind.
If you get to Valbona early in the morning, you can get a local guide, relatively cheaply, I was told some of them go as cheap as 15 Euros for 3 to 4 hours per person, you can go hiking, see some of the caves and have lunch when you get back. A meal for two people would cost around 20 to 25 Euros tops.
If you do want to spend the night or maybe a couple of days, locals say the morning air is excellent for the lungs. I searched and asked some friends that had stayed a night or two in the inns and rounded up the best three recommendations. These were the ones recommended most highly to me.
Valbona offers a few accommodations for tourists. Here are three that were recommended to me by friends that have stayed there.
Bujtina Valbone is a beautiful three-storied stone hotel. A mixed architecture of Swiss alpine houses and local traditional houses called Kulla. The people that recommended Bujtina Valbone said that their favourite part of this hotel was the free Wi-Fi. Bujtina Valbone also has great rooms and very comfy beds. I was told they usually charge 20 – 25 euros in the summer and rates are lower in the winter.
Villa Dini breaks a bit away from tradition in its architecture. It is made mostly of wood and not stone like the traditional houses and inns of the area. It was recommended to me by a friend that stayed there two nights. He loved the positioning of the guesthouse. It was at the foot of a mountain, and the view from his room was spectacular. He also said that the receptionist was one of the friendliest and most helpful people he had ever met. My friend loved the food there, especially the breakfast with eggs, fresh alpine milk and cheese. He paid 40 euros for two days of stay and another 15 for a tour guide to go hiking, but that was four years ago. Still, he had a great time and would like to return someday.
My friend, who recommended this hotel was very pleased with her stay. She pointed out to me a detail that she liked. This hotel lets you reserve a room without a credit card.
“You just call them, order a room, tell them the date and time of your arrival, and they will book it for you.”
She also loved the quaint little restaurant, and the cuisine was very fresh and felt very natural. The reception is available 24/7, and they also have free Wi-Fi. The hotel is of carved stone, and the rooms were very cozy. I also found out that it is the only hotel that offers 3-star services. The room prices can go as high as 50 euros a night.
The Valbona Valley is something that no tourist should miss when visiting Albania. If it’s your first time visiting the country, then one of the first places you should visit is Valbona.
Next time we will be heading to the ancient city of Lezha. You will learn about not only the city but a little restaurant that has caught the attention of almost all the neighbouring countries as far as Germany and is run by an award winning Chef.