Border crossings of the Balkans

The Peaks of the Balkans trail has been on my wish list for a while. It is a cross border trail which links Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania – all countries I have visited before and very much enjoyed.

It’s been a busy year, so I haven’t had much time to plan, so I lazily outsourced all the planning (including guest houses, private transfers, and border permits) to the excellent team at BN adventures. So I just had to roll up to Pristina airport, walk to the Best Western next door for the night, and then get picked up for the transfer to Kuqishte

Day 1 Kuqishte (Kosovo) to Babino Polje (Montenegro) – 17km 1150m ascent

The 2 hour ride to the trail head at 7.30 was in a very authentic Kosovan car with one wobbly wheel and a driver who texted and drove at the same time.   We stopped in a bar half way for an espresso that put hairs on my chest, and he dropped me at the restaurant Te liqeni at 9.30 at 1400m

I am very unfit and I realised I hadn’t hiked at altitude for a good 12 months. I was completely out of breath in about five minutes.  But I’m stubborn so I aimed to walk slowly enough that I could keep going without stopping.  (That was very slow).  I reached Liqeni I Kuqishtes (the lake) after about an hour and c. 450m of straight up and disturbed a handful of local skinny dippers and sat in the sun and ate my breakfast sandwich.  

Liqeni i Kuqishtes

They were my last humans for several hours as I climbed further up to the second lake – Madhe- which had dried up.   From there it was more straight uppedness to the high pass at 2250m at Qala e Jelenkut.  I confess I ran out oxygen about 70m from the top so collapsed on the ground and made a coffee and had a muesli bar

The pass was stunning and it was followed by a stunning ridge walk along the Montenegrin and Kosovan borders through red autumn foliage and some lovely fluffy white plants passing under Maja e Bajrakut .

Love these fluffy cotton things

After a few more hours I passed over Zavoj pass.  There were five soldiers having a nap at the pass so I kept going and stopped for a snack a bit further on.  Later down I took a wrong turn and met them as I was doubling back and they directed me to the right path and stayed with me chatting to me in odd English for 20 minutes.   Ten years ago I would have been slightly put off by having five armed me with guns escorting me down a hill, but these days I put it down as free entertainment

Near the Zavoj Pass

I made it down to the valley where I had the misfortune to run into to sheepdog bringing his sheep in and I was firmly shepherded with barks at my bum off the path so I had to take a detour. I arrived in Babino to the lovely Eco Lodge Hrid where they shepherded me into the kitchen and installed me next to the fire with a cup of tea. I had the whole place to myself and was in a bunk room for 4 with a private bathroom. Dinner was an excellent soup, chicken, loads of veg and lots of bread, with homemade lemonade. I was finished by 7pm and in bed asleep by 8pm

Day 2 – Babino Polje to Plav (Montenegro) – 20km 720m ascent

Eco had asked if I could sort my own breakfast this morning, as I was the only resident and he was a bit ill.  So I had the run of the kitchen and had egg sandwiches and two coffees.  I had made myself lunch out of my leftover dinner last night (with Eco’s blessing as I didn’t want to waste the food).  I hid the keys as I left, and marvelled at how kiwi things were here.  There aren’t many places in the world someone would leave you with keys to their restaurant.

Today’s climb up to Hridsko Jezero (the deepest lake on the trail) started nice and gently with a forested 4wd track up to the tiny village at Katun Bajrovic.  I was passed by an elderly couple who stopped and tried to give me a lift (I love locals who wonder why anyone would hike up a hill if they could afford a car) 

Katun Barjovic

From Katun Barjovic it was a stunning hike up the hill to the Jezero lake with the early morning frost cracking under my shoes and the sunlight flickering through the red and yellow autumn leaves.   

Jezero Lake

I had morning tea at the lake and took loads of photos and then clambered over the rocks to climb up to the pass at Veliki Grid.   From there it was an easy meander down another 4wd track to a mountain hut, and then a short hop up to a grassy saddle with views over to Visitor.   I sat in the sun, had a coffee and a sandwich and cleared my messages as I had my first signal in two days.

It was a lovely forested path if a bit steep, rooty and pine needly in places down past several farm houses in Katun Treskavicka.  From there it was an easy stroll on a 4wd path for a couple of hours into Plav.  The farms are immaculately kept, and I love the Montenegrin hay bales. 

I reached Plav in the hot sun at 2.30pm.  It was very sunny, and I was in shorts.  I remembered as I arrived in town that no-one in Montenegro wears shorts, especially not in conservative Muslim villages.  Oh well.  I stopped by the Franca supermarket for some supplies (as this is the last place on the trail with a shop) and then headed to the Hana Guest-house.  Hana is a character and forced her kids to speak English with me.  The house is spotless and I had a wonderful hot shower.  Dinner was another enormous meal so I used some of it to make lunch for tomorrow (i hate wasting food). And in bed by 9pm.

Day 3 – Plav to Vusanje (Montenegro) – 21km 840m ascent

Hana made me an awesome breakfast, including fried bread (which is one of my favourite Māori foods, which I wasn’t expecting in Montenegro – delicious) and homemade bread, fried peppers and cheese, homemade jams, two eggs, bread, and a few varieties of cheese and some turkish coffee. I hitched a ride to the end of the asphalt road which saved me about 5km of walking and 300m of ascent, staring at 1300m. 

From there it was a long steady climb up 4wd tracks to warm my legs up for the first few km until we hit 1600m and then a nice path weaved through the forest for another few km until arriving at a lovely meadow where I stopped for some lemon squash and a bit of fried bread with jam and local cheese.   

Then it was a pretty hairy and unpleasant steep scramble up the side of Bajrak peak which was poorly marked and very slippery.  I did a lot of it with both hands on the ground. I stopped a few times to cling to the side of a tree to catch my breath, but then had to force myself to restart – I really hate heights. 

Vrh Bora summit at 2106m

The views at the top of Bajrak (2047m) were stunning over to the Borit pass and down the Grbaja and Ropojana valleys, with stunning mountains.   Then there was a lovely ridge stroll for a few km through red foliage, and I disturbed a young deer.  I arrived at Vrh Bora (2106m) for even better views at noon, with a stunning view to the Prosllopit Pass.   It was very sunny, so I took my sweaty shirt off to dry and had a sandwich and a coffee.   A couple of hikers surprised me after about 20 mins, but I heard them coming in time to put my shirt on. 

Views up to Prosllopit pass

I then meandered down through rocky karst, passing dry lakes and walking through forest so yellow and red it was like it was on fire.  The trails were lovely and well marked (although I did fall and skin my knee).   I stopped at the spring for a while to let some sheep get ahead of me, I wasn’t too keen to run into another sheep dog. 

I arrived at Vusanje around 3pm to be met by an elderly Montenegrin gent on horseback who chatted to me for a while (didn’t understand a word), and then I found the wonderful Vucetaj guest-house – the best one yet – with a little chalet and a double bed (luxury after two days of single bunk beds).  I took advantage of the sun and washed my stinky kit. 

The views from my room down the valley are stunning and I can hear gunshots ringing out – so someone must be hunting. The family cooked me another epic dinner – lamb chops, paprika potatoes and peppers and veg, all grown and raised by them, and they lit me a fire as the dining room was outside. The hospitality here is immense, it isn’t fancy but the people are lovely, hard working and wonderfully warm. I was in bed by 8pm after my late 6.30pm dinner 🙂

Day 4 – Vusanje (Montenegro) to Theth (Albania) – 21km 1110m ascent

My lovely hosts had lit me a fire for my solitary breakfast with grilled peppers, fried eggs, sheeps cheese, fresh bread, homemade jam and turkish coffee. What an excellent way to start the day. The weather was forecast to turn but I was hopeful that the ominous grey clouds would stay just cloudy rather than dump rain on my head.

The trail starts gently, meandering up through the Ropojana valley. The views were stunning with vast karst cliffs on either side of the valley – it is apparently the craggiest part of the Accursed mountains. I stopped to look at the famous Oko eye spring but it had dried up.

Ropojana Valley

After about an hour, the trail left the 4wd track and meandered up to the forest to a dried up seasonal lake with more stunning rock faces on either side. After the lake, the trail meanders up a mule track and enters into Albanian territory – you can tell as there are lots of Hoxha bunkers beside the trail. This entire zone was a no go area during communist times, so it is nice to be able to hike it now

I had my wildlife encounter of the day – almost standing on a 50cm long black snake until I realised what it was, and swerved. The rain came and went, and I did stop a couple of times under the trees for some coffee.

Seasonal Lake

I ran into a young Albanian and his mule after the Fusha meadow, who was ferrying hiker bags from the road end at Ropojana to the other side of the pass near Theth. At least that gave me confidence that the apparently steep and hairy path down the other side of the pass was traversable by a mule, so I should be fine.

After a couple of false summits, and passing the stunning valley with the Liquni i Pejes lake, I made it to Qafa e Pejes at 12.15. The views down to Theth were spectacular in spite of the rain

View down to Liqeni i Pejes lake from Qafa e Pejes

Dropping down from the pass was a gruelling 700m drop on a steep gravelly (if mule approved) trail. I met Steve and Simona on their way up from Theth on a day hike – Steve was a kiwi so we had a chat for 15 minutes (his brother was born in the town where my parents ran a pub – only in NZ).

I eventually made it down to the teahouse at the valley head after about 90 minutes so I stopped for some chips and Lemon soda and a chat with some german hikers. The rain picked up, but I couldn’t be bothered putting my rain poncho on, so I just put some music on and walked fast for the final 5km (overtaking some bedraggled twenty something hikers with umbrellas and plastic sacks over their packs).

I arrived at the Bujtina Polia guesthouse (somewhat inconveniently 1.5km on the other side of the village but next to the famous church) and sat by the fire for a few hours catching up on email.

Dinner was another epic feast – a tureen of cauliflower soup, bread for four, a platter of hot and cold salads (three types of cheese, and a cheese pie, and three types of beetroot and fried potatoes, peppers and aubergines, and some chicken), and then fruit. It would be impossible to eat half of what they give you

Day 5 – Theth to Valbone (Albania) – 20km 1070m

Day 5 take one I actually spent watching movies, drinking tea, reading books and looking out the window at the rain torrenting down. I was up, packed and ready to go at 7.30 and downstairs for breakfast, and it was pissing down with rain with limited visibility. The hike to Valbone is apparently the best on the trail, so I decided to wait out a day in the hope of better weather.

So, Day 5 take 2 – There was reasonably visibility but quite a lot of cloud cover, so I wasn’t optimistic about seeing anything from the pass. But my legs and lungs are in much better shape than Day 1, so I enjoyed the climb up to the pass. Two dogs accompanied me from the hotel (my fault for nicking sausages from the breakfast buffet and sticking them in my bag for lunch later). Another dog joined about 3km from Theth. And then I picked up a fourth dog about 20 mins below the pass. I was quite a sight trailing up the hill with my entourage. I met a few Albanian’s hiking and they were most amused.

It was bloody freezing at the pass, so I rugged up and hoofed down the hill to Simon’s cafe, where I sat by the outside fire and had an excellent Albanian coffee. Hauling myself away from the fire was quite challenging, especially as the rain started.

The final few kms into town were still lovely if a bit soggy and viewless. The trees were nice to look at and I arrived at the lovely Kol Gjoni Guesthouse around 2.30pm. The nice man asked if I wanted a single room rather than sharing, and I said ‘yes please’. He showed me a room, and I asked if he had another one with it’s own bathroom (I am so high maintenance). He umm-ed and ahh-ed, and seemed embarrassed to let me know i could have the more spendy room, but it would cost me a princely 40 euros (including dinner and breakfast). I must look quite cheap. The room was fine, if a bit chilly

Day 6/7 – wandering around Pristina

Day 6 I was supposed to hike over the hill from Valbona to Cerem. When I went down for breakfast at 7am it was so foggy you couldn’t see the gate of the house 20m away. Oh well, I had seen the pass I was planning to go over a few days earlier on the way to Vusanje. I sat by the fire and arranged for my driver to come get me from where I was (versus Cerem in the afternoon).

My driver was the same guy who had taken me to the trailhead at the start. Unfortunately he was quite tired, and his driving was a bit dodgy. He had two near misses when he was on the wrong side of the road and he went into the gravel three times when he wasn’t paying attention. The trip should have taken three hours but took four as we stopped for him to eat and then once more for coffee (a good idea, as he was close to falling asleep.

I arrived in pristina at the lux Swiss Diamond hotel, and discovered my 90 euro room had no bath. I really wanted a bath. I asked reception if I could have a room with a bath, and the nice man explained to me it would be too expensive, an extra 40 euros for the upgrade. I do appreciate all these kind hearted men looking after my finances, but I was happy to invest for the bath

I had a wee stroll around town and then dinner in the posh hotel restaurant (definitely the worst meal I had in the whole trip).

After a big sleep I did some more wandering around town in the rain. The best thing to see is the bizarre national library – which now looks abandoned. I retreated from the rain to the Liburna restaurant for a very good local meal of eggplant, chicken, homemade bread and pastry. Then I rolled back to the hotel for an afternoon massage and a lazy evening

Pristina, October 10, 2021

Additional info

In the end I missed doing three stages, one as I stayed an extra day in Theth, and the other two as I headed back to Pristina early. The visibility on all of those days was basically zero, and on the bright side I have a reason to go back. I would definitely like to go back to do the Valbona and the Prosllopit Passes.

I booked with BN adventures and everything worked really well. You pay them a 200 euro arrangement fee and the sort permits, transport and then I paid everyone direct. Most guesthouses were Euro25-30 for dinner, bed and breakfast. They also arranged private transfers from and to the trailhead (60 euros from Pristina to Kuqishte – about 90 minutes, and 110 euros from Valbone to Pristina – about three hours).

I carried very little, just hiking clothes and evening clothes. I also took a really good sleeping bag as I expected it to be cold – and it was. There was very little water in the lakes and many of the springs were dry, so if you are going at the end of summer

Would recommend buying the Cicerone Guide to the Peaks of the Balkans

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