Source: Lonely Planet/Oliver Smith
God took six days to create the Earth, the sea and the sky. But, so a local legend goes, the devil took only 24 hours to create the Accursed Mountains. It was a full day’s work. He would have scored deep ravines with his pointy tail. He would have sculpted spires of rock with his evil little claws. And, long after he finished the mountains, the curse remained, for this range has always been synonymous with bandits, blood feuds, avalanches, and miscellaneous misfortunes for anyone foolish enough to visit.
Today, the Accursed Mountains straddle the borders of three nations: Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. Setting out on a morning stroll in early summer, you suspect the Almighty would be impressed by his rival’s handiwork. Because, with devilish deception, it is a place of radiant, intense loveliness.
My walk starts in the village of Vusanje, Montenegro, near a timber minaret carved with crescent moons and petals. Before long, I am far from settlements, walking through wildflower meadows where the ground itself seems to move with the fluttering of thousands of butterflies. There are mighty limestone mountains crumbling into wind-scoured boulder fields, and stone shepherds’ huts, their chimney stacks toppled and slumped in mimicry of the peaks above.
Most of the time, there are few hikers. It feels like a mini-Yosemite in the Balkans – a real back-of-the-wardrobe secret land that has somehow evaded the attention of the outside world. There are clues as to why. Four hours’ walk from Vusanje, I cross the Montenegro-Albania border, where derelict military bunkers watch from above. Beyond them lies the village of Theth, Albania. It is roughly 14 miles from Vusanje but, until 1991, it might as well have been the far side of the moon.
‘If you were caught walking in these mountains in those times, you would have gone to prison,’ says Pavlin Polia, leaning on a fence post in the afternoon sunshine. ‘Or worse.’
Pavlin is a mountain guide and guesthouse owner in Theth, where he was born in the nave of its tiny Catholic church. When he was a youngster, Theth was part of Communist Albania, a regime unrivalled in Europe for brutal oppression and crippling poverty. Its paranoid dictator, Enver Hoxha, built more than 170,000 of his bunkers across the country, partly to repel enemies – but as much to make sure citizens stayed put.
For decades, the Accursed Mountains served as Hoxha’s giant geological Berlin Wall (one that conveniently brewed its own thunderstorms). Its treacherous passes became the ultimate hurdle for anyone escaping Albania to reach the relative freedom of Montenegro, then part of Yugoslavia.
Over coffee in his guesthouse in Theth, Pavlin tells me about escape attempts – the 70-strong family who sneaked over the frontier on Hoxha’s birthday, when the border guards were partying and looking the other way. And nameless others who tiptoed into the beech forests after nightfall, never to be heard from again.
Communism may be a memory, but only in the past few years have geopolitical developments allowed these mountains to open up to hikers. Pavlin is among the founders of the Peaks of the Balkans trail – a new 120-mile-hiking route that passes through three nations in a lap of the Accursed Mountains. It is a two-week-long odyssey of which the Vusanje to Theth hike is just one leg. Establishing the trail meant mapping remote routes known only to shepherds, and encouraging farmers to open guesthouses. It also meant navigating sensitive politics – Pavlin worked hard to persuade police chiefs from Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo to waive passport checks for the first time.
‘In the end, they decided that if you want to smuggle cigarettes, you would probably do it in the boot of a Mercedes,’ he says with a grin. ‘You wouldn’t put them in a backpack and set out into the mountains.’
Albania is possibly the most misunderstood country in Europe. It has a language with no close relatives, full of words made of Qs and Xs that look purpose-built for high Scrabble scores. The country sits about midway between Rome and Athens, but spent the late 20th century as a European North Korea – neither a member of NATO, the Eastern Bloc nor the Non-Aligned Movement – it didn’t even enter the Eurovision Song Contest until fairly recently. It carries unhappy associations with organised crime and backwardness. Its fictional children include Borat (though he later switched to Kazakh), and the baddies from Taken films, who bear the brunt of Liam Neeson’s particular set of skills.
For any hiker who spends the night in villages such as Theth, Albania conjures up quite different associations. The morning thrum of beehives, the taste of honey on freshly baked bread. Shivering cold mountain streams flowing under humpbacked Ottoman bridges. The clink of antique china cups filled with strong Turkish coffee. The greetings of shepherds taking their flocks out to pasture.
After spending a night in Theth, the Albanian leg of the Peaks of the Balkans trail leads me towards the Valbonë Valley over a rocky pass. Climbing higher, the view soon expands into IMAX mode: giant citadels of rock, meadows tinged blue in the heat haze, eagles riding thermals from the Adriatic.
From the highest point of the pass, you see clearly how the Accursed Mountains are one of the last redoubts of wilderness in the Balkans. Somewhere on the ranges below live wolves and brown bears. And, of course, the critically endangered Balkan lynx, barely a few dozen of which roam the rocky plateaux, their whiskers twitching in the highland wind.
The habitat itself is under critical threat. In 2015, the Albanian government passed a motion to allow the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Valbonë Valley – a project that would submerge much of this landscape, drowning the forests, condemning raging rivers to become meagre trickles. The Peaks of the Balkans trail passes by the proposed dams but, more gravely, the project would block invisible, older trails – trodden by countless species, which depend on them to survive. Despite continued legal challenges from environmental groups across Europe, we see bulldozers parked within the borders of the Valbonë National Park during our visit.
‘These mountains are probably the last truly wild place in Europe,’ says Besi Ismajli, a guide I meet after descending the pass. He has a wolf tattooed on his calf, and an eagle on his bicep. ‘We have to fight a battle to protect this place. And, right now, Albania is losing it.’
Wherever you walk in the Accursed Mountains, borders are a constant companion. Sometimes a border shimmies precariously along a knife-edge arête. Often it plunges into a frozen lake and climbs out on the other side. Very occasionally it ambushes you with a weatherbeaten sign proclaiming something like ‘Welcome to MO TE EGRO’. But, more often than not, it slips past undetected, a text message saying ‘Vodafone welcomes you to Albania, receive calls from 36p per minute’ the only sign of an international boundary.
Borders are also invisible to the cows of Isah Zymer Dresias – a farmer whose livestock regularly wanders over the Montenegro-Kosovo border, which, thanks to a territory swap, now runs directly behind his woodshed. It means he has to make repeat visits to the border police to bring them home. It is a price worth paying, he insists, to live and work in Kosovo’s Rugova valley.
‘Life here is beautiful,’ he says, chopping white pine, as I cross into Kosovo. ‘If you spend time here then you will grow a beard to your waist, and probably live to be 120 years old. And you will never be able to live without the smell of pine trees in summer.’
As the Peaks of the Balkans trail enters Kosovo, the landscape subtly changes character. Vertical peaks lapse into gently contoured hills and broadleaf forests where wild strawberries and apricots grow by the trail. Splitting the landscape in two is the Rugova Gorge, where little cafés watch over a foaming river, and Kosovars come for picnics at weekends.
It looks like a picture of timeless serenity but, here again, the Accursed Mountains are deceptive. In 1998, during the last chapter of the Balkan Wars, Yugoslav forces rolled in from Montenegro and Serbia to battle the forces of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Amid the genocide of Kosovar Albanians, bloody fighting saw farmhouses torched and artillery fire breaking the hush of the Rugova forests.
Complex though political borders may be in the Accursed Mountains, they overlay an even more complicated map of ethnic and religious boundaries – of which hikers can get a tiny sense in Kosovo. In one part of the Rugova Valley, you might stop inside the Serbian Orthodox monastery in Peja, and squint to see frescoed saints in the shadowy heights. In another, you can hear the thin call to prayer from the village mosques, whose minarets inch above the treetops. As well as Albanians and Serbs, there are Bosniaks, Macedonians, Roma, Egyptians. The ethnic mix has been combustible in the past. Today, most look to the path ahead.
The end of my hike comes in the village of Rekë e Allagës, and the home of Mustafa and Fethiye Nikqi. Mustafa rebuilt his Rugova farmhouse after it was destroyed in the war, and more recently opened it as Ariu (‘Bear’) Guesthouse, named after the creatures that harass his dog, Dora, in the small hours. Today he welcomes a fraternity of hikers, united in the love of roaming this landscape. In small ways, he says, the Peaks of the Balkans trail encourages understanding across frontiers. Guides from all countries intermingle; guesthouses call lodges over the border to let them know a hiking group is on their way.
‘If we had had this path 25 years ago, perhaps there would have been no war,’ says Mustafa. ‘The Peaks of the Balkans trail is, in some ways, like a stitch in a wound.’
To stay the night here means experiencing a happy sense of cultural disorientation. Mustafa waxes lyrical about Fethiye’s home-made Ramadan cheese, and also the wild boar he sometimes hunts – whose meat tastes like onions in autumn and pine cones in winter. Dinners come with shots of fiery raki, made with apples from the orchards outside, while guests sleep in dormitories where images of Mecca and Medina hang over the bunks. And there are stories, too: the old caravans Mustafa remembers from pre-Communist days, when he was young – when merchants in flowing white robes would walk for days to sell sheepskins on the Adriatic coast, huddled together for safe passage over the range.
Sunset lingers on the high points of the Accursed Mountains – casting golden beams on Rekë e Allagës while the world below is swallowed in shadows. Barely visible at the far end of the Rugova Valley is a no man’s land between Kosovo and Montenegro, designated ‘disputed territory’ on my map. The road is currently closed here, and no one may cross. It is an unhappy relic of the Yugoslav wars. Depending on whom you ask, it may be part of Montenegro or Kosovo. Or both, or neither. At the time of my visit its status is set to be resolved by politicians who have likely never set foot here.
For now, it is the Balkan landscape as God (or the devil) left it: an immensity of mountain, forest and meadow that is nothing if not European.
Plan your Balkan hike
Getting there and around
Your choice of flight depends largely on which country you plan to start your trek in. In Albania, Tirana airport is a five-hour drive from Theth or Valbona. In Montenegro, Podgorica is also a five-hour drive from Vusanje. Kosovo’s Pristina airport is two hours by car from Peja, close to Rekë e Allagës. Car hire is available in all airports. Be warned: you may need to pay additional insurance if you plan to cross national borders in your vehicle.
Who can help
Walking independently is an option; however, considering the occasionally complicated navigation, cross-border bureaucracy and scarce English speakers, we’d strongly recommend going with a local company. In Albania, the pioneering Zbulo offers guided and self-guided itineraries in the Accursed Mountains, as well as hikes in lesser-known regions of Albania, such as the little-visited Southern Highlands. Meanwhile, over in Kosovo, the equally excellent Butterfly Outdoor has itineraries in the Rugova Valley as well as cycling, rock-climbing and yoga retreats in other less visited corners of the country.
When to go
The Peaks of the Balkans trail is generally hiked between May and October. During winter, much of the route is impassable due to snow.