This is a diary of my time on the Peaks of the Balkans. If you’re looking for a blog about practicalities, such as where to get food on the trail, you’ve come to the wrong place!
I’m in Montenegro. It’s three days before I’m due to start my long-distance hike of the Peaks of the Balkans, and I’m very, very sick. Diarrhea is flooding out of me, while I vomit out all of my insides.
The Peaks of the Balkans is officially 192km long, but more likely 200km, depending on whose measurements you use. I’m meant to be hiking it with my friend Paul, but the day before we are due to begin, he gets the same norovirus. And so we begin the trail late, meaning that he will only walk half of the trail, and I’ll walk the other half alone.
Day 1: Plav, Montenegro -> Fusha e Ruinices, Albania (36km?)
I’m slightly terrified as we begin Day One of the trail. I’ve checked several weather forecasts and they all predict severe thunderstorms. I really don’t want to be caught on today’s ridge in lightning. So we leave Plav at 5.45am to try to beat the storms: the earliest I have ever started walking.
Paul’s still feeling weak from the virus as we climb up a 4WD track through spruce forest, the ground covered in blueberries. But his energy increases as we pass two other hikers: his competitive streak kicking in.
We climb to a stunning plateau, full of wild flowers, and then onto the mountain ridge, more than 2,000m high. “This is wonderful!” I say repeatedly as I stand on Bora Peak, in awe of the view of the Accursed Mountains, and full of gratitude that there is no sign of a storm at all.
As we descend, we get a bit lost, and I almost lead us onto the path of Day Three (the POB trail pretty much overlaps in two different sections of the trail), but I use my phone’s GPS to correct us.
We come to our first katun (shepherds’ summer hut), buy some cold drinks, and then head down to Vusanje: if you’re hiking the trail in the official ten days, this is the end of the first section. But we’re hiking the trail quicker, and we’re wild camping, which gives us absolute freedom to hike as far as we want to go.
We relax at the restaurant next to a waterfall in the village, say goodbye to two dogs who have followed us all the way from Plav, and then continue onwards towards the Albania border.
“Water! We need water!” I say, panting, about half an hour past Vusanje. “Why didn’t we fill our bottles up in the village?” I moan. I look at the map. Excitedly, I see that there’s a lake coming up, and so we march on. But the lake’s dried-up, and so we walk and walk, over the Albania border, and through a flock of about one hundred sheep and their agitated dogs who are standing in the way of us and precious water.
It begins to rain in monsoon-like proportions, and we’re drenched as we make it to a katun at Fusha e Ruinices. We finally fill up our water bottles at a spring, and the friendly shepherds offer us coffee.
We set up our tents as audacious donkeys try to steal our food, and sheep step through our camp. The thunderstorm finally crashes down on us in the night, but we’ve picked the best spot possible, and I sleep soundly.
Day 2: Fusha e Ruinices, Albania -> halfway down the Valbone Pass, Albania (21km)
It’s freezing cold and foggy, and I’m wrapped up in my gloves and woolly hat as we pack down soaking wet tents at 8am. I think about how different this trail is for all those hikers choosing to stay in guesthouses, with their warm beds and comfortable mattresses.
We climb up to a pass, passing an abandoned military building, as well as some of Albania’s hundreds of thousands of bunkers, built by Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship in the 70s and 80s.
As thick fog engulfs us, I imagine how impassable this route must be in the winter time, and I think about the soldiers in the Albanian military in the 80s, forced to be stationed here in thick snow, on the look-out for any kind of invasion.
We reach the Peje Pass, and then begin the long descent down to the tourist town of Theth. Suddenly we’re surrounded by groups of day-hikers from all over the world, and I stop and chat happily to literally everyone I see.
Once in Theth we have a big meal, relaxing inside for a few hours as the rain lashes down outside. When the weather clears up, we begin the next official section of the trail: a very, very steep climb through beech forest up to the Valbona Pass.
The Valbona Pass is, simply, spectacular. We set up camp halfway down the descent from the Pass. There’s already a fire smouldering, so we rekindle it, listening to the terrifying sound of multiple rockfalls coming from higher up on the mountain. It’s cold up here, but I’m in bliss. Snuggled up in my sleeping bag in a spectacular place, I have everything I need.
Day 3: Valbona Pass, Albania -> Just before Ceremi, Albania (22km)
I wake up to the sun beaming down on my tent. Finally, it’s a sunny day!
It’s a long and easy descent down to Valbona, a tourist village situated in the most stunning valley. Even the asphalt road-walking can’t put me off this amazing place. Once more, we’re surrounded by day-hikers, walking up to the Pass.
Like many villages on the trail, Valbona is seeing a lot of construction as it becomes more and more popular as a scenic mountain destination. We sit in a restaurant, eat and drink, then go and wash our stinking socks in the river.
As we begin the official next section, we meet a Dutch guy called Jeroen, who’s also hiking a lot of the trail. The three of us climb the very steep path up the mountain in blazing hot sunshine to the Prosllopit Pass. Jeroen wants to hike up the highest peak in the area, so we say our goodbyes to him and then scramble down the other side of the pass.
We buy bread and hot tea from a wonderful shepherd family at another katun, before walking a couple more miles and setting up our camp just beyond more shepherds, with their animals and vegetable patches.
At night, I stare up at the million stars and I think about the self-sufficiency and simplicity of people’s lives here in these mountains, and compare it to our city lives, where we’re all grasping for something but never satisfied.
Day 4: Ceremi, Albania -> just beyond Three Border Peak, Kosovo, (23.5km)
Today doesn’t give us the most dramatic scenery, but takes us through small hamlets, full of wooden houses, cows and beehives. We stop at one cafe: a very basic wooden structure, where we meet our first tour group of the trail – a group of 25 from Poland.
Hiking on more, we come to another cafe, and, of course, stop again and chat to hikers.
We pass through a forest before arriving at barren-looking Doberdol village, which obviously used to be an obscure farming settlement, but has now expanded. New guesthouses have been constructed to accommodate the tour groups, who seem to absolutely love this section of the trail. We stop at one of the guesthouses for a drink, and I chat away to yet another tour group, this time a mixed bunch from all over the world.
The beauty of wild camping is that we leave the tour groups behind. Leaving Doberdol, we climb straight up steeply to a pass. At the top, I chuck down my rucksack, and then jog up to the top of the Three Border Peak, an add-on to the POB, which straddles Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. There’s a bitter wind, and as I balance my phone on the rock cairn to take a photo of myself, the wind smashes my phone to the rocky ground.
I jog back down again and join Paul, and the two of us walk along the ridge separating Kosovo from Montenegro, setting up camp on the invisible border. The ground is covered with blueberry bushes literally everywhere, something I start taking for granted on this trail, because they’re so abundant.
Day 5: Kosovo border ridge -> Puji i Magareve, Kosovo (23km)
It’s a cold night up on the border ridge, so we pack down quite late. We walk along the vibrant mountainside separating Kosovo and Montenegro, wild flowers and butterflies everywhere.
I say goodbye to Paul at the Zavoj Pass: he’s cutting the hike short and heading back to Plav.
My friend Katie, who finished the trail a few days before I started it, has already told me that I’m going to get very lost in the next section, and she’s not wrong. I’m happy that she warned me, because it means I embrace being lost, and don’t bother trying to stick rigidly to the path. I know the rough direction I’m going, and that’s good enough for me. As I approach Roshkodol village, young kids chat to me in English, pointing the way I need to go. This village is stunning: wooden cabins, typical in the Accursed Mountains, are scattered above a thick spruce forest.
An older woman hobbles up the track. She speaks zero English and I speak zero Albanian, but she invites me to her home anyway, and we sit together with no words between us.
I continue onwards to Milishevc, a tiny hamlet with a couple of guesthouses. With the help of Google translate, I order myself lunch, and chat to some fellow-hikers. This trail is quite lonely for a solo hiker: frustratingly, everyone else hiking is either in a romantic couple or in a tour group.
The next section, towards Doberdol, begins with a very steep climb up through juniper bushes, the greens of the plants and the grey of the rocks stunning in the bright sunshine. The way is barely waymarked. The GPX track on my phone comes in very handy (although a number of times on this trail, my phone’s GPX is incorrect, as is the official Peaks of the Balkans paper map. It is only the Cicerone guidebook which marks the POB correctly).
Eventually I make it to Pusi i Magareve, a small mountain lake, 2,100m high. But it’s little more than a massive drinking trough for cows, which are everywhere. I don’t want to try to pass cows with their young calves, so I pitch my tent at the other end of the lake, while they continue to drink the water. It is, of course, a cold night.
Day 6: Pusi i Magareve, Kosovo -> Dugaive, Kosovo (30km)
Today is a very, very long slog in 35°C heat. I can completely understand why 90% of POB hikers skip this section: the route seems to do a massive circle around the conifer forests of the Rugova valley, and feels like an add-on just to include more of Kosovo in the trail.
I road-walk up to Reka e Allages; the beautiful limestone crags around me make me forget how monotonous walking on asphalt is. There’s no sign of life in the village, and I continue up up up, grateful to be sucking the juice from plums that are growing on trees all around here, and then collapse under the shade of a pine tree.
After resting, I struggle to climb a massive hill up through a conifer plantation: a monoculture forest regularly cut for its timber.
When I get to the meadow at the top, I meet a bunch of seven German hikers who, weirdly, aren’t skipping the Kosovo section either! After chatting for a while, I continue on a forest track to Drelaj village, which is eerily quiet, and I pass by without speaking to a soul. The way to Dugaive is all on asphalt. People shout hello from their cars as I trudge for miles up the asphalt road (“no, thanks, I don’t want a lift..I am walking!”)
I finally reach Dugaive, which, to my surprise, is a god-send of a village. This place is quaint: there’s a sign about a grandfather who used to sleep with a snake in his bed. The renovated kulla (a house of hospitality) is now a private home, but the people staying there invite me to sit with them and tell me about their experiences when Kosovo was bombed by Serbia in 1999. This village was flattened during the war. Those who have rebuilt here live elsewhere in Europe these days, and use their money from abroad to construct summer houses here.
The family opens the tiny shop – which is literally just a cupboard – and I gratefully stock up on chocolate and fizzy drink.
They let me pitch my tent outside the shop (which also has wifi). I go to sleep content: this section of the POB sucks compared to the rest of the trail, BUT Kosovo is worth hiking if only for the lovely, hospitable people.
Day 7: Dugaive, Kosovo -> Babino Polje, Montenegro (23km)
Today’s stage is the toughest for me. I’ve been doing the trail much quicker than the recommended ten or eleven days, and now I’m exhausted. Yesterday’s asphalt road-walking in 35°C heat has taken its toll, and I need a day’s rest, but I’m pushing on to the end.
I descend steeply through pine forest to a road, and then slog for about 5km on asphalt steeply uphill, my legs and hands red raw with sunburn.
“No, thanks, I’m walking!” I say once more to every person who drives past, asking me if I want a lift. “I WILL walk every millimetre of this damned trail, even if I’m not really enjoying it,” I mutter to myself for the umpteenth time.
I finally reach the mountain village of Liqenat, eat lunch at the restaurant overlooking the valley I’ve just hiked up from, and then begin the next official section of the trail: undoubtedly Kosovo’s more spectacular section, and one of the best parts of the POB.
The pine forest in this section is unlike all the other pine forests I have hiked through in Kosovo: this one isn’t an awful timber plantation with random trees sliced down. This one is lovely. The steep climb takes me to a really stunning lake: one of the highlights of the whole POB. Some tourists are swimming, but I continue onwards.
The trail continues past a second dried-up lake, before climbing up between limestone mountains to the Jelenak Pass. The way is stunning: I walk among pines, boulders and wild flowers. But this climb is excruciating for me, and I stop every five metres or so: the heat and the steepness getting to me. Until now I’ve no doubt been the fastest POB hiker around, but right now I’m definitely the slowest. But as there’s pretty much no other hikers walking Kosovo, nobody sees me swearing and collapsing in a heap at the Pass! This is the highest point of the whole POB.
Now it’s downhill towards Montenegro, and this feels like the home straight: my loop of the Accursed Mountains is almost complete! I pick up the pace as I walk back towards the Zavoj Pass: the very spot where I said goodbye to my friend just a couple of days before. I snack on blueberries as I skip along.
I camp next to a shepherd’s hut above the village of Babino Polje in Montenegro. 21km to go!
Day 8: Babino Polje, Montenegro -> Plav, Montenegro (21km)
This is a really lovely final day, hiking up through stunning fairytale forest,strewn with boulders and blueberries, to a lake.
There’s been a thunderstorm down in the valley below me the whole day, and it finally hits me when I’m 2,000m high. I meet a Belgian tour group of young hikers, all sheltering in a stone building, as the thunder rumbles above and the monsoon-like rain lashes down.
I come to a tiny wooden hiking hut, used by the local mountaineering association. Luckily, it’s unlocked, and I shelter there for twenty minutes as the lightning flashes. The Belgian group then piles in.
I walk some of the descent to Plav with them. I’m grateful for their company: these are my final miles of the POB and there’s something very sad about finishing a trail alone without anyone to celebrate with! But I’m much quicker than them, and I leave them to slide their way down the muddy mountainside and walk the final 8km alone to Plav.
I arrive in Plav at mid-afternoon. I’ve completed the POB in eight days! I eat a celebratory pizza, book a hotel room and take my first shower in more than a week.
The POB isn’t my favourite hike ever, but it’s a pretty good one nonetheless, and I would highly recommend it. But be warned, although not a technical trail, it is STEEP!
If you can only section-hike a couple of days, do the Albania section: the Accursed Mountains in Albania are dramatic and stunning.
The POB is a particularly interesting trail because this hike isn’t just about nature: it’s also about history (if you’re willing to learn). From Enver Hoxha’s military bunkers to the graves of all the Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, this is a fascinating region to walk through.
Local people throughout the trail are wonderfully hospitable and kind (particularly in Kosovo). There’s so many good wild camping spots that hikers are spoiled for choice: in fact, I would say that this is literally the best area I have ever been in the world for wild camping.