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The Peak of the Balkans Trail, which spans 192 kilometres, connects three previously war-torn nations and passes through some of the continent’s least-explored landscapes.

I was struck by the utter remoteness of this landscape as I hiked through green valleys and wildflower-strewn meadows under blazing sunshine, with the gunmetal-grey Albanian Alps towering overhead. There were no hotels or ski lifts in sight, unlike Europe’s more famous alpine resorts. Instead, the expansive setting evoked a startling sense of isolation, and I couldn’t help but feel I’d entered a back-of-the-wardrobe secret land that had somehow evaded the outside world’s attention.


The Albanian Alps are better known by their local Albanian (Bjeshkt e Nmuna) and Serbo-Croatian (Prokletije) names, both of which mean “The Accursed Mountains” and stretch from Northern Albania into southern Kosovo and north-eastern Montenegro. However, the mystery of how these serrated limestone slopes got their unusual name remains. According to local legend, the devil escaped from hell in a single day of mischief and created the jagged glacial karsts. Some believe the alps got their name from a woman who cursed the mountains while hiking through them with her children on a hot day and couldn’t find any water. Others claim that Slavic soldiers named the mountains while struggling to march through them. In some ways, the peaks’ perplexing origin story is a metaphor for Albania as a whole..


Albania, long dubbed “Europe’s enigma” by book authors and travel guides, is possibly Europe’s most misunderstood country. Its language is a semantic anomaly with no known Indo-European linguistic relatives. After World War Two, authoritarian ruler Enver Hoxha effectively sealed the mountainous nation off from the outside world for four decades; banning religion (and making it the world’s first atheist nation); forbidding travel and leading Edi Rama, the nation’s current prime minister, to say Albania was once “the North Korea of Europe”. During the Cold War, Hoxha persuaded the country that the rest of the world wanted to destabilise their communist state, so he built up to 500,000 concrete bunkers for people to hide in case of attack. Surprisingly, the communist stronghold was not always a member of the Eastern Bloc, and it has never been a member of the European Union since its democratic transition in 1991. Instead, it exists as a sort of continental paradox: it is one of only three Muslim-majority countries in Europe (along with neighbouring Kosovo and Bosnia); more Albanians live outside the country (roughly 10 million) than inside (2.8 million); and it is a place where yes means yes and no means no. 


For decades, few visitors were aware of Albania’s golden beaches, wild mountains, and Roman and Ottoman ruins. However, in the years since the Balkan country cautiously opened up to the world, it has wooed visitors eager to discover one of Europe’s last wild and unexplored corners. The Peaks of the Balkans, a 192km circular hiking trail connecting Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo via a series of pathways straddling the Accursed Mountains, is one of its most audacious projects in recent memory.

The idea for this cross-border project emerged in 2013, but its roots go much deeper. Many Albanians and Kosovars refer to their close relationship as “one nation, two states,” as the popular Albanian slogan “jemi nje” emphasises (we are one). In reality, 93% of Kosovars are Albanian ethnically and speak Albanian. Kosovo (previously part of Serbia) and Montenegro were admitted to the newly formed Yugoslavia in 1918, but the country’s disintegration in 1992 triggered a series of fierce ethnic conflicts, as both Serbia and Montenegro are predominantly Christian Orthodox. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Kosavans fled their homeland, many of whom crossed the Accursed Mountains into Albania. NATO airstrikes ended a war between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs in 1999.


 Kosovo gained independence in 2008, but tensions along these borders remained.

In an effort to restore peace, leaders from the three countries proposed a hiking trail connecting Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox communities (Albania and Montenegro were one country until 2006), with Albanian and Kosovar hiking guides collaborating with Montenegrin guesthouses. Since its inception, the route has boosted local rural economies and aided in the creation of greater connectivity between these remote enclaves.


Creating the trail required mapping routes only known to shepherds and encouraging farmers to open guesthouses. The trail planners received a final stamp of approval when they persuaded authorities in all three countries to waive passport checks at a time when free movement across borders was unthinkable.

I’d decided to go on a five-day hike to learn more. The trail runs for 59 kilometres from the Albanian village of Valbona to the village of Theth.

My adventure began at Tirana Airport, where my guides from the tour company Zbulo (Mendi from Albania and Agon from Kosovo) greeted me with big smiles and introduced me to a dozen other hikers from the United Kingdom, Germany, and New Zealand who formed our group. We arrived at Komani Lake, a massive emerald-green reservoir on the Drin River, after a four-hour drive north. We boarded a creaky, old ferry for a three-hour crossing to the Valbona Valley as eagles soared overhead to reach the Accursed Mountains.


We hiked along the crystalline Valbona River through an ancient beech forest teeming with sweet, wild strawberries and blackberries, which I sampled. After three hours, our guesthouses appeared: a cluster of rustic huts facing the Accursed Mountains, which protruded skywards like a crocodile’s tooth.

Mustafa, a former shepherd who runs the huts with his two sons, explained why he left shepherding to run a guesthouse. “In my previous job, I hosted many travellers and walkers, but I never charged a fee. A shepherd not only looks after animals, but also people “He stated. Mendi later explained that Mustafa had so many guests stay with him one night that he convinced him to change jobs. So Mustafa used his savings to build more huts and has since dedicated himself full-time to caring for travellers.

The following morning, after a two-hour gentle climb, we reached the summit of Mount Trekufiri (2,366m). The natural borders of Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro converged here to form a craggy, panoramic vista. A weathered sign welcomed us to Albania, and my mobile phone provider welcomed me to Montenegro within minutes. These signs are now the only indication of international borders, but this was not always the case.


“Wandering in the mountains felt like freedom to me when I was younger, but the war meant I couldn’t [always] go there,” Agon explained as we crossed a rushing stream fed by the mountains’ glacial peaks. “After the war, I wanted to be a hiking guide and help children in my town (Gjakova near the Albanian border) explore their beautiful homeland,” which is now possible thanks to the creation of this trail.

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