In 2014, I decided to undertake a hike I had never done along the rugged chain path of mountains which make up some of Montenegro’s highest peaks and extend into Albania. The journey, which would see me scale the southern flanks of the famous mountain range known in Montenegro as ‘Prokletije’ (or the ‘Cursed Mountains’) ran the length of the Ropojana Valley and into the wild peaks of the Prokletije massif itself, which makes up the rugged borderlands of Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo.
It’s an evocative name, Prokletije, conjuring up images of something from Lord of the Rings but one that fails to do the area justice, since it’s a spectacularly beautiful place. Here, jagged limestone peaks, rolling green pastures, high passes and wonderfully hospitable mountain villages all stand next to each other creating a pristine and quiet wilderness still untouched by the hand of industry.
The trail I undertook was followed but a small portion of the trail known in these parts as The Peaks of the Balkans — an epic, 120-mile trek through some of the finest scenery this corner of Europe has to offer. A circular route that almost joins in the middle like a figure-of-eight, it takes around 10 days in total to walk, with accommodation and meals provided by a scattering of village guesthouses (or ‘Han’ as they are known the local language).
At the head of the valley I passed the bed of an empty lake — fed only by snowmelt, it has a habit of vanishing, phantom-like, without a trace. I left Montenegro and slipped briefly across the unmarked border into Albania, following a path up through the forest, to open pasture, then beside a narrow ravine, climbing steadily as the morning cloud gradually dissipated. The trail meandered past a couple of dome-like concrete bunkers — some of the half a million built by the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha across the country between the Sixties and Eighties — long since abandoned and incongruous in the wilderness.
Four hours after leaving Montenegro’s Ropojana Valley, I reached the 1,707m Peja Pass, overlooking the Theth Valley. The cliffs on my right plummeted in a sheer, dizzying leap from nearby Mount Arapit to the valley floor — a vertical drop of 800m — but the path was a broad, well-engineered mule track that zigzags left below a towering rock face. If you are worried about the ascent or descent, know only that even a hiking novice like myself was able to walk it without fear or anxiety.
It was early evening by the time I reached the remote village of Theth, scattered along the valley floor beside the river, and found my way to a friendly guesthouse where I spent the night with my travel companion. While there was something very satisfying about completing a long-distance route such as the Peaks of the Balkans, you don’t need to walk the whole thing — some parts can be done as day walks, or you can create shorter circuits with transfers provided by local travel agencies. Here are three of the best and the one I highly recommend is the first one. It is three days long, and the majority of it will find you in Montenegro for the most part:
1. The Three Passes Route
Starting in Vusanje (Montenegro), hike up the Ropojana Valley and over the Peja Pass, to Theth (Albania). Cross the Valbona Pass to Valbona, then make for the Prosllopit Pass beside Maja Kolata. From here, you can descend to Vusanje.
Time needed: Three days.
2. Theth Waterfall and Kula
Theth is worth a day to itself. From the 19th-century church pass the 17th-century tower house (kula), then cross the bridge and follow the left bank of the River Theth before hiking up to the Gunas waterfall, which plunges 30 metres over a cliff into an iridescent green pool.
Time needed: Three hours.
3. Seven-day circuit
From Plav (Montenegro), follow the main route via Theth, Valbona and Dobërdol in Albania but turn north at the Zavoj Pass and descend to Babino Polje and Plav in Montenegro, rather than continuing to Milishevc. This largely misses out on visiting Kosovo.
Time needed: Seven days.