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Feature 05 Oct 17

Exploring the ‘Accursed’ Alps of Montenegro

Violently sharp peaks, azure lakes and the odd bear make Montenegro’s wild Prokletije mountains one of the Balkans hikers’ best-kept secrets. 

Srdjan Garcevic
BIRN
Belgrade

The Albanian, or Montenegrin, Alps are unique within the Balkans. Photo: Srdjan Garcevic 

Known ominously as 'The Accursed' in Albanian and Serbo-Croatian, it is easy to see how the impenetrable Prokletije (pro-klet-ee-yeh) range got its name. Its sinister, bone-white peaks hewn by massive glaciers still retain the remnants of great rivers of ice at the highest reaches. But it’s here, zig-zagging across northern Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro’s north-east, that you can find one of the wildest and most impressive landscapes in the region.

Unique within the Balkans, its flat valleys are surrounded by towering, ragged peaks reminiscent of the Italian Dolomites, earning them another nickname: the Albanian, or Montenegrin, Alps.

But unlike the Italian Alps, the Prokletije mountains haven’t been overrun by hikers. In spite of a recent tourism drive, particularly by Albanian operators, walkers are likely to have the trail to themselves. And now that the southern part of the chain has been included in the Via Dinarica, a 1,200-mile trek knitting together seven countries, the Montenegrin Alps are even more attractive to outdoor enthusiasts.

The town of Gusinje makes a good base for exploring the area. Although it’s a seven-hour drive from Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, it is worth it, snaking along the Ibar river with the medieval Maglic fortress, Ottoman-era Novi Pazar and UNESCO-listed St Peter’s church dotting the way. If you’ve flown into Montenegro’s Podgorica it’s only another two hours north by car.

Once in Gusinje, a town of less than 5,000 people, two stunning glacier valleys stretch out on the Montenegrin side of the alps: Grebaja and Ropojane.

The Grebaja valley lies fully within the Prokletije National Park and is flanked by Karanfili, a series of skeletal peaks soaring more than 2000 metres above sea level, with some of the most impressive cliff faces in the Balkans. A few small traditional villages alongside the trails offer accommodation and a chance to taste the local version of the hearty mountain dish of kacamak – polenta drowned in local cheese, milk and the Balkan clotted-cream, kajmak.

The main track from the valley floor takes a circular route, crossing the three peaks facing Karanfili: Volusnica, Talijanka and Popadija. Even a moderately fit hiker should prepare to be challenged.

It takes about seven hours to complete the trail, rest stops included. Leading first through deep forest, the path then gives way to steep mountain ridges covered with juniper bushes. At every point the track offers stunning views across Montenegro and Northern Albania with its highest point, 2056 metres above sea, straddling the Montenegrin-Albanian border.

Visiting in mid-September, the roars of a bear making his presence felt further off in the woods became our only companion for the day.

A gentle path follows the water all the way up to a magical place known as Oko Skakavice, or the Eye of Skakavica. Photo: Srdjan Garcevic

About 40 minutes’ drive on from Grebaja is the slightly less dramatic, yet still stunning Ropojane valley surrounded by rocks almost hanging off the peaks above. The main attractions are the features made by the chilly Skakavica river as it cuts its way through a thick forest. The entrance to the valley is marked by a magnificent rock formation carved by the river as it plunges off the stones before winding on. A gentle path follows the water all the way up to a magical place known as Oko Skakavice, or the Eye of Skakavica. Here at the head of the river a milky-azure pool sits in the middle of the forest, a few handsome rocks protruding from its depths. Although romantic and peaceful in autumn, in spring Oko Skakavice turns dramatic as the rising waters rush over the surrounding rocks to feed the river below. This walk is easy-going and only takes about an hour.

Although these two hikes will give you a good taste of the Montenegrin side of the Prokletije, there are many more thrills to be had, especially for experienced hikers with a bit more time. About two hours east of Gusinje is Lake Hrid, a good base for rock-climbers to try to bag the peaks of Karanfili. Those with a few more days up their sleeve could explore many more of Prokletije’s treasures by hiking over to the Albanian side.

Despite, or even because of, their relative remoteness, the Prokletije are a must-visit for any nature-lover in the Balkans. Even if you’re not a super-fit hiker, their quiet, otherworldly beauty will make you feel centuries away from the stress of daily life. You can visit the Montenegrin side of the Prokletije until the end of October, if it remains warm, but from then on they get cut off by snow until around May. 

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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