Balkan Odyssey Part 11: Valbona, Albania

Not many people get to northern Albania. I suppose it is off the beaten path in a country that itself is off the beaten path.

During communism, northern Albania marched to its own drum. It was somewhat cut off from the rest of the country by mountains and a rugged landscape, and entirely cut off from neighboring Kosovo and Montenegro by a tightly sealed border. The mountains, however, were supposed to be beautiful and I was therefore determined to visit.

This would not have been the case in the mid-1990s when the borders opened and the region became a very dangerous hotbed of smuggling and blood feuds. While the smuggling dangers have mostly disappeared today, the blood feuds have not. This ancient law of the land encourages the family of a murdered person to kill a relative of the murderer. It is a tit-for-tat, slippery slope of vigilantism that has carried through the generations. It’s why the rest of Albania calls the northerners crazy. The good news is that blood feuds never involve foreigners; unless, of course, you happened to kill someone.

My destination was a mountain village by the name of Valbona. I had started my journey in Tirana, traveled by ferry across Lake Komani (as discussed in yesterday’s post) and eventually arrived in the town of Bajram Curri. It was here, in the capital of the Tropoja district, that I caught another minivan onwards to Valbona (there is usually one in the early morning and one in the afternoon). The two hour drive was on yet another dirt road, this one following the length of the Valbona River up through a narrow valley.

About one kilometer below Valbona, the van pulled up to a two-story wooden cabin just off the road. The driver made drink motions with his hand and waved me towards the doorway. Inside, was a small bar where four men were smoking and playing backgammon. A fifth man came out from behind the bar and greeted me in English. I was quite surprised to hear English in such a remote place. Alfred, however, was one of the many Albanians who fled the country in the 1990s and worked abroad. He eventually returned home to build the bar and cabin in which I was standing. Upstairs he hoped to provide four rooms of accommodations for travelers like myself. Unfortunately, Alfred had run out of money and the rooms weren’t finished yet.

He asked where I was planning on staying and I mentioned the hotel in Valbona–a recommendation I had dug up online. He shook his head. “The hotel is broken,” he told me. As you can see by the above photograph, he wasn’t lying (note the small bunker next to the hotel – more on that in a later post).

Alfred offered me a place to stay on his family farm just up the road. As I would later discover wandering through the town, this was pretty much my only option short of camping. I also realized that every minivan carrying tourists made the stop at the cabin; I wasn’t the first one to stay on Alfred’s farm.

The farm was very rustic and beautiful. It was only $10 a night including breakfast. I had my own room, complete with wooly lamb blankets, but shared a bathroom down the hall. It was clean and surprisingly modern but the hot water pressure made showering a near impossibility.

This is pretty much downtown Valbona. Once home to more than 1500 people, only a couple hundred remain. I saw no more than ten people my whole time here. And, not a single tourist. Tourists do pass through the region, I was told, but not so often.

Valbona is located high in the Dinaric Alps. These shots were taken in June when there was still plenty of snow around.

Here’s the generator which supplies power to Valbona. The building sits above a small tributary which powers the turbines. As you can see, the equipment is very antiquated and I was told it will burn up if left on for too long. As a result, the power is switched on only in the evenings. I had to climb out on a shaky, wooden platform suspended above the river and shove my camera into an open window to get this shot so apologies for the bad quality.

I don’t know what it is about water color in Albania, but the Valbona River is a remarkable shade of blue. It’s deep, fast moving, and very narrow in parts. I’m no expert but it looks like the perfect, untamed river for kayaking. I’m not sure if it has been run before, but I highly recommend checking it out if you’re a kayaker looking to blaze new waterways. Call me though, because I want to come with you.

Evenings were spent back at the Cabin Bar where the barman would cook me dinner. Everything was prepared fresh and came from the local farms, except for the slices of lemon they tended to use as garnish–sort of makes me wonder why they even bothered with the garnish. I don’t think the menu stretched too far beyond lamb and the local specialty, river trout. The trout, although highly revered by the locals, was no different than trout I’ve had elsewhere. The lamb was good, and the cheese and bread delicious. The fries were horrible, however, and only got worse the longer I stayed.

Alfred’s cousin, Naim can often be found at the bar and speaks excellent English. If he’s in the mood, he’ll build a campfire and chat about his time working in London and about the crazy days when communism fell and Albania was a free-for-all. It didn’t take me long in speaking with him to realize that the northerners weren’t crazy at all. In fact, everyone I met in the north was extraordinarily friendly and helpful.

Yesterday’s Post: Lake Komani, Albania
Tomorrow’s Post: Kosovo