Peaks of the Balkans
The Peaks of the Balkans Trail is a 192 kilometres (119 miles) long hiking route. Over the course of ten stages it circles the Balkans border land between Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. Walking the route would have been impossible few years ago, with a new border crossings application system in place one can now tackle this unique trek that connects the most amazing mountain areas of the no longer isolated Albania, newly independent Kosovo and so far only for its coast renowned Montenegro.
The southern-most extension of the Dinarides / Dinaric Alps, named after the highest mountain of Croatia, serves as a picturesque location. From Slovenia the mountain range runs first parallel to the Adriatic coast south, upon reaching Albania turns inland and abruptly ends in the flatlands of Kosovo. Locally this last stretch of the range is known as the Albanian Alps, Prokletije (Slavic) or Bjeshkete e Namuna (Albanian), both names translate into “Accursed Mountains” – so called for their wild and unsurmountable appearance. Also Jezerca, at 2694 meter the highest peak of the 600 kilometres long mountain chain, is located here. Manifold in variety the route’s highlights are the barren craggy limestone cliffs of the Western Alps where devoid of any green 1800m high karst towers plunge into steep valleys. In them extends dense fairy-tale beech forest and seemingly endless stretches of conifer across five national parks. They end at the high alpine glacial scenery of the Eastern Alps, an area dotted with many a lake that consists of eroded primary rock that saw the dinosaurs come and go. Those landscapes are connected by colourful meadows unrivalled in their biodiversity and intersected where crystal clear streams carved beautiful valleys that far from the cities are home to the highlanders (malisore) who defy the forces of nature since centuries.
The Isolation of these villages first produced, then preserved customs and traditions that have been lost elsewhere. Not only the famous Albanian hospitality but also the much feared blood feud are closely related to the unwritten highland law code called kanun. As remote those valleys may appear, they always been at the crossroads of nations, on caravan routes which are still in use travellers reached them and occupants such as Romans and Ottomans left their traces. In proximity of the route one finds an abundance of interesting sights, the UNESCO world heritage listed Visiko Decani Monastery and Serbian Patriarchate in Peja, the Turkish old town of Gjakova and Prizren or the vibrant city Shkodra with its impressive castle that towers of the Balkans largest lake are only few examples. Both the Skadar / Scutari and Koman Lake entice with unique boat rides and the railway line between Belgrade and Montenegrin port Bar is among the most beautiful of the continent. Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic, the Fjord-like Bay of Kotor, Ohrid in Macedonia or the uncrowded pristine beaches of the Albanian Riviera can be included in a journey.
Keep in mind that the Peaks of the Balkans is not a single path, it is more of concept that connects three different nations within one common mountain region. One can choose between a myriad of different routings according to personal preferences. While the original route as described on the website might be the most efficient for those choosing to travel independently without transport and sleeping in a tent, it is not the most beautiful or best option for everybody else. Many unpaved forestry roads were incorporated as a compromise solution when the countries demanded same shares of the route, those can be replaced with more scenic hiking routes and skipped or shortened with short transfers. Why not also attempt one of the many peaks along the route or include a side trip into the amazing Grbaja and interesting Kelmend Region? Guides were partly trained by the DAV (German Alpine Club) and can draw up personalized routes for you.
How long to walk?
With regard to gradients, ascent and descent most will prefer to walk the route anticlockwise as outlined in the official map. The described 10 stages can be further broken up and divided on 10 to 13 days, rest days should be added according to personal motivation and stamina. Most of our guided tours last from 7 to 15 days. With less days at hand one cannot experience the Peaks of the Balkans without rushing or leaving out one country.
Average walking time per day is at 6-7h relatively high, those preferring shorter walks should adapt the route accordingly.
When to walk?
The best time to hike the Peaks of the Balkans route is from mid-June to mid-September. Be prepared to encounter plenty of snow and to find accommodation closed if you disembark earlier. The later can also be true when autumn approaches, at this time temperatures start to drop and longer periods of rain become possible.
Within the valleys most people stay from spring to the beginning of winter, even the proper settlements are inhabited only by few year around. Most locals move to the meadows only from July to end of August when the weather is most stable and the low altitude meadows can’t support their livestock. Then the slopes are covered in blueberries and woods full of forest fruit.
This should not deter hikers from traveling outside this period but influence their route planning. Expect to meet snow on altitudes above 1800 meter until the end of June (especially northern facing slopes), in contrast water source in the karst areas can run dry as soon as August. The shepherd settlement Doberdol and huts of Milishevc see the shortest span of inhabitation, locals will arrive and leave once earlier, once later depending on weather conditions, it is crucial to check the situation before your departure. A good orientation provide the summer holidays from 15. June to 15. September when families move with their children to the countryside.
Best starting points for your trek are:
- Shkodra, Albania: 90min drive from Mother Theresa International Airport near Tirana, 75min from Podgorica airport, transfer from here to Theth (3h drive) or with the Koman Ferry to Valbona, an interesting alternative is the Kelmend
- Peja, Kosovo: 90min drive from Adem Jashari International Airport of Pristina, start your walk in the Rugova Canyon, 45min drive to village Reka e Allages
- Plav, Montenegro: 4-5h driving time from Podgorica airport
Flights & Airports
Next to the aforementioned hubs Tirana, Podgorica and Pristina, consider using Tivat (Montenegro), Dubrovnik (Croatia) or Corfu (Greece). Connections are often more affordable but require longer travel to the start point of the hike.
Bar, Podgorica, Kolasin and Bijelo Polje are served by the scenic train line which connects Serbia and Montenegro. You could travel from Munich within three days to those cities, one example itinerary:
- Munich (Germany) – Salzburg (Austria) – Ljubljana (Slovenia) – Zagreb (Croatia): many scenic stretches through Alps and along the Julian Alps
- Zagreb (Croatia) – Belgrade (Serbia): flat stretch, spend your time sightseeing Zagreb and take the night sleeper train
- Belgrade (Serbia) – Bosnia (9km stretch) – Montenegro (last station Bar): beautiful mountain scenery, highest railway bridge of Europe and steep gradient – don’t miss out on it!
Albania doesn’t have international connections and train travel is rather slow, the main station in Tirana was recently demolished and we advise against usage of trains for those reasons.
The Kosovarian town of Peja can be reached from Pristina, the country is connected by international trains to Macedonia (Skopje) and Serbia (Kraljevo).
Durres (Albania) and Bar (Montenegro) are the closest ports served by ferries from Italy (Bari, Brindisi, Ancona, Trieste). From central Europe travel either overland along the former autoput (Yugoslav Autobahn) via Salzburg, Villach, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade and Novi Pazar to reach Kosovo and the interior of Montenegro or choose the more scenic but probably slower route from Slovenia along the coast through Bosnia. Allow at least two days to cover the 1200km distance to Montenegro.
Border Crossing Permits
Apply at least two weeks in advance using the forms provided by each country. It is required to name the location, date and TIME of crossing. For walking the whole route three permits are required, each has to be obtained from the border police of the departing country.
Crossing for example from Vusanje (Montenegro) to Theth (Albania) you will need to fill in the timing, Ropojana Valley as location and send the paperwork to the police in Berane. You permit can then be picked up at the police station outside Plav after paying a fee.
The application requires your personal details, depending on the country a scan of your passport / id card and in Montenegro also the payment of a fee since 2014. After paying this tax at a local bank or post office within Montenegro you can, equipped with the payment slip, collect your permit at the border police station outside of Plav. In Albania and Kosovo permission is granted electronically and free of charge.
The situation is unfortunately a bit difficult as police often doesn’t respond in time nor speaks English, the payment of the fee depends on opening times of the institutions. Due to the character of the trails walkers will arrive after their closing times and usually leave before they reopen. Another annoyance is that the exact date and even time have to be stated, we understand that this is very difficult to plan in advance. Weather can interfere, one lose the route or just fall in love with a place and stay one more day then initially planned. The police in Kosovo started to send patrols (2014) to exit points (Liqenat) to control applicants. They were upset when people had left before the stated hour or arrived a day later, therefore we recommend travellers to inform the police about any changes.
However, all three countries previously agreed in a memorandum on a unified form and never to raise fees, according to the Montenegrin authorities laws even forbids those.
We recommend to send complains to the officials of the ministry of tourism listed on this website: http://www.mrt.gov.me/kontakt
The Kosovar ministry’s website is already offline for quite a while but mail can be directed to the police unit than processes the applications.
At the moment there is no other way to address complaints, concerns or improvement suggestions other than the official Peaks of the Balkans website.
Guesthouses and Hotels
In Albania you will mostly find family-run guesthouses, in Montenegro rather small hotels and a mix of both in Kosovo. At the starting points you can find high-class hotels and B&Bs, within the mountains mostly simple lodges that offer dorm rooms and full board.
Standards vary, in Theth and Valbona, the points on the Peaks of the Balkans route which are most frequented by foreign travellers, one will find professional hosts and also ensuite double rooms. In Doberdol, a high altitude pasture, on the other hand you sleep rustically in simple huts with stomped down earth ground and mattresses on a wooden platform without electricity or shower. You should prepare accordingly and consider to take a (hut) sleeping bag or adapt the route to fit personal comfort expectations.
English isn’t widely spoken but slowly spreads, German can be often used in Kosovo talking with emigrants and also in Montenegro where there were many German-speaking visitors before the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Be prepared to communicate with hands and feet, we also suggest to take a without words / image dictionary – this is especially helpful for food preferences. Especially in guesthouses you are cordially received by the family and quickly feel part of it. Grand mountain landscapes can be found in many places but those encounters turn a Peaks of the Balkans journey into an unique experience.
It is difficult to book accommodation online in advance, if there’s the option expect to encounter many other foreigners at this property. Beware of bottlenecks along the route, where only one lodge is available this one can be quickly fully occupied by a larger group. Elsewhere and even though indicated on the map there’s no accommodation available, opens only on request or for groups. Thanks to the hospitality of locals two hikers will always find a place to stay, groups should contact a local agent though.
Is almost everywhere possible, we recommend to inquire with the closest resident for permission. Even though it is not obvious meadows are owned by local families, they will happily accept and receive guests. A small gratitude should be left if you use facilities like shower and toilets, board can also be provided.
In Montenegro it is not allowed to camp on non-designated sites or outside private property within the national parks, this is especially true for Lake Hrid. The biotope is classified as highest protection zone but evidently not all visitors abide to it. We kindly request all hikers to use existing fireplaces and campgrounds, to dispose their trash in the cities (in villages there’s no public service) and keep water sources cleans.
Try to prepare and adjust to the Balkans’ mentality to avoid frustration, it can happen that 5min waiting time turn into half an hour and breakfast that should be ready at 7am is served 20min past. As a relic of socialist Yugoslavia the service concept and orientation isn’t fully developed in Montenegro but the Kanun states: “The house of the Albanian belongs to God and the guest”. Generally all private hosts will do their best to make your stay an enjoyable one. Those living in the simplest condition will vacant their rooms and share their last loaf of bread with guests.
While being accommodated
Full board with dinner, breakfast and a lunch / picnic package is the standard of the guesthouses, generally all types of accommodation offer three meals on request. Dedicated restaurants exist only in few places but also if you are not a guest of the house you can enjoy a good meal at one of the lodges. We also suggest to self-sufficient / catering travellers to sample the local cuisine, it will be a rewarding experience and is part of the Peaks of the Balkans experience.
Only few opportunities to do shopping exist (supermarkets and stores), they are limited to the cities of which Plav is the only on-route. In the villages small cafes sell snacks and drinks, rarely staple foods. Bread and locale produce like milk, yoghurt, cheese, honey and raki can be purchased from the shepherds or villages. Payment peculiarities are described below.
More than once you will be invited for cafe, mountain tea (cay), raki (a local spirit), a small meal or the like, in these cases you should leave a small gratitude. Due to local customs hosts usually won’t accept direct payments, it is common practice to either give the money straight to the children, indicate that it is meant for them or leave it unseen when you are leaving. Even if people refuse to accept continue to insist to pay something.
Take in regard the local conditions, somebody with asphalt access and car should receive a different reward then in a remote pasture in the mountains. We think that it is important that guests make a small contribution but it is also important not to exaggerate. As generally guideline consider to pay 50-100 lek / 50c for a drink or 500 lek / 3.50 eu for a meal.
All starting points are accessible with public transport, in Montenegro and Kosovo the lines are served by coaches with a fixed timetable, in Albania shared minibuses (called furgon) operate similar to the Turkish dolmus without a fixed timetable but the option to jump on/off wherever you like. Expect few or only one daily connection to most of the villages, in the more remote places there’s no regular line. It is possible to hire private cars for transfers, taxis exist only in the cities. Long stretches within the mountains can’t be accessed by car.
Baggage transfer if requested is often completed with horses or mules, those carry soft piece of luggage (no suitcases, only duffle and backpacks) from village to village. The horsemen know the routes but often take shortcuts and move on a faster pace than the regular hiker as they also need to return the same day. Transport by car is more difficult to organize for individuals, this is especially true for cross-border sections as a special permit is necessary to avoid problems with the customs officials.
The German publisher Huber sells a dedicated Peaks of the Balkans map in 1:60.000 scale, it is suitable for planning a trip but not for navigation in the mountains. While the PoB route is correctly displayed many details and other trails are missing, sometimes even roads. In Albania and Kosovo trails appear to be freehand drawn, Montenegro’s trail network is better but some routes are wrongly labelled as marked ones. Height lines are difficult to read and accommodation noted where it doesn’t exist, one trusts in the entrepreneurship of the local community. Pay attention not to end up in an area without mobile phone coverage and exposed to weather conditions without having confirmed that hosting is available.
The quality of the material is also insufficient, even when handled with care and sparsely used the map quickly tears. We suggest to cut the map in A4 tiles and to laminate them weatherproof.
The Peaks of the Balkans map of Huber can be purchased online, at local visitor information points and book stores, some hosts store it, too. There are few more maps available, for example Huber’s Prokletije and Northern Albania tiles as well as Vector’s Theth and Valbona maps – those are more detailed as the depict a smaller area.
We use geo-referenced military maps of 1:25.000 scale with GPS tracks we carefully recorded ourselves.
It is highly recommended to carry a GPS, the official stages have been uploaded by us to wikiloc as well as some of the side routes. A free and good base map exist for Albania and can be downloaded from bunkertrails.org, open source maps currently lack too many details. The best available commercial product for Montenegro and Kosovo is Garmin’s AdriaTOPO XL.
Trails are not sufficiently marked and bad weather can make orientation otherwise very difficult.
Currently red tape constitutes the largest hurdle for individuals to overcome. We consider the lack of information on the internet (very few trip reports exist) and about accommodation in particular another obstacle and urge readers to plan their journey thoroughly. If you walk the whole Peaks of the Balkans route, especially outside mid-June to mid-September, be prepared to independently spend a night outside in the mountains (food and shelter). While it is never far to the next settlement persistent heavy rains and fog can make it impossible to reach them.
Please mind the common dangers of mountain travel and alpine terrain, notably with regard to weather and temperature – many travellers underestimate those in Southern Europe. Keep in mind that you sometimes won’t have mobile phone and that one can walk for few days without encountering other hikers. Only in Montenegro and on a limited base mountain rescue service exist. Most of the time you will be on your own or rely on the local population.
The quality of marking varies strongly and is completely missing in one part. As the first stage of the project is “successfully completed” we are afraid this might not change in the near future. From the feedback we receive one is most likely to get lost in Montenegro and parts of Kosovo. Please pay extra attention on the stretch from Liqenat to Babino Pole, onward behind Hrid to Plav and the very difficult section via Mt Bor to Vusanje. Partly also the section Doberdol to Milishevc (we recommend anyways another then the foreseen route) and the descent into the Rugova Canyon can orientation-wise be challenging.
Marks are rectangular flags colour coded white-red-white, red-white-red or circular with red rim and white filling, on few occasions you will also see the small metallic sign and stickers with the Peaks of the Balkans logo. Pay attention as there’s no indicator whether you are on the PoB or another route, the same standard is used on all paths.
In 2007 mine clearing was officially completed and the track is free of them. Marked mine fields exist in far away from the main route in other parts of Kosovo. The Halo Trust based in Gjakova can supply more information and answer detailed questions http://www.halotrust.org/where-we-work/kosovo
People in the mountains, especially in Albania, live from pastoral farming and in transhumance. They move between winter villages and summer pastures and their flocks constitute their livelihood. The herds need to be protected from the very real danger of wolves and other wild animals, for this reason the Sharr shepherd dog is bred here. The Bavarian Broadcast called them calf-sized giants, make sure that the owner is nearby to assure certain passage them when you approach a flock. Mostly the dog will approach quickly and furiously bark but then keep distance, stay calm and if necessary use your sticks and stones to chase them off, even the gesture of throwing things can help. Normally the dogs aren’t danger but you should prepare yourself for such cases.
Wild animals are very timid as they are being hunted, you would be very lucky to see a wolf or bar though they still exist in bigger numbers. Most of the locals have seen neither despite them spending their half life in the mountains.
Above all snakes should be treated with respect, generally none of the aquatic species are poisonous nor do they inhabit high grass. Pay attention when walking across karstic sun-exposed rock fields or at the transition areas of forest. Both the nosed as well as horned viper, the most venomous snake of Europe, can be easily found here. After a bite you have 24h to receive the antidote before entering the life threating phase.
Most residents are, maybe especially here, honest people who will quote the regular prices and try to help to the best of their knowledge and belief. Unfortunately there are always some black sheep, those are mostly taxi drivers which charge non-locals high prices or recruiters waiting at bus stations for unwary travellers to offer transfers and accommodation. We suggest to turn down all offers in a friendly way, to try to get an overview yourself and compare different offers. A safe option is to ask accommodation to arrange drivers for a fixed price or to ask locals for the regular fare.
We can help!
With pleasure we assist if you have any question, please take in regard that during the summer time tour requests are given priority and a reply might follow only after few days. Contact us in English via firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2015 we hope to launch the portal www.peaksofthebalkans.info, we hope to create the “to go” place for individual travellers looking for information on routings, trails, accommodation and map material. We already have a huge library of pictures and more arrive every day with your help, the website should also include a board where people can exchange information.
Should there be any mistakes or crucial things missing in this short guide to the Peaks of the Balkans please notify us and we correct or add those.
On the official Peaks of the Balkans website those guides are listed who participated in the DAV (German Alpine Club) training course. For various reasons half of them have never guided nor will ever lead a group and therefore not reply to your request – unfortunately no one will take them off. However, most of the active and experienced guides aren’t included as due to other commitments they were unable to take advantage of this opportunity during the height of the season.
For your own safety you should make sure that your guide takes care of the necessary cross border permits.
Only few agents are able to tailor or even run a Peaks of the Balkans program as this was unheard of before 2012. Most offer walking tours only in their respective country but lack cross border trips. It is worth comparing different guides and agencies, to narrow down the choice see which list the Peaks of the Balkans on their websites.
Our guided trips