Hiking in the mountains of the Balkans

Inspires by Avis contributor Ben Lerwill treks and explores the awe-inspiring Balkan mountains.

Arriving in Albania’s capital Tirana, we picked up our rental car and set off on the four-hour journey to our countryside starting point from where we’d explore the legendary Balkan mountains. Driving from the modern capital through rural towns, the vast surrounding hills and greenery along the way introduce us to what lies ahead.

On our first evening in rural Albania, the fireflies appear, dozens of them blinking in the half-light above the hayfields. We’ve rumbled down a long, unsealed road in to reach a village called Radomirë, where two slender minarets rise over homesteads with yards of stacked firewood. Chickens peck around in the dusk. We’re welcomed smilingly at the guesthouse, with potato soup, warm flatbread and flaky-doughed pastries.

Image credits: Ben Lerwill 

Line of people walking in mountains

We’re here to begin a week of walking, firstly making our way up Mount Toubkal, Albania’s highest point, before driving a few hours east to spend four days in the Accursed Mountains – the belt of thunderously craggy peaks stretching across the borderlands of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. While here, we’ll be completing a hat-trick of sorts by summiting the highest points of Kosovo and Montenegro. We will walk until our thighs ache, eat vast quantities of bread and sheep’s cheese, and sleep soundly.

Man looking over mountain valley

If you’re imagining technical mountain climbing, however, you’re on the wrong lines. The hiking we’re doing requires sturdy boots and a taste for long yomps, but no crampons, ropes or picks. “You just need to go where I walk – simple,” smiles our guide Ardit, as if we were embarking on a stroll around a civic park. Our ascent of Mount Toubkal takes from 7.30 in the morning until just before sundown. We pass just one other walker all day and the climb is spectacular: wildflower-strewn slopes, endless green valleys and giant scarps of limestone. That evening we drive east.

Sign with distances to places

The Accursed Mountains. What a name, like something lifted from a 1950s adventure novel. And what a place, too, a hulking maze of unforgiving turrets, blade-like ridges and hidden plateaus. Within hours, we’re swallowed up by the scenery. We’re following a dipping 33-mile trail across the range, snaking up to cols, descending switchbacks and overnighting in mountain accommodation where the blankets are thick and the jam’s homemade. Ardit has tales of 350-kilo bears living in the hills. Out here, anything seems plausible.

Farm house in the mountain with horses around it

We get used to rising early and retiring, shattered, at the kind of time toddlers go to bed. At times we walk as a bunch, swapping stories, spotting lizards at our feet and wild goat-antelopes in the undergrowth. More often we splinter into groups of one or two, striding at our own pace, soaking up the quietness and rampant heights of the landscape. Woodpeckers drum in the trees. We climb Kosovo’s Mount Gjeravica, the top enveloped by cloud-fog and pummelled by the wind. Sunlight returns soon after, steaming the earth.

Hikers climbing rocky mountains

The history and geopolitics of the area are complex. For miles, we walk down dirt paths once patrolled by communist-era border guards, but where once there was barbed wire, there are now only beech woods. Our route seems to cross national borders at will, with no hint of a checkpoint. Occasionally we see the red Albanian flag fluttering above remote farmsteads. On our way up Montenegro’s 2,534-metre Zla Kolata, we’re greeted with a “zdravo!” by a local on his way down.

Group of hikers walking through mountain pass

After five days, the final miles are taken slowly. The three peaks and the meandering hours in between them have taken their toll on energy levels. We wander down into a hot, high-sided valley filled with birch trees and insect-drone. Restaurants and cold drinks await, and the chance to unshoulder our packs. Ardit shakes all of our hands in turn. The region we’ve been walking through is a pocket of the continent that often gets overlooked, but the rewards of looking beyond the big-name mountains of western Europe and out to the Balkans are tangible. Accursed? Hardly.

Man sitting on rock looking over mountainous valley