Explorations in Albania – A Visit to Theth

Flight Difficulties

I arrived in Tirana, the capital of Albania, after a comedic flight from Pisa, Italy. The boarding process was chaotic, with hundreds of people milling about the small gate area, ignoring the gate attendants’ repeated requests for us to form separate lines for priority and regular boarding. Eventually, the airport staff gave up, and let everyone in on both sides. I learned recently (I think from The Culture Map by Erin Meyer) that different cultures have different approaches to waiting in line: there’s the “first-come, first-served, straight line” model that’s common in the US, and the “Christmas tree” where there will be several people standing all around the first person waiting, and more fanned out behind them, with no set order for who will be next–a Christmas tree, with the person being served at the tip. In this format, someone who started out behind you might end up jostling their way to the front, and if you’re not proactive, you’ll be last.

Albania appears to be a Christmas tree line culture. To someone from a straight line culture, experiencing the Christmas tree can be kind of shocking, and if I hadn’t read about it before experiencing it, I think I would’ve been pretty annoyed–“How dare these people cut?” Instead, I was able to recognize it as an interesting cultural difference. And though I don’t particularly care whether I board ahead of anyone else, to someone accustomed to the typically straight-line procedures of international air travel, it seemed like an inefficient way to go about it.

We did eventually all board, and I arrived at my row to find my seat taken by a woman who’d also had her seat taken by someone else. She recommended that I sit in the seat next to her, displacing someone else. Instead, I spoke to one of the beleaguered flight attendants and got re-seated next to a 20-something Albanian-Italian girl who spoke perfect English. She told me she takes that flight all the time and it’s always like that, and we sat back and laughed as we watched a few other seat-shuffling chain reactions play out in front of us. We were delayed about an hour, I think mostly due to the chaos. Fortunately, I had nowhere else to be.

When I first embarked on my extended international trip over a year ago, one of the skills and characteristics I most wanted to develop in myself was flexibility and adaptability. I used to be easily ruffled and upset when things took me by surprise, and I wanted to be better at expecting and accepting the unexpected. I recently met the friend of a friend, who holds a world record for long-distance international motorcycle riding. He said something I really liked: “Tourists see problems, but for adventurers there are only challenges.” After a year of flight delays, sharing living spaces with thousands of different people from all over the world, and navigating numerous new cultures, I find that I’m a bit more relaxed about encountering challenges, big and small.

Visiting Albania Just Because

I went to Albania on a whim. Geographically, it didn’t make much sense to go there between stops in northern Italy and southern Switzerland (as a very frank Dutch guy pointed out, asking whether I’d bothered to consult a map). I didn’t even know much about Albania besides seeing some nice photos on some travel blog. But I’d heard it was inexpensive, and had a week by myself between time with friends, so I decided to pursue the impulse.

I arrived in mid-July with no plans, just one night reserved in a Tirana hostel. When the airport bus dropped me off in Tirana’s city center, I found myself beaming as I toted my backpacks a few blocks through the heat and humidity to my hostel. Tirana is bustling and modern, with fanciful contemporary architecture and sprawling parks mixed in with Soviet era concrete slabs, and most people my age and younger speak great English. Despite these comforts, the city still felt deliciously foreign and novel to me. Maybe because I was on my own again in a completely unfamiliar place for the first time in a few months. Or maybe because I hadn’t been to eastern Europe in such a long time, and it’s so different from Latin America, where I’d spent the last year.

The Allure of Theth and The Accursed Mountains

Once I got to Tirana, I wasn’t sure what I should do next. From reading travel blogs, I got the impression that Albania is still not very heavily touristed, so there isn’t a lot of tourist infrastructure in most places. I found travel blogs to be the most helpful resource for research about destinations and transport. All the blogs I found recommended visits to the same handful of picturesque cities, but after spending a couple of weeks in Italy during the high season, I was a bit tired of crowds. The thing that looked most exciting to me was a little village called Theth, nestled in the Albanian Alps, which are also known as the Accursed Mountains.

Theth is the starting point of a popular all-day hike through the mountains to another village called Valbona. The photos of Theth looked gorgeous, and something about the moniker “Accursed Mountains” caught my imagination, calling to mind dark fairy tales and forest magic. But it would be quite a trek to get out there. I’d have to take a three-hour bus from Tirana to another city called Shkoder, then a two-and-a-half-hour shuttle from Shkoder to Theth, which only leaves once a day at 7:00 AM.

It would mean sacrificing at least two of my seven days in Albania to travel. Plus, I was still not fully recovered from the MCL and meniscus injury I suffered in Colombia in March, so the 12-mile hike to Valbona was not in the cards. I wasn’t sure if it was worth it to go to Theth. I was worried that I’d spend all that time getting out there, only to feel like I did in Costa Rica in March–frustrated to be missing out on my favorite travel activity because of my injury.

Photos like this made me really want to see Theth.

After much hemming and hawing and researching easier options for places to visit closer to Tirana, I realized with sudden clarity that I might never go back to Albania. And if I don’t, it would be a shame to have missed out on the one place that really sparked my interest. So I made my way to Tirana’s bus terminal, which is just a very hot parking lot at the edge of the city. I asked around and found the bus to Shkoder, and stood behind the bus in the meager shade for 45 minutes before we left. During the ride, I used my phone to book a night in a hostel in Shkoder and make a reservation for two nights in the cheapest AirBnb I could find in Theth. After arriving in Shkoder, I spent the afternoon and evening hanging out with a couple of other solo female travelers whom I met by chance. The next morning, I woke up early to catch the 7:00 AM shuttle to Theth.

Catching the bus from Tirana
Solo traveler hangout in Shkoder – a great conversation with like-minded ladies!

The Road to Theth

The shuttle driver was a surly-looking sparkplug of a man, with a buzz cut, a heavy brow, and not much English. We made several stops in the city, picking up riders from different locations, and made a few unexplained stops at businesses, where our driver disappeared without a word for a few minutes, leaving us sitting in the van wondering what was going on. During these stops, the driver sometimes opened the sliding door, and tried to get the air conditioning to work by banging the side of his fist several times against the panel in the ceiling, to no avail. We drove through the city, past shopping streets with windows full of elaborate, gem-encrusted gowns. We passed and fruit and vegetable vendors with wrinkled grandmothers sitting out front, their heads covered with scarves. When we eventually got past the city limits, there were a lot of giant, modern-looking furniture showrooms lining the highway, and I occasionally spotted businesses with sun-bleached stuffed animals hanging outside like effigies. (If anyone can explain this to me, I’m interested… Is it like a maneki neko?)

After a while, we turned up into the mountain valley, and began the stunning climb toward Theth. The last hour of the drive was full of switchbacks and spectacular views, bright sunshine shining over steep cliffs and ample vegetation. As we got closer to town, we made a couple more stops, and I realized that our stops in the city were to pick up goods to deliver to people in the mountains. At one point, we pulled over on the side of the road, and our driver walked up into a field, where a young teen boy ran out to meet him, handing the driver some cash in exchange for a large, round loaf of bread. In another spot, closer to the village, we stopped at a roadside restaurant, where the majority of the supplies in the back of the van were unloaded: crates of beer, loaves of bread, and other groceries. Our driver said we’d stop for about five minutes, but it ended up being more like twenty.

The view from the roadside restaurant’s bathroom, just before we arrived in Theth.

My Accursed Climb

When we finally arrived in town, our van stopped in the gravel lot in front of the mini market, restaurant, and coffee shop that make up the town center. The rest of the village spreads along the bank of a small, rocky river, in a valley surrounded by mountains. The mountains are thickly forested near the valley floor, and then craggy and sharp-peaked as they shoot skyward. We were one of several shuttles arriving at the same time, and there were a few taxi drivers milling about waiting for us to arrive. I was not super clear on where my AirBnb was, though I was communicating with the host via the app, and I understood that it was a little ways outside the actual town, in an area Google Maps labeled as Gjelaj. The host Elizabeta and a couple of other people whom I asked assured me that it was about 15-20 minutes walking from town, though Google maps said 30, and I was beginning to be skeptical of Albanian time estimations. But I’m frugal as hell, and despite my knee injury, in decent shape, so I opted to walk.

Feeling very accursed.

Forty minutes later, I was drenched in sweat and regret, rucking up the steep gravel road with a backpack on my back and another on my front. I stopped frequently in shady spots, and sent occasional messages to Elizabeta, who assured me I was close. I arrived after an hour, though about 15 minutes of that was because Google Maps told me there was a shortcut, which led me to a locked gate, so I had to double back. When I did the same walk the next day with only a small, mostly empty tote bag, power walking up the steep road, and taking fewer breaks, it still took 35 minutes.

When I finally arrived, I walked through a metal gate into a big yard surrounded by a small farm with cultivations of lettuce, potatoes, corn, several types of squash, and more. With deep relief, I strode up to a two-story stone and cement house, with wooden beams and a sharply angled red roof made of corrugated steel. The view from the town center on the valley floor is beautiful, but my grueling walk earned me a stunning panorama that beat it by a mile. The guest house overlooks the valley, with imposing peaks all around, remnants of winter snow visible in the crevices above tree line. I could see 10 or so other buildings in the Gjelaj neighborhood. A couple were other guest houses (it seems that since the one-lane road to Theth got paved in 2021, tourism has taken off), some were residences, and some were barns or sheds. All had similar stone masonry and steep roofs, making me imagine them deep in snow drifts, hunkered down in long winter nights. Those cold nights seemed very far off, though. The whole time I was in Albania, the temperatures were in the 90s, even in the mountains.

Tom Shyti Guesthouse

It turned out that Elizabeta, with whom I’d been chatting, is actually the adult daughter of the homeowners Tom and Age, and she manages their AirBnb listing remotely. Elizabeta’s mother Age (ah-gay) greeted me, looking a little alarmed and a little impressed by my sweaty, double-backpacked state of disarray after climbing her mountain. Age and Tom don’t speak more than a few words of English, but Age is adept with the Google Translate app, and we used that throughout my stay. She showed me to my room on the second floor, which had a sloped ceiling, four twin beds, and a view of the yard and the mountains beyond. I drank a bunch of water, took a shower, and immediately took a hour-long nap. When I emerged from my room, feeling like a new woman, Tom was downstairs watching a Stephen Segal movie with Albanian subtitles. I asked Age if she could recommend someplace for me to eat. She said she could cook for me, and as I was already exhausted by the prospect of slogging up and down the valley twice a day, I asked if it would be possible to have all my meals at the house. We agreed on a price, and Age set to work making me a massive lunch of stew, salad, cheese, fries, olives, and bread. There was so much that I couldn’t finish.

My bedroom in the guest house

That first night, I was the only guest, so I got to spend the long afternoon reading and drawing in the front yard and hanging out with my hosts. Age is a tall, sturdy woman with dark curly auburn hair past her shoulders. She wears embroidered skirts and muddy work pants in equal measure and is adept with Google Translate and a good sport about its errors and limitations. Tom is compact and wiry, deeply tanned with graying hair. He likes hand-rolled cigarettes, speaks a little Italian, and he’s quiet but has an easy smile. They seemed like they were probably a little younger than my own parents, and they have four grown kids, three of whom live abroad.

Drawing the view from the front yard

Age and Tom were pretty new to the AirBnB game, according to their profile they just got started a few months before my visit. Maybe they were running their guest house before that, but I can’t imagine that it’s been very long because I found them to be so open and genuine, not at all jaded by the experience of hosting. As a result, my brief time with them felt more like a homestay, or like I was some distant cousin shipped in from abroad for a visit to the farm. They seemed curious about me, and quietly observed my behavior. They were tickled that I would help to clear the dishes, or when I told them that in Hawaii we take off our shoes before entering the house, too. And I was likewise charmed by their laidback, warm, quiet hospitality. They were often busy with farm chores, but were happy to take a break and sit together outside in the afternoon, Tom and Age sipping tiny cups of thick, sweet Albanian espresso, me with a cold fruit juice. I practiced the few Albanian words I learned, which I found to be so long and difficult that they wouldn’t stick in my brain. So we were mostly conversing through our phones, carrying on a conversation at 10% speed as we typed things into the Translate app.

An Aside

I sometimes can’t believe that I’m living in this age of god-like technology and globalization. While I was in Albania, I was reading Eat, Pray, Love for the first time, 20 years after it came out. I was struck both by the ways that Elizabeth Gilbert’s experience was similar to my own (30-something woman uproots and goes into the world alone, questing for self-discovery, language learning, and adventure) and the ways it was different (I carry an interactive map of the entire world in my pocket, I can buy QR-coded train tickets at any time of day or night, and I use a free application to produce mostly intelligible Albanian speech). I feel so lucky that the world has become so accessible. With the help of the modern internet, I can travel solo to places that nobody I know has been. I can navigate any city’s public transportation system. I can talk with kindhearted Albanian farmers about their kids. It’s truly incredible.

A passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

Idyllic Days

I only stayed in Theth for two nights, but the European summer days with no obligations or schedules stretched out deliciously long. In the late morning on my second day, I filled my water bottle from the fresh spring water that constantly flows up into a little fountain in Tom and Age’s yard. Then I began the hike to a waterfall in a different part of the valley, first descending the same rocky road into the valley that had tried to kill me the day before. I walked through the town center, wandered along riverside paths and between cow pastures and fields full of wildflowers, drinking in the stunning mountain views. After about an hour, I arrived at the waterfall. There were about twenty other tourists there, as it’s on the way to the Blue Eye, a picturesque pool of water at the end of a six-mile hike from Theth. The Blue Eye is described by some blogs as “the highlight of Theth”, but I opted to skip it. This was partly because of my knee injury, and partly because through my travels, I’ve found that the things that are sometimes arbitrarily dubbed “the highlight” of a particular place can often be over-crowded and underwhelming. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I’ve seen a lot of very nice swimming holes in the last year, so I felt satisfied to limit my walking time to a couple of hours. I took a couple of full-body plunges in the small, icy pools below the waterfall, dried off in the sunshine while reading Eat, Pray, Love on my kindle, and made my way back through the valley and up to Age and Tom’s house for a late lunch.

Throughout my visit, Age continued to feed me massive meals, bringing out seven plates loaded with so much food that they could probably feed three people and all of them would be stuffed. A lot of produce from the farm, but also lots of cheese, and bread accompanied by massive clumps of cheesy-smelling butter. I tried to tell Age that it was too much food for me, and she could serve me less because I didn’t want to waste it. She thought that was a riot, and insisted that it was fine. So I just continued eating as much as I reasonably could. Before traveling I was mostly vegetarian for a couple of years, but I’ve let it slide more and more. In situations like this, I just eat whatever I’m served. Between Age’s mediterranean salads, hearty soups, and a selection of traditional Albanian dishes whose names I should’ve written down, I felt nourished in body and soul.

Breakfast by Age

When it came time to walk down into the valley for the last time, Age insisted on accompanying me part of the way and carrying my big backpack as far as the bridge down the road from their house. We parted with a hug and pecks on each cheek, and I felt so happy and grateful for the experience and for Age and Tom’s kindness. And though that whole week in Albania was full of cool encounters, my brief time in the Accursed Mountains will always shine brightly in my memory of that visit.

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It’s never too late to read (or re read) eat pray love! I felt refreshed after reading this post, thanks for sharing