A journey to Valbona in Northern Albania was something that was high on my list to do since I first learned about Quku i Valbonës and the magnanimous Catherine and her partner Alfred who run it when I was on the Via Dinarica back in 2013. The only thing that was stopping me was how “very far away” Valbona National Valley Park and the Accursed Mountains always felt the few times I found myself traveling around Albania after that, mostly around the coast, where it seemed I’d have more luck finding Atlantis somewhere in the Ionian than an efficient bus route (this may actually be true).
Luckily (or crazily, I’m still trying to decide) I recently became closer to it than ever before when I decided to relocate my life to Prishtina and although it took two years, I finally made that journey – actually a couple of journeys within the past six months.
With a car, it turns out Valbona is a piece of cake to get to from anywhere now that they’ve installed a slick asphalt road through the valley which you can easily get to from Bajram Curri. Direct from Kosovo’s capital, it takes about three hours depending on the border crossing.
By public transportation, it can be a little challenging wherever you are coming from, but not impossible and no doubt will be an adventure in itself. Catherine has laid everything out beautifully for you HERE whether you chose to come by car, boat, minibus, and/or your feet (from Theth it is a 6 hour hike).
I traveled there the second time from Gjakova in Western Kosovo which is probably one of the least difficult places to grab a connection to Bajram Curri. I hopped on a minibus at 12:30pm and it dropped me off about an hour later in the center of town where I then made my way to the “bus stop” in front of Hotel Univers to wait for the last (and maybe only?) bus to Valbona that leaves at 2:30pm everyday. It takes around 30 minutes to get to Valbona from there and costs 250 lek.
You don’t need more than an hour to see Bajram Curri in case you were wondering and you also have nothing to worry about in case you heard anything before about it being shady like I had. There is something slightly off about the city, but not necessarily in a bad/scary way, it’s just one of those small pockets of the country that clearly doesn’t get very much attention or many tourists passing through so all you should be prepared for are some looks from the locals. Particularly if you are all alone, blonde, dragging a rolling suitcase behind you, and asking around for “BAR”.
So I guess you can say this is the good news. Valbona is not as far-removed as it may seem, yet perfectly removed for anyone looking for an escape in a stunningly beautiful setting for a few days or more (my suggestion is to go for more) like I was this past October and then again in January. What you find when you get there…believe me, it will have been worth any amount of effort it took to make it happen.
Desperate to get away from Kosovo for a couple of nights, my first visit to Valbona (Riljinda to be exact) and meeting Catherine turned out to be the most magical of times. As a native New Yorker who just picked up and moved to Valbona some seven years ago now, her and I bonded almost immediately over our unconventional lifestyle choices and love/hate relationship with the Albanian worlds we unexpectedly landed ourselves in. Nevermind the one liter+ of rakia that we may or may not have finished in the process. Ok, so we kept getting interrupted by guests, boyfriends, and my new cat that we had to share with…
Words can’t express how special it is to connect with one of your people in another part of the world where not that many like you exist (in my case, independent, motivated women who willingly move to places that most people are trying to get out of without any international contract drawing them there) so for that Valbona/Riljinda has become one of my favorite spots in the entire Balkan region. A place of refuge from the chaos that Prishtina life can often bring.
Moving on to more good news about Valbona. Whatever journey you choose to have for yourself there – active, lazy, romantic, reflective, all of the above – you will not be disappointed. It is one of the most beautiful corners of the world that I’ve had the privilege of seeing, breathing, and tasting. The fresh air up there is priceless and the famously delicious trout they pull from the Valbona River by no means overhyped. There are about 200 km of hiking trails you can explore around the national park or for those who are looking to be a little less active, even just driving through to the end of the road will blow your mind.
Now here comes the bad news. This special place which has remained more pristine than many other nature spots in the region due to it being isolated far longer thanks to shitty roads is in serious danger. While I’m thankful for the new road from Bajram Curri for making it easier for me/tourists to visit and stimulate the economy, it’s also bringing in a lot of riffraff. Mainly corporate riffraff who care less about enjoying the nature and more about exploiting it. You can’t help but notice almost immediately after approaching the entrance to the park some massive machinery digging for something you know they can sell for a high price and unfortunately it’s about to get worse.
For a couple of years now, the ridiculously beautiful Valbona River has been threatened by multiple hydroelectic power projects that would ultimately destroy the biodiversity of the national park as well as some of its most famous peaks – and things are starting to get scarier now with rumors of even more to come. This guy compares it to building hydropower plants in Yellowstone – you could NEVER get away with doing that in America. But unfortunately in Albania (and most of the Balkans, for that matter) it just takes money regardless that it’s been a “protected national park” since 1996.
In light of that fact, it would be an incredibly brave endeavor for someone to fight against the corporations and corrupt politicians who would and are facilitating the destruction of Valbona, but not surprisingly, Catherine, Alfred, and many from their community are doing this. Or at least trying – and they would love your help.
For now raising awareness seems to be the best way for anyone outside of Albania to do something. You can sign her petition on SumofUs, continue to spread the word, and try to get Prime Minister Edi Rama’s attention via Twitter (@ediramaal) using #StopHPPinValbona. And from inside Albania…GO. Make the journey to Valbona to see for yourself what an incredible treasure it is. It’s better than Atlantis and if Albania was smart it would do everything in its power to make sure it stays protected and doesn’t eventually sink into oblivion, too.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”- Margaret Mead