The Albanian Alps

Day 14 – Thursday 11th August – From Shkodër to Theth (72,3km)

The plan for today was to ride north to the … natural park, see the area, maybe go for a bit of trekking and spend the night there. It was only 70 km away and according to the map the road should be good – it was marked as a main one and it led to the most important natural park in the north of the country, after all.

We left Shkodër at 8:00 on the road leading to Podgorica and a few kilometres out of the city turned north following a sign that pointed us to the park. The main road turned immediately into the same kind of thing we had found in the lake in Montenegro – very narrow and bumpy, but at least there were no potholes and there were petrol station in most towns we rode through.

20160811034626In front of us great mountains stood high against the morning sky, making it clear that this park was wilder than Plitvice or Lovćen – these were the kinds of mountains I was used to finding in central Pyrenees. The road started climbing higher and higher and to my surprised it became much better – still narrow, but newly resurfaced, so it was a pleasure to ride. We kept gaining altitude along a valley, passing some very slow old vans full of people – the local buses – until we reached the end of the valley, where the road climbed along the steep mountain side in a series of hairpins and culminated in a pass… where it ended.

20160811103332I had read that this is a common occurrence in Albania – if the map says that there is a road, there will be one, but it is impossible to know how wide it will to be, or in what condition, or whether it will be paved or not, and quite often the road just ends and there is a dirt track like the one we had just found with 11km to reach the town of Theth, our destination. It should also be noted that we had seen just one more sign after leaving the main road, announcing that we had entered the natural park, but there was no access control booth, tourist information centre, or signs indicating trekking routes. Zero infrastructure, just the mountains, which by now resembled more the Alps than the Pyrenees.

A bit further down the dirt track we found a wooden hut that seemed to be a bar and stopped to ask about the road ahead. Parked in front of it there were a Swiss and an Italian on KTM 990 Adventures who asked us if we had some extra petrol. They had come up the same way as we did, had been having too much fun and had not filled up in the last town.

Some locals told us that the road was OK, and there seemed to be quite a lot of traffic, although it was all 4x4s and vans. We decided to go ahead, and even though I even saw two or three regular cars, at some points the road was the kind of place people from Western Europe would not even dream of driving their SUVs through. The guys on the KTMs stood up and attacked the road with pleasure, but I had a much harder time taking a fully loaded bike with a passenger down the road into the valley where Theth was.

20160811065534Even though maps mark it as a town, Theth is more a few scattered houses with no streets, no shops, no service and a crappy dirt road connecting it to the rest of the world. One of the most important towns in the natural park was the very definition of unspoilt territory, what I imagine the Alps looked like centuries ago, before tourists, ski resorts and guided treks.

20160811054908In spite of all this, we had found the house we were going to stay in through Booking.com, and there were plenty of other houses in Theth on the web. The house was a three-storey stone farmhouse where a local family rented three rooms, and immediately after our arrival the youngest son, who spoke some English, introduced us to the whole family, including a grandmother that greeted us with a bear hug. It was midday, and after asking us whether we were vegetarians, they served us one of the best meals I had ever had, all locally sourced, I’m sure. Popping to the supermarket is just not an option here.

20160811073554In the afternoon we went for a walk down to the town ‘centre’ – a walk through the forest until we found more houses and the river at the bottom of the valley – and saw that there was a school which seemed to be in use. Well, at least one classroom in the ground floor, as the upper floor looked abandoned and the roof was damaged.

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2016081110462620160811104804We kept walking down the valley trying to find the way to a waterfall that seemed to be a main attraction here, but there were no indications. We asked around and were surprised to find a fair number of tourists, and then we discovered that this is the starting point for many trekking routes, including what is known as the Peaks of the Balkans Trail, a 10-day trek that crosses into Kosovo and Montenegro – something to take into account for a future holiday.

Still looking for the way to the waterfall we saw a sign to the local museum.

20160811111447 And decided to go visit it. As you can see, the access had been adapted for the disabled.

20160811112652The building that hosted the museum had two floors – on the ground floor there was a stable which was in use, and on the upper floor the ethnographic museum itself, with the exhibits divided in two rooms.

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DCIM123GOPRO

DCIM123GOPROOn our way out we saw what we assume were the curators, as they were the only living creatures around.

20160811112544Back on the main ‘street’ we found another guesthouse were we finally got directions to the waterfall. We walked until it was on sight, but it was getting late and we had no torches for the way back, and the sky was getting cloudier and cloudier and we heard some thunder behind the nearest peaks, so we decided to head back, as it was quite a long way up the valley to our house.

The rain caught us just as we were walking past the school and we ran to take refuge under the porch, where we waited for an hour watching the deluge and thinking that the dirt track would be in atrocious conditions for the ride back up the following day.

20160811135359When we got home I was surprised to see a Honda CBF1000 with road tires parked next to my bike. If I had had a hard time getting here, that guy must have experienced hell. I asked in the house and they said that it belonged to two Italians that did not know that the road was like that. Well, no wonder. There is no warning anywhere that the road is like that, and looking up Theth online one imagines a quaint mountain village at the doors of natural park, so I imagine they were not the only ones who booked a room in one of the many available guest houses thinking that this was a popular tourist destination easy to get to.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow when we have to ride that track back.

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