When you hear the phrase ‘The Accursed Mountains of Albania’ what images come to mind? If you’re imagining a land of blood feuds, bears and wolves, mist-filled valleys and imposing mountains, then you’d be right.
Our destination was Valbona, a small-isolated village, deep in the heart of the mountains. And spoiler alert – Valbona was the cherry on top of our already amazing Albanian adventure, and ended up being one of our favourite places we’ve been so far. Just arriving in the village was breathtaking, as we looked around in awe at the mountains over 2500m high surrounding us.
I’d never seen mountains like these, with beautiful green inviting meadows at the top. Over the next few days, we’d do two epic hikes to reach the top of two of these mountains!
Q. Where to stay in Valbona? A. Hotel Rilindja
We don’t normally talk so much about our accommodation, but Hotel Rilindja was a big part of what made our time in Valbona so special. Hotel Rilindja is a place run by an American/Albaninan couple (Catherine and Alfred) who want to share their special part of the world with others.
The hotel itself is in the middle of the valley, surrounded by working farms and fields.
Our amazing room on the top floor, had a balcony with amazing views back into the valley, and we could also watch the local farmers going about their daily work.
As the village is so small, we had all our meals at the hotel. The food was outstanding – all local produce, freshly prepared. The meals were served at the main reception building of Rilindja, one kilometre down the road from our room. Having to make the walk to the other building for our meals was the best (but sometimes the worst) thing about our stay.
It was the best because the walk through the woods to get to the main house was magical. Imagine a leafy forest floor, mossy woods, streams passing alongside old wooden shacks and crazy mushrooms growing on the trees. At night, we walked back to our hotel along the road, in pitch-black darkness, staring up at the star-filled skies. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many stars in the sky, and it was so clear we saw at least 5 satellites passing overhead.
The only negative came after a long days hiking. After dinner, walking that last kilometer back to our accommodation was one of the toughest kilometres we would walk.
Catherine and Albert have also been pivotal in putting together the maps and trails for hiking in the area, so there is no better place to get tips and maps on where to hike while you’re in the area. Visit Catherine’s site journeytovalbona.com for more info.
How to get to Valbona?
Starting in Shkodra, the more picturesque (and by far easiest) way to get to Valbona is via the Lake Koman ferry. It’s an easy trip but requires a few changes. The first leg is the furgon from Shkodra to Koman, which takes an hour and can be arranged by your hotel or hostel in Shkodra. It’s then time for the boat trip, which is a stunning 4-hour journey along the bright green waters.
While the journey on Lake Koman was beautiful, it could have been amazing if the rubbish hadn’t marred the views along certain parts of the river. It was heartbreaking to see. Sadly rubbish is a big problem in Albanina.
At the end of the boat trip you arrive in Fierze, where you jump on another furgon to Valbona. Then it’s welcome to mountain paradise!
The Blood Feuds – Myth or Real Life?
It might sound like a plot from an old-fashioned novel or movie, but blood feuds, in line with the Kanun code, are apparently still carried out by Albanian families in the north of Albania. The Kanun is a code the mountain people of Albanina have lived by for centuries, and it covers all aspects of life in the mountains. The four main pillars of the Kanun being Honour, Hospitality, Conduct and Kin loyalty. Honour being the most important.
The start of the blood feud could be something as small as an insult, or perceived disrespect of yourself or a family member. And as honour is the key pillar of the code, the response must be met with blood. So one man kills another, and a vicious cycle begins which then sees the rival family or clan, avenging the killing and on and on it goes, sometimes until all male members of the family line have been killed.
While this was the way of the mountain people in decades past, it’s difficult to know if the feuds are as common as reported these days or if it’s a romantic old-fashioned notion that’s been recently picked up by the media. Do a google search for blood feuds and you’ll find a lot of recent articles covering the subject. Most focusing on the lives of young boys who aren’t able to leave their homes or live normal lives for fear of being killed as the next in line in the feud.
A friend who asked a local about it was told that while it does still happen, it’s rare. Our only exposure to this while we were in the mountains was a pair of jeans, hanging from a stick, which appeared to be covered in blood. According to tradition, after a killing, the bloody clothes of the dead man are hung up for all to see, a sign that death has been dealt on the house – and also that they are now on the lookout for revenge. We hope that’s not what these were…
If you want to know more about the blood feuds, google is your friend, and I also recommend the book Broken April by the famous Albanian author, Ismail Kadare. It’s an insightful book about the simple, yet deadly rules and their impact on local families.
That’s the introduction taken care of. Next post we hit the mountains for the best hiking we have ever done! LOVE VALBONA!