The crowds are gone, many of the guesthouses are closed, and the weather can be unpredictable. But if you are willing to be a bit more flexible, Theth will not disappoint.
On a whim, we started driving to Theth one December afternoon without a reservation or clear idea of what we would be able to do once we go there. This was my fourth trip to the alpine village, which in my opinion is by far the most beautiful place in all of Albania.
The last three times I’d gone had been in a furgon from Shkoder, and the road was terrifying. It was barely wide enough for one car and was filled with hairpin turns on cliffsides that surely no one would survive should the furgon make the slightest mistake. More than once, I felt myself sucking in my breath when we inched past someone driving in the other direction, as though that would somehow make the van skinny so we could pass more safely.
This time, however, the drive was much different. An enormous amount of work had been done to improve the road, and we made it in a 30-year-old Mercedes even though much of it was yet unpaved. But it was also pitch-black outside because we’d gotten a late start. Midway up into the mountains we startled a large eagle that was resting in the road, the flurry of its wings as it took off creating an image like a dark ghost filling the road in front of us.
Using my smartphone, I made an online reservation. A few minutes later, a man called to tell me that they had closed the hotel for a family emergency…but he would call around Theth and find a place for us to stay in the same price range. These are the kind of things that make me love Albania.
True to his word, he connected us with Bujtina Polia. There was only one other guest staying at the mountain lodge, so it felt more like we were staying in someone’s home rather than renting a room. We warmed by the wood-burning stove as the owner whipped up mountains of fresh pork, potatoes, salce kosi, salad and other local dishes.
In the morning, the mountains around us were topped with snow and low-lying clouds gave a moody, almost mystical feeling. If you’ve never been to Theth, the village is nestled in a small valley carved by the stream that runs through the center that makes you feel like you are sitting in the bottom of a deep bowl surrounded by slightly intimidating sheer rock mountains.
The view honestly is breathtaking.
The owners told us that we were lucky because in December of last year, the road was covered in five meters of snow and was unpassable. When the weather does dump too much snow for the locals to keep their business open, they hop in their four-wheel drive vehicles and escape down to Shkoder on a second rugged road that most people don’t know about.
(Note to self and anyone else considering an off-season visit to Theth: check the weather before taking a spontaneous trip to Theth so that we don’t get stranded in the Albanian Alps by unexpected snow.)
Despite the lack of tourists, you can still hike to the waterfall or put the other side of the river to the Blue Eye. A young man also offered to be our tour guide to the top of one of the nearby peaks but we opted to visit the Locked Tower next to the guesthouse just in case the weather turned bad and we had to make a mad dash to Shkoder. The man with the key gave us a personal tour of the inside of the tower, and we were delighted to meet his white puppy named “Covid”.
The Theth-Valbona trail before the surge of tourists
It’s not advisable or even possible to trek on the popular trail that connects the picturesque villages of Theth and Valbona during the winter because of the snow that blankets the area at this time.
However, the trail opens in May (weather permitting) and there aren’t that many hikers on it until the summer tourist season.
For this hike, we stayed at a wonderful guesthouse called Gjin Thana that was close to the trailhead. The hosts make their own honey, butter, cheese and bread and meals that were simple but so fresh and mouth-watering.
The trail isn’t steep for the most part but it is a little tricky in places (especially if there is any snow or ice to contend with), and you might pass a mule or two. Depending on your physical condition and energy level, it takes most hikers five to six hours to get from one end to the other so make sure to bring enough water to stay hydrated. If you go off season, it is still best to wear layers of clothes so you can add or remove some as you go. It is easy to get hot because the sun can be quite strong, but if it gets covered in clouds the temperature dips quickly.
After the hike, it’s worth staying over in Valbona before heading home. Valbona is quite different from Theth, but also impressive.
To get back to Shkoder or Theth, if the timing works out, take the Koman Lake ferry which runs April to October—or you can arrange for other transportation through your guesthouse or with the tourism booth in Shkoder.
Koman Lake was created with the construction of a dam, and the ferry doesn’t only cater to tourists. On our ride, we stopped several times to pick up passengers standing on the banks of the lake. The ferry is the main mode of transportation for the families who live in homes and villages tucked in these mountains.
The 2.5-hour ferry ride winds through spectacular scenery and is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable moments of your trip.