Coming back to the Accursed Mountains again and again
A long-held ambition to visit The Accursed Mountains in Albania was worth the wait for Maja Trajkovska.
I have wanted to go to the Accursed Mountains since the mid-90s, having visited Albania for the first time in 1994.
The north of the country was a ‘no go’ area for many years. It was impossible to go to places that are now starting to have a regular stream of tourists seeking adventures. Whether it was the lawlessness and the wide spread use of weapons, the smuggling and the lack of infrastructure, or the combination of all these, it took me 20 years to come. I managed to organise my long-planned visit in September 2014 and I was hooked. The first time I saw Theth valley, I knew I would be back.
We chose to come from Montenegro via Bor mountain, having arranged our cross-border passes in advance. Crossing the fog-covered mountain a sign that said ‘turn back from this point’ appealed to my sense of adventure. What used to be smuggling routes for drugs, weapons, cigarettes and people, prior to and during the Kosovo conflict in the late 90s, have now become a marked trail called the Peaks of the Balkans.
We came across a shepherd’s camp, a place where people live only during the summer in order to bring their flocks of sheep to graze in the higher pastures of the mountains. They told us they had seen other hikers during the day and they spared an hour to serve us coffee, warm bread and home-made cheese.
The children proudly presented the new generation of puppies that originate from nearby Shar Mountain, which borders Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.
We continued walking through the fog, hearing a flock of sheep before seeing it, and hearing the barking of dogs. We stopped to take photos and hung around for what they considered to be too long.
The GPS showed that we were metres away from the Albanian border. The fog suddenly lifted to reveal a stunning view of steep mountains with their peaks still covered in fog. Within an hour, there was blue sky and rays of sunshine rewarded our efforts.
The mountain opened its valleys to us. Both Valbona and Theth valleys are stunning and the guesthouses in the villages are welcoming. There are even ‘bars’ along the way, with the most incredible views.
In remote areas of the Balkans hospitality is unprecedented. The food is delicious and the hosts are warm. What takes me aback is how quickly the region has capitalised from the revenue that is brought by tourists.
What was one of the poorest area in the poorest country in Europe is now a region full of welcoming guesthouses that offer refuge to tired hikers.
The Accursed Mountains are often compared with the Dolomites or Malte Brun on New Zealand’s South Island. Personally, I don’t like comparing mountains as I believe that each is unique.
But I do hope that the Peaks of the Balkans trail will make the Balkans accessible to mountaineers and hikers from all over the world who are searching for new destinations. And it is my dream to hike from Trieste to Istanbul and to connect trails going via 12 Balkan countries covered with stunning mountains.
Maja Trajkovska is a political journalist who worked for the BBC in the 1990s. After a 20-year career in media in London, she founded Hiking the Balkans, which organises cross-border hikes across nine Balkan countries and is constantly looking to expand the cross-border trails.View Articles by Maja Trajkovska