Hiking to "Le Cirque de Gavarnie" is one of the best choices you can take while travelling in the Pyrenees! And the great thing is that it's a very easy and short hike on a wide trail, that can be done by everybody even kids. The Cirque de Gavarnie is a very steep semicircular rock formation, from where several waterfalls are descending to the ground. Just on top of the cliffs it's Spain, while on the bottom, where you are actually hiking, it's France!
The waterfall appearing behind the side of the mountain I arrived to Gavarnie by bicycle, since I was on a bike trip from Portugal to Italy, but you can get there with public transportation or private one. From the village just follow the signs and the people and you'll walk next to a river on a mostly flat track. Later the path will climb a bit and it will become a little bit rocky, but nothing strenuous. You can actually already see this spectacular landscape from the village itself!
View of the waterfall from the higher part of the hiking path I was there in the middle of August, and there was still some ice melting on the sides, temperature in the morning being 12 °C. Some friends were there 2 weeks before and told me that you had to cross a snow bridge in order to proceed. So verify weather conditions according to where you go.
Snow melting into the mountain stream Almost at the end of the path there is even a restaurant with an impressive view of the "Cirque de Gavarnie" if you want to take a rest. Or just a few hundred meters in front there is a wide green area where you can sit and enjoy the best view of the rocky formations and the waterfall!
Davide taking a rest on the best spot to admire the Cirque de Gavarnie The mountains creating the Cirque de Gavarnie are about 3000m high, and the waterfall, over 400 meters high, is the highest in Europe! After a break you can proceed further and go all the way to the waterfall. My personal suggestion is to do it only if you have plenty of time. In fact it gets steep and slippery from here on, and the view doesn't get any better. It's more for the challenge and to say that you "touched" the waterfall. Or to better say it: the water fell into you!
Splashes of water next to the waterfall I was just impressed, I knew it was a touristic and crowded attraction, but even if I was there on a Sunday morning in August, top touristic season, I managed to enjoy it and to be impressed! You better go hiking early in the morning to avoid the crowds and remember to check the weather forecast for possible storm! Always be safe in the mountains, and Cirque de Gavarnie is no exception!.
After experiencing the most famous road-trip in Romania, the Transfagarasan Highway, we were not expecting to be even more impressed by the hiking possibilities in the surroundings of Balea Lake! We stopped at the highest point of the road, where this high mountain crystalline basin is delighting its visitors, and camped for one night with the intention of exploring further the area.
Camping at night in Balea Lake
Long exposure photo of the Transfagarasan road after dark We have already described in another article our experience hiking around Balea Lake and Capra Lake, so in this article we will focus on describing the second part of the day, including the last hike to the top of "Varful Vanatarea lui Buteanu" the one that inspired us the most!
Hiking to Fereastra Smeilor
Of all the short hikes we have done during our day, "Fereastra Smeilor" was probably the one with the lowest ratio of amazement/effort. This doesnt mean that its not worth doing it, but if you are short in energy or time, you might consider just walking the first part, that is really rewarding instead.
Panorama visible from the way to Fereastra Smeilor Starting from the monument in Capra lake, you can proceed towards the main path, cross it and take the higher path, going around the edge of the mountain. In just 10 minutes of walk youll have surpassed the rocky slopes that were obstructing the view towards the opposite side, opening up a totally different panorama. We suggest to walk at least this ten minutes to reach the first curve and have beautiful view of the Transfagarasan road going up, the mountains behind and the valley on its side covered in Alpine forest, compressed all together in the same frame.
View of the Trasfagarasan highway going up From here you can see a white semicircular shelter on the opposite side of the valley: it looks like one of this construction for scientists in Antarctica that you see only in documentaries! Thats not far away from the ending point of Fereastra Smeilor hiking path. We also saw a big block of frozensnow on the left slope of the mountain, and thats the primary reason why we eventually decided to adventure on this route.
Sharp peaks on the Fagaras mountains appear while hiking Since Im more rational, I was mentally calculating the different points of view we would have encountered along the track and I thought it was not worth it; Oti instead is really emotional and she insisted because she was eager to walk on the snow even in summer! And since females always take decisions, you can guess what we ended up doing.
A section of the track to Fereastra Smeilor going down So we embarked in this other leg of our hike, and we soon started going down. Down, down and much more down than it looked like from the top! We started to meet hikers coming the opposite way struggling and wheezing, and we understood it was probably going to be quite an effort to come back.
Hikers on their way back up The view was beautiful, but mostly just with a slightly different point of view than from the top. Once we reached the snow, Oti was totally accomplished and shyly proposed to start our way back. At that point it was me to refuse since we were so close to the end of the hike! So after a food break we continued on the last part that started to go up quite abruptly.
Oti walking on the frozen snow Eventually we reached "Fereastra Zmeilor", that could be translated in english as "Window of the Ogres". And in fact here there is a small arch in the rock, form were the name is deriving. It is a crossing point of several paths, and going further down it's possible to reach Lake Podragel.
In this photo is visible the arch giving the name to Fereastra Smeilor Exactly here is passing also the border between the two Romanian counties of Sibiu and Arges: we misinterpreted the map and thought it was an alternative trail, so that we were planning to do a loop and to go back from this different route. But once we arrived at Fereastra Zmeilor we had to find out that there was no alternative route, and our only option was going back the same way!
Another view of Capra Lake on our way back All in all it wasn't that bad, and it took us around 1:50 minutes to get here from Capra Lake, including lunch time, mostly downhill and 1:15 minutes on the way back going up with little stops.
Hiking to Varful Vanatarea lui Buteanu
This was our first day outdoor after a couple of months spent in total laziness visiting Oti's family in Romania. Without any previous training and after seven hours hiking since the early morning we were quite tired and considering going back to our base camp in Balea Lac. Oti was particularly exhausted, but I eventually decided to make a last effort and go anyway to the top on my own. I was quite sure that Oti wouldn't have accepted the "defeat" and would have followed me shortly; and so in fact it happened! To reach the top of Varful Vanatarea lui Buteanu, you first have to reach the fork at the pass we described in the previous article, on the way from Balea Lac to Capra Lake.
The hiking sign at the main fork
From here the route is mildly going up: as you gain altitude you start seeing Capra Lake below your feet, and at the same time the view on the South West side is opening up, with Negoiu peak visible on the background.
Oti "stepping" on Capra Lake
Panorama towards Negoiu mountain It was a really beautiful panorama and we were quite lucky to have the track all for ourselves since we got here quite late! So we just chose a flat enough spot and silently sat in total admiration of this inspiring and harmonic picture that nature had created for us. After some time spent mesmerizing and an equal time meditating, we collected enough energy to proceed further.
Davide mesmerizing at this beautiful Romanian alpine panorama We reached the top of the trail, and here the view is opening up also on the opposite side: to be sincere not as much impressive in this case. From the end of the trail the real peak of Varful Vanatarea lui Buteanu is not far, but demand some free climbing on the rock.
An hiker climbing to the very top of V?rful V?n?tarea lui Buteanu
Even if that meant to reach "almost" the highest altitude in Romania, we considered that we were really satisfied with what we accomplished and reaching the top was a challenge we were not interested in achieving, since it was not going to have any better view than where we were.
Oti admiring the view from some rocks at the top of the hike So we happily went back, but we couldn't help from stopping once more for some minutes in the same magic spot where we rested on our way up. We eventually proceeded all the way down to the fork and then towards Balea Lake. It took us about one hour to go up from the fork to the end of the path, including a long break, and around 40 minutes to go down. Tip: while going back, stop once more at the fork, a great place to take some photos of the many hairpin turns of Transfagarasan road including also the Lake of Balea in the shot!
The Transfagaran road and Balea Lac in the same photo
View of Balea Lake while going down In the meanwhile some clouds appeared over the lake, and combined with the light of the low sun, created a quite mysterious atmosphere with the top of the many cars standing still in the parking and reflecting the sun, being the only visible object from so far away.
The Transfagarasan highway hidden by the clouds in this photo It was an intense and rewarding day hiking in the surroundings of Balea Lake, that made us wish to go back to the Transfagarasan highway next year and explore some more of the amazing hiking possibilities of the area! If you have any suggestions just let us know!
Camping tents at the Lake of Capra with some peaks on the background
A multitude of amazing hiking possibility with plenty of different paths for any level, all starting from Balea Lac, are waiting to be explored if you are planning to cross the Transfagarasan highway in Romania. You'll be impressed of how much beauty you can see with so little effort, since at Balea Lac you are already close to the highest altitude you can reach in Romania!
Visitors arriving at Balea Lac In fact reaching the lake of Balea was just the beginning of our experience on the Romanian Carpathian mountain. Of course the road trip on the Transfagarasan highway was the main reason why we came here and the one from which we had the highest expectations, but we eventually had to reconsider our priorities and find out that hiking in the surroundings of Balea Lac was the most rewarding experience.
View of the Transfagarasan highway There are many hiking possibility, and we tested four of them in one single day: more details will follow. For the most experienced hikers it's possible to do also multi-day treks and conquer the highest peaks in Romania, but in this occasion we didn't come prepared for a long trekking and we had limited time, so we focused on short hikes that we could complete during the day. The great thing about hiking around Balea Lac is that since the basin is already at over 2000 m of altitude, the hikes usually don't involve a great altitude gain-loss. Despite the limited height, the view are still magnificent, so that the ratio worthiness/effort is really high!
One of the mountain huts reflected on the Lake of Balea
In one single day in chronological order, we started with the loop around the Balea lake, then we went to Capra Lake, from there to Fereastra Smeilor and back, and we ended our day hiking to the top of "Varful Vanatarea lui Buteanu" at 2507 meters, jus 37 meters below the highest mountain in Romania, Moldoveanu peak. And guess what, the last hike that we were about to skip, was the most rewarding! So if you want to focus on one single hike in the Fagaras mountains, you shouldn't miss the description of our experience to the top of Varful Vanatarea lui Buteanu!
Loop around Balea lake
View of Balea Lake and some of the Cabana
This is the easiest and the most walked of all the hiking options at the top of the Transfagarasan road, and can be completed by anyone. There is not really much to say about it since it is self-explanatory, you just need to go around the lake! It is quite easy and flat, except for the South side, where the path get lost in the grass and you have to walk around some cliffs hanging over the water in order to continue, before descending again and closing the loop around the lake.
The steepiest part of Balea Lake It took us around one hour to complete the loop, but you can do it much faster if you don't stop as much as we do to take photos from every available point of view. What we enjoyed the most apart from the spectacular views, was drinking directly from a water source coming from the mountain!
Oti drinking from a water source
Hiking to Capra Lake
Capra Lake is another high mountain crystalline lake connected to Balea Lake with a direct hiking path. We actually saw many backpackers adventuring on this route even at night, to camp in a more natural and quiet environment. The hike is starting from the North East side of Balea Lake, exactly where the paid camping is located, it is a marked track and it's quite difficult to get lost anyway; the path is easy to follow, always going up but never too abruptly, so that it is adapt to any hiking level. We were actually quite impressed to see kids below five years old doing it on their own legs next to their parents, and active grandmothers following not far away!
A kid hiking with her dad
More kids hiking down from Capra Lake on the shoulders of their parents Once you reach the top of the pass, there is a fork with a hiking sign: Capra Lake is already visible from here in front of you, at this point you don't really need any more directions than your own eyes!
The hiking sign located at the fork that we'll recall several times in our report On your left instead there is the trail leading to Varful Vanatarea lui Buteanu, our favourite hike around Balea Lake.
Capra Lake seen from the hike to V?rful V?n?tarea lui Buteanu It took us about 45 minutes to get to the fork, but it can be done faster if you wish so. From here to the shore of the lake it's just a few minutes longer down hill. We visited in summer and we were surprised to still see frozen snow on the side of the lake, despite the moderate altitude!
Sheep on the slopes of the mountain near Capra Lake
Close up of the sheep against the blue sky and the green grass This picturesque view was completed by a myriad of sheep dispersed on the slopes of the mountain, adding a touch of authenticity and traditional life to the panorama; they looked like a multitude of living cotton balls against the clear blue sky and the green grass, a great occasion to shoot a desktop wallpaper!
A Romanian shepard looking after his sheep
Oti always loved sheep!
At the same time we were a little bit afraid of the several shepard dogs looking after them, since Oti got bitten by one while Hiking in Albania. But our worries turned out to be unfounded, and the dogs really friendly and docile.
If you want to know more about easy and rewarding hiking possibilities in the surroundings of Balea Lake, don't miss the second part of our article where we describe what was for us the best hike from the Transfagarasan road!
Despite we went to sleep just a few hours earlier and the night was still not over, with our limbs not yet recovered from the effort of the previous day, at 1:30 am it was already time to wake up to climb to the summit of Rinjani Volcano. As soon as we exited our tent we were surprised to see that a river of flashlights was already guiding the climbers and filling up the path to the top!
Caming on Mount Rinjani: on the background a line of flashlights
Hiking at night towards the summit of Gunung Rinjani with hundreds of other climbers
We had a long day in front of us, or maybe better to still call it night! The first hours of the climb were tremendous, but not for the difficulty itself. There were many switchbacks one after the other, but the path was so busy with trekkers that we were literally stuck. A quite hilarious situation. If you have an idea of what it means to be stuck in a traffic jam with no possibility to move back or forth, then convert it to the conditions of a trekking, and you got what was the situation like. The trail was so crowded that we had to stand still for long time in between each hairpin curve waiting for the line to move a little bit. It felt like being in the main shopping street before Christmas, something that we were definitely not expecting to experience here. We accumulated a big delay and after some hours spent in this mess, eventually the situation improved: we had some space and air to breath when people started to thin out and the road became more accessible.
A crowd of hikers trying to reach the summit It was clear that most of those climbers wouldn't have made it in time to see the sunrise from the top of Rinjani. So left aside the frustration and the little sleep, I gathered my little energy left and decided to push on the accelerator, leaving Oti and our guide on the back while continuing on my own and doing my best to reach the “Puncak” in time.
Almost to the top of Rinjani Volcano
It wasn't easy since the trail was quite steep and totally covered in ash and volcanic gravel, so slippery that when you were climbing for a few steps, it was taking you back half of the way. We were already accustomed to this conditions after having climbed Gunung Merapi in Java, but it wasn't an easy job.
The steep and slippery slopes of Rinjani Crater
The sun was still below the horizon, but the first lights were starting to light up the landscape, revealing dramatic contrast of amazing beauty, with exhausted hikers sleeping on the bare ground and melting with this surrealistic picture.
An hiker sleeps on the ashes of Rinjani volcano Not all the people that start the night trek, make it to the top, I don't have any statistics, but I would say that quite a lot of them give up before reaching the summit. It's not at all a difficult or technical hike, it's just extenuating. The road was always well visible and large enough, but really slippery and totally covered in ashes and gravel from the volcano.
Photo taken on the way back to show how steep and slippery the path was A strong, cold wind would blow from time to time, leaving as only shelter to the intrepid hikers some rocky ledges that were greedily taken when available. The view was incredible, with the Lake Segara Anak and Mount Baru Jani on one side continuously changing perspective, and a thick crust cut by deep dry wounds on the other side. In between a long series of climbers aligned as a caravan in the desert.
At the bottom of the frame, a line of hikers going up and down
But I had no time to properly stop and enjoy the show, otherwise I wouldn't have made it in time for the sunrise: just a few glimpses and some moments for hysteric camera clicks before throwing forward one more step.
Reaching the summit and enjoying a freezing sunrise
At 5:18am I made it finally to the summit, just in time before the sunrise would begin. I had the time to find a place in between the crowded plateau at the top before the sun would appear at the horizon at 5:22 am!
Sunrise fron Mount Rinjani summit
Plenty of climbers to admire the sun rising over the clouds
It was a long tiring struggle but it was worth the effort, in particular for my ego and expectations. But if reaching the summit before sunrise is a priority for you, we would suggest to leave as early as possible! Twenty minutes later also Oti made it to the top: she had her first ray of light along the way, but she was still part of the minority that made it to the top! What a great result! And it was the highest altitude she has ever reached.
View of the crater and lake after the sun came out
The view from the top was amazing with the clouds covering everything like a thick carpet, pointy spikes emerging from the ground all around, Gunung Agung, the highest mountain in Bali, visible over the horizon, popular Gili Islands on one side and Segara Anak Lake and Mount Baru Jani at the bottom. Basically you could have a total view of Lombok Island from its highest point, Mount Rinjani with the sea all around.
View from the summit of Segara Anak Lake, Mount Baru Jani, and the sea on the background
Contrast of light and landscape from Rinjani's top
Pointy spikes coming out from another direction
The sun rising and reflecting over the clouds, was creating nice silhouettes of the trekkers against the pinkish atmosphere giving me good opportunities for some snaps. If it wasn't clear that the trail was really dusty, you can have the confirmation from the multitude of dust in my camera lens!
A thick carpet of clouds covering the promontory
Climbers stand agaist the withe clouds and the orange sky on top of Mount Rinjani
Was it worth the effort?
As impressive as it might sound we have to admit that the view from the ridge where we were camping was no less impressive than the one from the top. So if you think that you cannot make it, or you are short in time or money, we would say that a hike to the ridge of the crater and to the lake is still definitely worth it! For an even better sight from the rim hike a short while toward the top where you can have a similar panorama to the summit, with Lake Segara Anak and Mount Baru Jani smoking.
View of Segara Anak lake and its small crater from a lower altitude, with Gunung Agung on the background
Close-up of the smoking crater of Mount Baru Jani
It's a slightly different point of view, but higher doesn't always mean better. And consider that after the sun is rising completely and casting its rays over the landscape, the contrast becomes quite high making it more difficult to enjoy the view and take photos because of the glare. So it might be better to enjoy an amazing view at the ridge than missing the best one at the summit!
Close-up of Mount Agung, the highest mountain in Bali
Reaching the top is more about the challenge and your ego, and taking the not to be missed selfie with the 3726 meters over the sea level sign. While for me the height was a relative thing, since I reached over 5400 meter in the Himalaya, that was the highest point ever reached by Oti and probably by many of our fellow hikers, so definitely a memorable experience!
Our way back running down in Mount Rinjani
An hiker resting before descending and trying to conserve heat
The temperature was quite cold at the summit and when the wind was blowing we were almost freezing. After enjoying every minute of our stay and shot every imaginable picture, we decided that we did store enough cold for the following days and we started to go back down around 7:15 a.m., after almost 2 hours spent on top.
Starting our way back down
The way down was much easier and faster, and we could literally run for big portions of it, stopping whenever we felt like to enjoy the several viewpoints along the way. Unlike the way up, now we had no time pressure and we could stare at the steep slopes of the volcano and its surroundings in total relax.
On our way down: two hikers protected below the rock, and our guide on the left side
At the same time several inexorable hikers were still trying to reach the top. Signs of tiredness and extenuation made the landscape more and more dramatic. It looked like a fight for survival in an unwelcoming environment, with every stone becoming a temporary home for homeless trekkers searching for protection from the wind. In some sections the passage of the multitude of people carved channels in the soft layer of ashes resembling canyons.
The soft layer of ashes is carved by the passage of the tourists
The road was so dusty that we would definitely advice to take a face mask or a scarf with you, and try to leave some distance from the trekkers in front. You better don't want to bring back home the ashes of Rinjani in your lungs as a souvenir!
The dust raised at the passage of other trekkers
As the altitude was decreasing, the vegetation was starting to reappear, and with it also the local fauna could find an appropriate environment to call home. We were surprised to spot several groups of monkeys in this dry lunar landscape!
The slopes of the crater turn back green
Long line of tents while approaching the ridge of Rinjani
At 9am we were back at the camping place over the ridge, with a total time from the top of less than two hours including stops and photos. We were tired but satisfied after having made it to the summit of Mount Rinjani, but already looking forward to hike further down to the lake and spend some time relaxing at the pools with natural warm water coming directly from the volcano. A deserved prize for our effort!
The first half a day of our expedition was already gone and we were trekking toward the ridge of the crater of Mount Rinjani where we were supposed to camp for the night. While the first part of the route was quite mild and enjoyable, more of a warm up than a serious trek, after POS 3 the path definitely took a spike toward the sky, and we were gaining altitude much faster.
Hiking towards the ridge
The landscape also got nicer and nicer as we were getting higher: not that it wasn't beautiful before, but now “Impressive” was the only word we could find to describe it: looking on our backs there were green bumpy cliffs ploughed through by the solidified lava flow that created a canyon like structure with steep walls, and the green valley covered in grassland standing on the background.
Landscape at the feet of Mount Rinjani
While the sandy and slippery trail brought us further, some of the tourists started to struggle on the steep route, and they were easily overtaken by the omnipotent porters, carrying so easily their load of sufferance.In some parts the path was prohibitive and we had to climb on all our fours to overtake the undigested ground trying to keep us away form our promised land.
Hikers struggling to climb Rinajni volcano
A trekker climbing on all fours
By this time we were inside the clouds, and we could feel the difference from the burning sun of the Savannah to the foggy humid climate of this higher altitude.
A porter with a sun-rain handmade protection
Feet of a porters on the dusty paths, wearing just flip-flops
Views and camping area from the ridge
We kept going as long as we could, stopping for small breaks when needed and around 3:30 pm, that meant longer than 7 hours after we started, we eventually reached the top of the ridge where we would have spent our first night, Sembalun Rim at 2650 meters.
A porter totally covered with luggages
A last break before the ridge
From here the top (Puncak) of Mount Rinjani was already visible, waiting for us to be climbed in the middle of the night. At a first sight it wouldn't look like a difficult ascend, but we would find out later that our impressions were wrong.
The summit of Mount Rinjani visible from the trail
A suggestive picture welcomed us at the camping area: we eventually made it on top of the clouds, and the sun, peeping through this volatile white mousse, was kissing us with its rays. It was a nice feeling to sense the warmth of the light again, now that it was getting chillier.
Going on top of the clouds, the sun reappers with beautiful rays
There were already an incredible number of tents set up for the night, and while our team was searching for a good spot to settle, we were enjoying the view and breathing our deserved moment of bliss. The sun was still relatively high, but it wouldn't have taken much until he would set behind the promontory.
View from the ridge, with the sun shining over the clouds
Tents aligned on the ridge
In parallel with this magic reality was also a more mundane truth: piles of garbage left in the camping area, with improvised dumpsters incredibly close to the trekkers's tents. Once again, if we didn't stress it enough in the other articles, make sure not to fund an irresponsible company and ask specifically to collect all of your waste.
Garbage spread in the camping area
We were happy to be provided with a “toilet tent”, basically just a curtain protecting a hole in the ground where to dump the remaining of your previous meals. It takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with it, but in the end you start to appreciate its advantages.
A porter making a hole for a toilet tent
The area was so crowded that the “toilets” were just a few steps away from the other tents, but at least we were not disseminating our droppings along the route as other trekkers were doing, and we were keeping a minimum of privacy. It wasn't pleasant to just stumble upon a collective toilet while taking a walk before sunset.
Unofficial toilet in the ridge
Sunset from the crater rim in Rinjani Volcano
Around 5pm the sun started to set and at the same time the clouds were clearing up, revealing on their back the Lake Segara Anak (Child of the Sea Lake) several hundreds meters straight there below us. We could enjoy this outstanding sunset in the first row of the audience while tasting a warm cup of tea and sitting on our camping chairs.
Davide and Oti enjoying the view of Segara Anak Lake
Sunset view from the ridge of Mount Rinjani
By 6pm it was totally dark and we had to back to our camping location using our flashlights. We were ready for our evening meal, that while not comparable to a wedding dinner, was still reinvigorating and filling. Once finished with our dinner we got ready for a short but deserved rest. We would have awoken at 1 a.m. to climb to the summit of Rinjani, so we had to use every minute available.
Camping area on the ridge at night
But just before being welcomed in our night dreams, a last look at the sky revealed us the beauty of the clear starry sky and the milky way in all of its splendor. We were far away from civilization and Mother Nature was showing up in its primordial beauty.
Clear sky and milky way from Mount Rinjani
Back in our tents, we tested our sleeping arrangements, and we were happy to see that we were reserved thick comfy mattresses and a spacious tent where to properly gather some energy before waking up in the middle of the night to attempt to summit Mount Rinjani.
Our tent and camping mats, borrowed from our trekking company
Mostly unheard to people outside of Albania, the hike from Valbona to Thethi is one of the most popular in the Accursed Mountains and a not to be missed occasion to experience the beauty and traditions of this land. The hike from Valbona to Thethi (also spelled Valbonë and Theth) follow an old mule track, and represent a portion of the almost 200km long trekking ring called "Peaks of the Balkans" that trespass also in Kosovo and Montenegro. The route from Valbona to Thethi, both valleys declared National Parks, deserves all of its popularity for its amazing views accessible to everybody thanks to a well maintained trail suitable also for families and "Sunday hikers". It's easily completed in one day, requiring no need to camp overnight, if not desired: it took us a total of 8 hours with many stops to enjoy, eat and take photos.
How to get to Valbona
While the trek can be started from either end, we chose to start our hike from Valbona. Reaching Valbona is not extremely easy, but the effort is totally rewarded by spectacular views of landscapes and local people on the Koman lake ferry. Coming from Shkodër, the best way (best not only because we chose it) is to reach the harbour of Koman, take a ferry to Fierze passing through the Koman Lake, artificially created in 1970 for a big hydroelectric plant, take a minibus to Bajram Curri, and eventually hop on a last "furgon" (local name for a minibus) to Valbona. That's easier said than done, since often there is only one daily bus that can be easily missed, making things much more complicated. That's what happened to us, so if you want to have more details about our experience and a step by step guide, you should read this separate post where we wrote about how to get from Shkodër to Koman.
Our first view of Valbona
Valbona: a touristic village in an amazing setting
Valbona, lying at about 1000 m of altitude, turned out to be much more developed and touristic than we were expecting, but not less enjoyable because of that. Mixed with traditional houses and farmland, there were several chalets offering accommodation, plenty of camping places, tourist information point, a basketball field, restaurants, bars, electricity, internet and phone network; everything you would expect to find in a developed town, but not in a remote Albanian location. Probably the village saw a big touristic boom in the last few years, because the texts we read before going to Valbona, were describing it in a completely different way. While Valbona wasn't the small traditional village that you could expect to find in a isolated place in the Accursed Mountains, the views were still amazing and worth the trip itself. When we first entered by car in the highland that is forming Valbona Valley, we were impressed and surprised: it felt like turning a corner and having an amazing panorama in front of you, hidden only a moment before.
Touristic services available in Valbona
While the village of Thethi is no doubts nicer and more traditional, we found the views of the Albanian Alps to be more dramatic from the side of Valbona. Travellers with limited time or no hiking skills, might still find enjoyable to pass a few days in Valbona itself. Since we brought our camping equipment with us, we opted to stay in one of the many camping places available along the valley, so that we could also test our new Luxe Outdoor Habitat tent. Even if it was late June, almost high season, we were the only guests at our camping place, more of a bar with a big garden and access to the employee's toilet and shower than a real camping. The people sitting at the bar were busy watching the World Cup soccer matches, while we were more interested in enjoying nature. There were many options to do free camping, but the price of an organized stay was really cheap, around 2$ as far as I can remember, so we decided it was worth to "invest" those money for a decent shower and a toilet rather than wild camping. We still had great views of the mountains right in front of our tent, and more protection from wildlife and intruders at night when the gate was closed.
Camping in Valbona in our Habitat tent
Davide in the tent awakening at the beautiful sight of the Accursed Mountains
Hiking from Valbona to Thethi
We started our hike around 10:30 in the morning, quite late for a day-hike. But considering that it's not a demanding route and June was offering us some long sunny days, we took our time and enjoyed a lazy morning. The path is quite easy to follow and we didn't find necessary to hire a guide: I don't remeber the trail to be marked, but other sources in internet actually say the opposite, the marks being white/red/white lines. However either case, there is no real way to get lost if the trail is clear of snow and you have a minimum orienteering skills. To have an idea of the track it's possible to download this GPS track of the hike from Thethi to Valbona or to consult this more traditional hiking map. The path starts from the last hotel at the end of the asphalt road and then follows for 3.5km the river bed on a gravel road still accessible by 4wd vehicles for a few km. Eventually a cluster of houses will be visible: that's the village of Rragam, the last one on the way up to the pass.
The beginning of the hike passing through the river bed
Since Rrangam is a village, as small as it is, there are still forks and small paths leading to private properties, so it might not be that obvious where the correct trail is and we had to ask some locals in order not to take the wrong way. In the village there is the possibility to buy some refreshments in basic cafes; but there are actually several simple wooden bars along the whole trail selling water and soft-drinks. Nothing fancy, they are as simple as a few bottles on a wooden board, to be fit in a backpack and carried up and down from the valley everyday. During low season most probably you won't find anybody there though: so always have enough water to finish the hike and replenish the loss due to heat and effort, avoiding dehydration. There are also a couple of streams on the way, with drinkable water (we used our filtered water bottled just to be on the safe side), but consider that they might be dry according to rain patterns.
Oti resting and breathing the pure energy of Albania
A first stream is about 70 minutes after Rrangam and it's equipped with a shelter in a green mossy environment: a good place to rest and maybe eat something. From here the trail is passing through small forests with rare trees and a meadow, where we surprisingly met a huge group of foreigners. We were negatively impressed to see how noisy and unprepared they were, needing donkeys to carry their day-packs, and apparently not caring at all of the surroundings.
An organized group of hiker on the route Valbona-Theti
After a steep but not prohibitive ascent through a zig-zag path, the pass is eventually reached, and the reward is beautiful views opening up on both Valbona and Thethi valleys as far as the eye can see: another good moment to stop and mesmerize. From Valbona to the pass there is a difference in altitude of 764 meters, and about 1000 meters more needs to be descent in order to get to Thethi.
Oti AKA a backpacker on top of Albania
Panoramic photo taken from the pass between Valbona and Thethi
Rocky peaks painted with the colors of vegetation and snow in the Accursed Mountains
Also the way down is not particularly demanding and should take less than 3 hours including stops. The trail is mostly passing through forest with some random openings showing dramatic panoramas.
A ray of light passing through the clouds enlightning Thethi valley
On the way there is a nice cafe completely carved out of wood, where to have a break before the last leg.
A wooden cafe on the way to Thethi
The next target is the village of Gjelaj less than 1 km away from the valley, and then further on to Thethi, just a few hundreds meter down the river. Already in Gjelaj, locals will start to scout for clients for their accommodation: no need to stay so far up, unless desired, since there are more and cheaper options down the valley.
View from the river on the opposite direction toward the village of Thethi
You should know that later while strolling in Thethi, Oti got bitten by a local dog and the next day while trying to take a furgon from Thethi to Shkodër we eventually were screwed up and had our scariest experience hitchhiking ever. But this shouldn't influence your decision to visit the area, since they are two events completely unrelated with the location and they could have happened anywhere.
That's why we wrote these stories into two different articles with more details, not to diminuish the beauty of the hike from Valbona to Thethi.
Despite we had some negative experiences in the area, they have nothing to do with the uniqueness of Valbona and Thethi valleys, definitely worth to explore. If we think back of the Albanian Alps, we have many good memories after all, that make us wish to go back there one day and explore more of the many hiking routes extending all the way to Montenegro and Kosovo.
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