The best hiking in Valbona. According to us.
From the starting point in Valbona (a leisurely 2km walk from the breakfast table), the hike up to Maja e Gjarperit is 9.2km one-way and would see us rise 1600m in elevation. Sounds like fun right?! And that’s just one way, so once we got to the top, we’d have to turn around and come back down again – the joys of hiking! While that might not sound like fun, this was easily one of the best hikes we’ve ever done. Ever. The hiking in Valbona has been spectacular.
I can’t put into words the feelings we had when we finally dragged our tired limbs back into the hotel 10 hours later. We’d faced some fears and experienced something beautiful, from the kindness of strangers to the beauty of our surroundings. We felt euphoric, but at the same time absolutely shattered.
Let the hiking begin.
Once we reached the starting point of the hike itself, we were greeted by a steep and muddy hill. Always a fun way to kick things off. We slowly made our way upwards trying not to fall flat on our faces. A mixture of skill and luck, we made it to the next leg of the hike. Endless switchbacks through a mix of woodlands and farmland.
Switchbacks can drive you a bit insane as you go back and forth, back and forth, not feeling like you’re gaining much ground. But we were already high enough to have stunning views back across the valley.
About halfway up the switchbacks, we found ourselves surrounded by an old, now abandoned, orchard with a daisy-covered carpet. Apparently a popular place for bears when the plum trees are in fruit.
We passed a shepherd walking his herd of goats through the green pastures, who gave us a big smile and wave as we passed him by.
Further up, we also passed a beautiful old farmhouse, perched on a cliff. Imagine their views!
Surrounded by flowers.
As with the previous big hike, we soon reached the height where the spring flowers were still out in full force. It was just stunning. Can we use the word magical again?
At this point we were only about 1/3 of the way up, and still had a way to go yet. As we reached a stretch of path which took us around the side of the mountain through sheltered woodland, it was here the marked trail came to an end. From here we’d be relying on our map-reading skills. Yiks!
Round and round we go.
Once we came out of the woodlands, we reached the trickiest part of the walk yet. We’d been warned that the rocky-switchback section of the hike was the hardest part. And it was! As the sun beat down upon us, we walked and walked and walked.
The rocky trail seemed to go on forever upwards, and as we looked up, it was hard to see an end in sight. Our legs were shaking from the steepness of the path, but sure-footedness was needed along the narrow trial, as we slowly continued up and up and up.
The height of beauty.
After completing the switchbacks from hell, we reached the top of the mountain and couldn’t believe our eyes – there were meadows in all directions.
The views were stunning and we were both desperate to stop and have a rest, when suddenly we thought we heard voices. We’d just trekked six hours to reach this point. Were there other people as crazy as us already up here? As we passed over a small hill, we saw a few kids kicking a football about, as cows grazed in the background. We had no idea how they’d gotten up here.
We walked up one of the hills and sat down to the picnic lunch we’d lugged up the hill with us, when behind us over the hill there appeared a local lady, with a huge jug of cold water and a mountain of cheese!
We had an amazing lunch, sharing food and doing our best to communicate in travel sign language. It was a special experience. We tried to give her some money for the food (part of the program for giving something back to the community as visitors to the area) but she was having none of it. She continued to happily offer the cheese to us, and made sure we ate every last piece. We ate a lot of cheese.
Her children came up to say hello after a while and we saw her husband down in the field below. I was surprised at how young her children were and realized this lady might have been more my own age, but the years of exposure to the harsher elements so high up in the mountains having taken more of a toll. I have no photos to share, as I couldn’t bring myself to break the spell by getting out our camera. I’ll always remember her kind face, but just wish I could remember her name!
As we finished our food, we said thank you and left with full hearts and stomachs at the generosity of this family, who with so little in the world, happily shared their food with us.
After filling up our water from the spring, it was time to start our journey in reverse. If we could have ordered a helicopter home at this point, we would have paid whatever they were asking.
On leaving the meadows, everyone came to wave us off. The kids ran after us, shouting ‘goodbye’ as we crossed over the ridge to start our descent. Such a sweet experience. But now the fun and games would really begin.
The downward spiral.
So it turns out walking down rocky switchbacks is a hell of a lot harder than walking up them, as the rocks are much more likely to slip out from under your feet. With nowhere to go but over the side of the cliff, it was very slow going. Easily the most challenging hiking experience we’ve had. For 90 minutes we had to concentrate on every step we took, as a random foot slip sent rocks tumbling over the edge.
Thankfully after taking twice as long to get down, as it took us to get up, we finally hit the woodlands again and stable ground. There was a bottle of wine with our names on it back at the hotel, and so we shook ourselves off, picked up the pace and pushed on. Down and down we went, through the woodlands and then the meadows, past the farmhouses and orchards.
Eventually we reached the roadside after what felt like an eternity. We felt every step at this point, our legs were screaming. The walk home was a killer, the 2km’s back to Rilindja seemingly never ending – and our attempts at hitching back to hotel foiled by the fact not a single car passed us.
But we made it!
The hike had been tough in parts, the views out of this world, and the generosity of strangers such an heart-warming experience. Over a glass of wine we realised this hike could also sum up our overall experience in Albania.
Albania isn’t perfect and can be challenging at times, but it’s beauty can really knock you off your feet, from the beautiful ottoman towns, to the stunning beaches of the riviera and spectacular hiking in Valbona. Add to that the generous and welcoming Albanians we’d meet throughout the country, and to us, that made the perfect combination.
We’ve travelled to 45 countries together now but were in easy agreement, Albania was our favourite country yet.
Cheers Albania! We’ll miss you but know we’ll be back. Next stop the world’s oldest lake. Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.
Recommended hiking in Valbona:
This hike was from the valley of Valbona, up Stanet e Gjarpërit (Stans of Gjarpëri).