There and then, it seems, we made a vow that one day we would come back to complete the walk and make the link. Now, barely a year later, that day had come, although at the time we had no idea it would be so soon, if at all. And, coincidentally, we would be arriving in Thethi on 11th July - the exact same date we arrived there the first time three years ago. Coincidences, connections, compulsions: I'm a firm believer that if things are meant to happen, they will.’
Over the course of three visits, we have walked about two-thirds of the Peaks of the Balkans route – some of it twice – and have hopes to one day walk the route in full. There’s no doubt it would make for an excellent few days of rugged mountain walking, which is a good enough reason in itself to go, but it’s the variety of accommodation and experience that really makes it special, with eco lodges, mountain restaurants and homestays all featuring.
One lasting memory is of Dobërdol, a high alpine pasture inhabited only during the summer months where shepherds gather to graze their animals on the rich pasture. We spent a night with them, eating burek, sharing stories round the fire and sleeping on wooden pallets in a basic stone bunkhouse. Next day, in the quiet of the morning, we set out to climb to the nearby summit where the borders of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro meet, surrounded by mountains and sky and the ancient rhythms of shepherd life.
The Peaks of the Balkans is an excellent circuit which, with a couple of side trips or rest days, makes for a great two-week itinerary. It should not be underestimated – there are some long days and significant climbs – but physically it should be within the compass of regular UK hillwalkers.
It can be undertaken independently, but we would recommend using a guide or local tour operator as the benefits are numerous. Even with a map and GPS waypoints, the route is not always easy to find, and they can help you get the best out of the route, tailor your itinerary to suit, arrange permits, sort logistics and so on, as well as act as navigator and interpreter.
The Peaks of the Balkans is a circular, transnational multi-day trail in the border region between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. The trail is split into 10 sections of between 6 to 10 hours’ walking (most of which can be shortened if preferred) through the dramatic landscapes of The Accursed Mountains.
Along the way, you will encounter staggering scenery, shepherd villages, soaring peaks and wild valleys, and experience homestays, home-grown food and hiking in one of the most remote corners of Europe. It includes a number of the area’s known highlights – for example, Thethi and the Valbona Pass, the Rugova Valley, Hridsko Lake, and the Ropojana Valley – but the whole route is top quality, and really gives an insight into this incredible area.
The trail was originally conceived to bring together the communities of three countries whose borders had, until fairly recently, been closed to visitors. In this notoriously complex region, the numerous rifts and tensions arising after break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s still rumble on today. In fact, since it’s declaration of independence in 2008, Kosovo is recognised as a sovereign state by barely more than half of the UN member states.
Consequently, although the borders are open and can be easily crossed en route, hikers need to be aware they should gain the necessary permits for each border crossing, which may take a couple of weeks to organise and submit to the authorities. We met one couple who lost 2-3 days’ hiking because of this, and it is perhaps worth remembering that hiring a local guide can help not only with navigation, language and cultural insight but also in sorting permits before you arrive.
After one trip, I noted: ‘This sign may not look much, but it is the reason we are here. We visited this same spot last July during our Montenegro & Kosovo trip, and seeing it had quite an effect on us both. I wrote at the time "To be honest, seeing the name Theth on the signpost proved a rather emotional moment. Realising we were less than a day’s trek away from where we had spent a fantastic time just two summers ago exerted an almost magnetic pull ..."