Valbona, also known as Valbonë, is a quaint rural village in the Valbona Valley National Park in the northernmost parts of Albania. We stayed in Valbona for two nights during our hiking trip in the Albanian Alps. It’s odd yet wonderful how something we had not even heard of just a couple of weeks ago is forever carved with beautiful memories in our hearts.
Getting to Valbona Valley National Park
Even though getting to Valbona from Shkodër takes seven hours, arranging the travel was straightforward. With some research fueled by my unrelenting need to plan ahead, we booked our transfer well in advance online. In contrast, most of our fellow backpackers at the Wanderers hostel (the de-facto backpackers central in Shkodër) booked their transfers and accommodation on the spot. I forgot to ask whether the hostel ever ran into capacity issues, but I imagine it has to inevitably come to that, especially in the high tourist season.
As transfers run only once a day, we would not take our chances. However, I do understand that those on a multi-month backpacking adventure through Europe approach the situation with a much more relaxed attitude. Lucky ducks.
The journey to Valbona Valley National Park starts shortly before 7 AM with a two-hour minibus ride to Koman Lake. As we sat on the fully packed bus, still sleepy, the sun slowly shone through the clouds and gracefully rose behind the mountains, announcing the start of a new day.
By the time we got to Koman Lake, the sky had cleared. Happy about the sunny day, we secured great seats on one of the ferry’s terraces, ready to enjoy the view. The vividly emerald green water of Koman Lake, embraced by the limestone karsts, brought back fond memories of a similar scenery in the Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. This unexpected resemblance filled us with positivity, setting the tone for the beautiful adventures ahead.
Shkoder to Valbona route
- 06:45-08:30 Shkoder to Koman by minibus
- 09:00 - 12:15 Koman to Fierze by ferry
- 12:30 - 13:30 Fierze to Valbona by minibus
First Impressions of Valbona
Surrounded by the enchanting Albanian Alps, Valbona is tucked away from the city noise, beautifully frozen in time, embracing the simplicity and honesty of the countryside life. You can almost smell tranquility when you arrive. The change of gear is unmistakable. Although only about 200km from Shkodër, the nearest big city, it takes almost a full day to get there with a combination of minibusses and an almost 3-hour ferry ride. Undoubtedly, this is what has kept the village still so real.
While Valbona still doesn’t have a conventional grocery shop, a post office, or, heaven forbid, a souvenir store, the tourism infrastructure is visibly developing at full speed. There are multiple construction sites across the settlement, readying to accommodate the ever-growing tourist arrivals. We saw a fancy multistore resort hotel in the making with what looked like a big swimming pool. I wonder how the village will look and feel in a few years and what kind of tourists it will attract. Although I understand that change is inevitable, I hope Valbona maintains its charm and rustic sincerity.
Staying in Valbona Valley National Park
Finding accommodation in Valbona Valley National Park is easy. Seemingly, every guesthouse is on booking.com. After a fun, but let’s admit, very short night in a hostel dormitory in Shkodër (for old times’ sake), we knew we had to balance it out with a private room to ensure we could recover between the hikes in the Albanian Alps. We chose Bujtina Arturi - a small family-run place offering a simple bed & breakfast. The hosts - a young couple with kids, grandma, a dog, countless chickens, and three cows gave us a shy but heartfelt welcome as we arrived.
The Relentless Alpine Cows
Our room, at the back of the property, let us have our privacy while getting discrete glimpses of the family going about their lives. Spotless hand-washed white bed linen air-drying in the Alpine wind, little kids eagerly waving at every passerby, random interactions between the family and guests, and… cows. Cows are everywhere and roam freely, on the roads, on the fields, not having a care in the world about anybody’s private property or anything else, for that matter. When you walk around Valbona, you will most certainly see somebody trying to chase away cows from their land.
The same happened in our guesthouse. Three cows quietly appeared from the dense bushes surrounding the property, munching on the juicy green grass. Everyone from the family gave it a go to shoo the animals away. Although everyone seemed to have their preferred technique worked out, all attempts failed. The shouting, running, and even rock-throwing had little impact on the cows, who just shamelessly kept returning. It was hilarious to watch, and the comedy of the situation was not lost on our hosts either. We exchanged laughs as we saw the beasts reappear from the bushes.
To our surprise, it was the frail-looking, hunched grandma who decidedly took off her shoe and, with an unexpected speed and precision, made sure the cows understood who the boss was. Grandmas are badasses everywhere. The cows left for good. I wish we had taken some pictures or videos of that.
Food in Valbona Valley National Park
In all our planning, we made one dramatic mistake. We knew there were no ATMs or card payments in the Albanian Alps national parks, so we got cash in Shkodër. However, we completely overlooked that we still had to pay for all our accommodation upon arrival. That’s four nights. Bam. Luckily, we had enough to pay the hosts, but our food and drinks budget suddenly shrank substantially. After the initial shock and frustration, we considered it a fun challenge. We still had enough cash to enjoy ourselves; we just had to spend more deliberately.
Breakfast in Valbona
The family made a simple but filling breakfast with eggs, sausage, salty Balkan cheese, and a delicious herbal tea. We used the accompanying bread, fresh butter, and homemade fig jam to make sweet snacks for our hiking trips. It tasted simply heavenly on the top of the mountains.
Valbona Mini Market
Next to the resort hotel construction site is a pop-up mini kiosk selling soft drinks, beers, bananas, and typical snacks and sweets at higher but still reasonable prices. At the time of our visit, the store was operated by an incredibly cheeky eight-year-old (?) boy. I can only assume his parents left him in charge in the quieter off-season so he could learn the ropes. Having observed him interact with other customers, it is clear why the parents had no concerns about anybody taking advantage of the young entrepreneur. The little store manager is a natural salesperson. Even we, concerned about our cash balance, left the store buying more than initially intended. Respect.
Eating Out in Valbona
Many families running guesthouses offer dinners at their places for a €10-15 charge per person. Unfortunately, this was not the case at ours. Without many alternatives (the only other open place had suspiciously many “food poisoning” reviews), we ate twice at the lovely Guest House Jezerca. Our newly calculated budget allowed us €20 per dinner for two. Within that, we got a large Balkan salad, a portion of roasted potatoes, and a main - once a chicken and once - a fish. It was absolutely delicious! The warm homemade food tasted especially good after the Rosni Peak hike, where we each burnt over four thousand calories.
Random observations about Valbona Valley National Park
Random observation #1: People.
We were pleased to see no “flip-flop tourists” in the Albanian Alps. Everyone we met had proper hiking shoes, most had trekking poles, and generally seemed fully aware of what they were getting themselves into. That is, unlike our hike to the Ijen volcano crater in Indonesia, where many tourists showed up in, you guessed it, flip-flops. But that’s a different (and old) story.
There was a bunch of 20-something backpackers from around the world, a big chunk of European couples in their later 30s, and a very inspiring group of 50+ easily overtaking any previously mentioned groups. We also met a couple of solo female hikers traveling through Valbona Valley National Park over the mountains from Kosovo or Montenegro. Just when you start thinking you did something cool, another inspiring woman shows you to dream bigger. Left in awe.
Random observation #2: Bunkers.
Bunkers in the mountains, bunkers in the valley, bunkers everywhere around the country. It is estimated there are up to 75’000 concrete bunkers still remaining in Albania. It just doesn't feel right seeing these champignon-looking concrete constructions against the scenic Alpine backdrop. What a sobering reminder of the country’s recent history.
Random observation #3: Similarities with SEA.
Surprisingly, this journey brought back many memories of our nine-month backpacking trip in Southeast Asia, so we often compared and contrasted the two. It was probably brought on by the underdeveloped tourist infrastructure, the welcome roughness of it all, the creativity and simplicity in problem-solving, and ... possibly the mere fact of traveling with our backpacks again :).
Most surprising similarities:
- Many backpackers from New Zealand.
- No toilet paper, instead - a water hoe.
Most welcome differences:
- Sane bus drivers carefully navigating the serpentine roads.
- Drinkable water from the tap and many other comforts.
Budget for Valbona Valley National Park
|Transfer Shkodër to Koman
|Ferry Koman to Fierze
|Transfer Fierze to Valbona
|Bujtina Arturi Guesthouse inc. breakfast/ night
|Dinner for 2 in Guest House Jezerce
|Beer from the Mini Market