It’s hard to know what is on and off the beaten path these days. Most travelers get their information from the Internet (yes, including you right now) in a way that was never possible before with regular guidebooks. But with the proliferation of information is there still a beaten path? Or are we all beating down the grass as we wander freely here and there depending on the whims of a Google search?
Whatever the answer is, for most people Albania as a country is off the beaten path and is just starting to open up to tourism. Travel to the northern mountain regions, where the fastest way to travel is by lake ferry, or by foot, and you can be pretty sure you are off the beaten path. I heard about the Komani Lake Ferry in Kosovo and decided to give it a try. It is by far one of the most beautiful, and gritty ferry rides I have experienced. In fact I’d even call it a classic boat journey that most people should experience at least once in their lives. The journey is not made easy for tourists as it caters to residents and traders traveling down to the coastal areas. But it will by far be the highlight of your trip to Albania. The bonus is that you can easily combine this with a hike in Northern Albania, or a trip to or from Kosovo. These are all places most people would consider off the beaten track, although to be honest there were plenty of tourists sitting ride beside my wife and I!
Riding the Ferry on Albania’s Komani Lake
Komani lake was Albania first major hydro electric project in 1970 and helped the country not only become a net exporter of energy, but also created an amazing winding system river system of turquoise waters, staggering cliffs, and remnants of a life cut out of a savage land where journeys are measured in days rather than hours. There are no cities or towns along the ride, only solitary houses
The Komani Ferry is large enough to carry 50 cars, and scores more passengers. It travels only 2 times a day and leaves from the western side from the town of Komani (kind of near Shkodra) at 10 am and earlier from the eastern side from Bregluma (near the small town of Fierza) at 8 am. The ferry may depart or arrive half an hour earlier than suggested as the above schedule is not fixed!
The timing means that it’s impossible to take the ferry south in the morning and then have time to explore and return on the same day. But the magic of the lake is the ride itself and can be combined with any number of other activities, from visiting the castle town of Shkodra, to hiking the remote mountain passed from Valbona to Thethi.
We drove 5 hours from Pristina on a Friday down to Shkodra on the new highway and in the morning took the ferry back towards Kosovo. Unless you have massive amounts of time, a car is a necessity on this trip due to the lack of public transportation and the remoteness of the ferry terminal itself. In fact, the last 20 km to the western ferry port took nearly 1-½ hours due the rugged road conditions. You will definitely want a 4-wheel drive vehicle for this trip.
Don’t miss the Komani Ferry!
Start the day early and arrive at least an 2 hours before the ferry is scheduled to depart if you are driving a car. The parking area on the western end is just past the damn and you need to travel through a hand carved tunnel to reach the small port area. There is not a lot of room to park here (they charge you for this too! but only 50 lek) so it’s best to get there early and have a coffee while you wait. There are a few small shops along the water. You can also buy drinks and snacks on the ferry, and it’s wonderful to watch the organized chaos surrounding the loading and unloading.
The ferry usually departs a little late as the last inches of space are negotiated to fit as many cars and buses on as possible. There are also smaller boats available for hire and many people use them to move into the mountains in the summer for the harvest. Life in the region is harsh, and money and resources are hard to come by. Many families will toil on their land for the 3 months to earn 20-50 Euros and stock up their food for the winter.
The ferry ride itself lasts about 2 ½ hours and travels through stunningly remote areas, along steep cliffs and mountains that give the Accursed Mountains their name (an area so remote and harsh it could only have been created by the devil). This is one of those experiences that are slowly fading from our hyper connected and efficient world. It’s a place where trade and sweat still have a caloric value and you can feel the worth of your ticket (400 lek per person and 1200 lek per square meter of car…don’t worry they will calculate it for you). All in all I was very happy to experience the trip, and would recommend it to anyone with the time and spirit. Combine the trip with a more in depth travel to the Balkans and you’ll be sure to leave wondering what the hell CNN and BBC are going on about. The region and its people are lovely, and you’ll be hard pressed to find more genuine locals and landscapes.
Have you been to Albania? Would you go? Where did you go off the beaten track recently?