We weren’t planning on heading north in Albania. It’s a completely mountainous region, with narrow and steep roads, wholly unsuitable for inexperienced travelers such as Victor’s mom. And we have explored so many other mountain ranges in the past - the Rocky Mountains, Smoky Mountains, Swiss Alps, Andes – that we felt completely justified in skipping Albanian Alps just this once.
“It’s not Albania without the mountains!” exclaimed Victor’s aunt when she saw our itinerary in WhatsApp chat. She had lived in Albania for many years and her ex-husband was originally from a small village in the north.
She assured us that driving mountainous roads will not be difficult and the views will be worth it.
“We can take a ferry part of the way into Valbona Valley National Park.”
Victor was furiously scribbling on his itinerary, rewriting everything. I made a mental note to pack some warmer clothes for the colder mountain climate and went on with my day. Such is the extent of my involvement in the planning process of these trips.
Once in Albania and having gone through the process of renting a car and hauling it up into the mountains, we finally arrived at the ferry station. The ferry attendant immediately pegged us as tourists.
“One-hour boat ride?” he asked while counting the number of people in the car.
“We are going with the car to Fierze,” Victor said and the attendant briefly looked surprised. Maybe none of us looked like avid hikers and those are the only types of tourists that venture this far north.
“It used to be, this ferry was only for the locals to travel to their villages in the mountains.” Victor’s aunt said, “Now Albania is trying to expand tourism to attract hikers and adventurers to visit Valbona National Park.”
The original plan behind building a dam on the Drin River and forming Lake Fierze and later Lake Koman was for Hydroelectric Power Stations that create electricity for the entire country. How interesting could a ferry trip down an artificially made channel, originally designed strictly for the utilitarian purpose of supporting power plants be? Turns out – very much.
The ferry wasn’t very big, built to fit a maximum of 5-6 cars, but there were only 4 cars including ours on board, and at most 12 people. There were a few locals mixed in with tourists from Germany and Poland. We found a comfy spot with a table and some benches on the back deck and settled in with an improvised picnic consisting of random fruits and breakfast leftovers.
For the next three hours, we glided down the canal, surrounded by gorgeous mountain ranges and a clear blue sky. I couldn’t put down my camera, walking around the ferry in search of new angles to capture all the beauty around us. Not for the first time, Albania left me baffled. We paid around $40 for the 4 of us and a car and were enjoying what I later learned a travel guidebook described as "one of the world's great boat trips, only comparable to the Scandinavian fjords.” We have been on plenty of boats before, short tours and longer cruises, a notable one being a two-day cruise on a beautiful Dragon Pearl through stunning Vietnam’s Halong Bay. Having spent months planning and fantasizing about sailing through Halong Bay and shelling out hundreds of dollars for the pleasure of it, imagine our surprise to discover a view no less exciting on a fairly unknown ferry in an equally unknown part of the world for an astounding price of $8 per person.
Once we disembarked the ferry, it was another hour of driving arduous winding roads into the mountains until we reached our guesthouse in Valbona Valley National Park. We’ve stayed in hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, tents, and camper vans around the world, but I would be hard-pressed to think of a more picturesque location to spend a few nights. We were in a flat valley, surrounded by towering mountains on all sides. There was, as in any fairy tale, a winding footpath through the forest and a bubbling brook. In front of the house, a dining table was set up among flower beds, and further on, a garden brimming with vegetables, a chicken coop, a cowshed, and beyond that, rolling fields with haystacks all the way to the road.
The guesthouse was a newer two-floor building, right next to the family home. We occupied the second floor – two bedrooms, each with its own private bathroom. But the best part, of course, was the view out of the window.
We settled outside at the dining table and the hosts brought out dinner, all homemade and sourced right here on the farm. Maybe it was the mountain air or the fresh ingredients, but the simple salad, soup, freshly baked bread, and cheese have never tasted so good. The next morning, we were treated to a delicious breakfast – crepes, milk fresh from the cows, home-churned butter, and homemade jams, as well as omelets from eggs that were laid by chickens currently pecking at the ground just a few feet away from us.
I will surprise no one at this point when I mention that all of this was had for about $60 per night for two people.
The family we lived with did not support themselves exclusively with the guesthouse. As we ate our breakfast, we could see them working the farm – a few men were hauling hay in the field, while women fed the chickens, milked the cows, hung clothes out to dry, and pruned the vegetables. One family member auspiciously missing from these activities was the teen son, who spent his entire time sitting on a chair outside the guesthouse, playing on his phone. It soon became apparent that he was the only person in the entire family who spoke English and thus, was tasked with taking care of the foreign guests. He checked us into the guesthouse, took down all our food orders, and was always available in his chair, to assist us with any inquiries.
After breakfast, we set off for our adventure of exploring Valbona Valley National Park. First, we climbed inside an old, abandoned stone mill by a creek. Then, standing in the middle of the valley surrounded by majestic peaks, we had a gorgeous 360-degree panorama while breathing in fresh, chilly, mountainous air. At some point, the road on which we drove ended and a hiking trail to a neighboring Teth National Park began. Unfortunately, we had neither the time nor the physical fitness to do the Valbona-Teth day hike, but we promised ourselves to come back and do it one day.
Instead, we spent the rest of the day doing short hikes around the park, drinking clear fresh water straight from the creek, eating wild strawberries, and taking endless pictures. At one of our stops, we came across a horse grazing next to an old, simple mosque with the background of snow-capped peaks in the distance. This simple image was so striking that it is still vividly seared in my memory.
As we hiked through the park, we saw abandoned traditional Albanian stone houses and graves in the backyards. Victor took this chance to excitedly tell us about the Kanun, the ancient code of the Northern Albanians, which is comprised of detailed rules governing blood feuds and avenge killings. Before coming to Albania, he read Broken April, a book by the most famous Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, describing these ancient traditions and customs.
“You are not allowed to kill a guest!” yelled Victor, “Not after you welcomed him into your home! But if someone else kills your guest, your family must avenge this transgression!”
A few days later, on our way back to Koman on the same ferry, we were treated to more scenic views of mountain gorges and witnessed a surprising unscheduled stop along the way to pick up some locals. Well, it was more of a slowdown rather than a full stop. As the ferry dropped speed, a motorboat pulled alongside, and a few people climbed right over the railing. We initially thought that something was wrong, but no, that’s just how you catch the ferry if you happen to live in a village along the canal.
As we disembarked in Koman, Victor was fretting over the itinerary again. He was convinced now that we should have left Valbona Valley National Park until the end of the trip, as obviously, this was going to be the highlight of our entire Albanian trip.
“Can anything else possibly come close?” he asked.
The answer is in the half a dozen posts we already wrote about the rest of this trip: