Shkodër is a small city in north west Albania, close to the border with Montenegro. It is likely to be the first stop for many travellers if they are entering Albania from the north. Shkodër has a selection of very nice hostels that exhibit that incredible level of hospitality that one comes to expect while backpacking through the Balkans. A lot of backpackers that come through here will be looking to catch the Lake Koman ferry and then hike from Valbonë to Theth. Many of the hostels in Shkodër will allow you to leave your backpack with them while you embark on this side trip and will also be able to organise your transportation and accomodation overnight in Valbonë.
A very cosy hostel with a fun eclectic style and layout. A lovely outdoor area with plenty of couches to lounge around in and plan your trip out to Lake Koman and the Accursed Mountains. They offer a nice free breakfast and bikes for rent to explore the city. They will happily keep your luggage safe and locked away for a few days while you are away hiking in the mountains and will help you organize the trip.
Sights and Highlights
The hike from Valbonë to Theth (also spelled Valbona and Thethi) is one of the highlights of backpacking Albania. It begins with a furgon (small shuttle bus) trip to Koman where you board the Lake Komani ferry. The ferry drops you off in Fierze where you then take another one or two furgons to reach the town of Valbonë. Most people arrange accomodation in Valbonë through the hostel they were staying at in Shkodër, otherwise it is easy to just find accomodation by asking around the town for a spare room. The following morning, you hike from Valbonë, up and over a pass in the Accursed Mountains and then down into Theth.
The hike itself is well signed and is a relatively easy with no prior hiking experience required. This is not to say you wont be exhausted by the end of it though. The mountain pass is blocked by snow from November to some time in early spring. The hike up to the mountain pass from Valbonë takes about 3 hours and has an elevation change of 800m. From the pass it is another 1000m of elevation change down to the town of Theth. The entire hike should take around 6 hours, but obviously depends on how quickly you move. Once arriving in Theth you can look for accomodation, or if you arrive early enough, you can get an afternoon shuttle trip back into Shkodër.
The hill that this fortress sits on, only a few kilometres out of the centre of town, was occupied by Illyrian tribes as early the 4th century BC before being captured by the Romans in 167 BC. Within the last thousand years the castle was predominantly a Venetian and then Ottoman Empire stronghold. The castle fortifications in their current form are mostly Venetian in origin. The Rozafa castle and its surrounds was the site of the Siege of Shkodra in 1478 between the occupying Venetians and the invading Ottoman army. Victory during this battle for the Ottoman forces signalled the start of over 400 years of Ottoman occupation in the region that lasted until 1913. There is a small museum inside the castle, but mostly the castle is empty and free to explore on your own. The view from the top of the castle to the surrounding lands is worth the trip alone.
If you continue on walking past the fortress you can follow the road out to Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkan peninsula. Lake Skadar is a hotspot of biodiversity and natural importance. The small fishing village of Shiroka is only about 5km outside of Shkodër on the banks of Lake Skadar and makes a lovely day trip.
The best way to get around Shkodër is by taking a bike or by foot. If heading to the small nearby town of Shiroka on Lake Skadar, a taxi is the best option.
Getting In and Out
As is the case in most places in Albania, there is no such thing as a bus station. There is however a location that all of furgons tend to gather that results in de facto station for travellers. Furgons are the cheapest and easiest way to get around Albania. They may be a little daunting at first but most travellers experiences with furgons tend to be overwhelmingly positive. Speak with your hostel to find the location that the correct furgon for your destination departs from.
If you are heading to Montenegro you will want to catch a Furgon to Ulcinj and then from the bus station in Ulcinj you can head to Podgorica or Kotor. If heading south, the most likely destination is the capital, Tirana.