Shköder to Valbonë up Lake Koman by Bus Ferry ⛴
Undecided, I assumed I would take a bus to Tirana, the Albanian capital. I had ended up at Shköder for a few nights. The homestay owner there decided for me, I’d head up to Valbonë on the Lake Koman Ferry. Frequently described as the most beautiful ferry ride in all of Europe, the slow but comfortable journey goes up Albania’s largest river from the large hydroelectric dam through sheer high cliff faces and mountains, letting locals off on the way.
It was an early start today. Transport outside the major routes in Albania is by minibus or ‘furgons’ that ply across the country. Seemingly unregulated but incorporated into the daily schedule of locals. The owner had arranged for me to leave at 06:30 although the lake ferry didn’t depart until three hours later. He was up early too and gave me a coffee then walked me to the street with a waiting minibus. Figured we must stop on the way but settled in for a journey out of the city. We drove for approximately 40 seconds, around the corner, only for the driver and couple elderly passengers to get out and get a drink at a coffee shop. FFS. Although this city stays open late it also starts early and people know each other well.
After a good 20-30 minute wait where I literally did nothing, we finally departed again but this time for good. We start moving our way through the north Albanian countryside with wide open spaces but nothing of particular beauty.
Most of the roads are small single lanes, although it’s flat and straight. A few other minibuses head the opposite and we pickup and dropoff a few people at random locations along the way. This trip stops at Vau i Dejës, a nondescript town near a down stream hydroelectric plant. Although early the place was busy with morning markets and may be a local transit point. We spent another 15-20 minutes here, again to some otherwise mysterious schedule.
From here the road changes as it follows the River Drin up towards the largest dam. This is the same river that empties into Lake Shkodra at Rozafa Castle. The area becomes starkly more remote and the road is more a track that follows the path of the river. Although it has had some minor upgrades, probably for the dam construction, it is mostly makeshift bridges and a twisted path up to the town Koman. Although you can’t see the dam wall at first you immediate see the huge amount of water being ejected from one of the mountain sides from the hydro power plant.
The dam itself is still a busy construction site. I’m unsure if they’re still working on it, improving it or maintaining it. We drove through an access tunnel built into the rock. It looked like it could have been used as a water channel if it were not full of vehicles. The exit arrives at a very small and completely crowded spot where the ferries depart.
There are several ferries that depart from here and frankly it’s just confusing. Organised chaos of course. There’s no clear idea what to get on or where to buy tickets. I see and hear other foreigners asking and am fortunate to immediate make friends of some also going to Valbonë. Other tourists, mostly backpackers, are also there and clearly confused which ferry goes where. Well they all go in the same direction, that much is certain but there are larger ferries capable of carrying vehicles and a smaller one that someone said was “unlicensed”. Not sure if that even means anything in this part of the world. The first one to start boarding was the smaller passenger ferry so I jumped on that with everyone else. Others had tickets but had not paid, again confusing, I assumed we could just pay onboard which was later the case.
We eventually depart, the ferry about half full and carry some small local cargo. We nickname it a bus-ferry because the interior cabin really does appear that they’ve repurposed an old road bus into a water vehicle. Fortunately the sun is out and it’s a beautiful day so we all spend the entire journey outside the boat. I nearly left the prior day and it was raining heavily at times, so would have completely changed the experience. It starts with heavily forested mountain sides to sheer cliff faces.
The resource is well stock with constant streams of small waterfalls replenishing the lake along the way.
Along the way local passengers get off at the most random locations, from hillsides with small villages to small outcrops from cliff faces that seem impossible to climb. What’s more they range from men well dressed in suits to young women sporting attire fashionable in any western European city.
Towards the end of the journey the vehicle ferry catches up to us, having not stopped on its journey. The approximately three hour journey covers a distance of 35 km or just 25 km as the crow flies and stops short of just about anywhere. There are vehicles waiting on the other end including some drivers waiting on any travellers going to various destinations. A few of us are going to Valbonë so we split between two cars. We briefly pass through the regional town centre of Bajram Curri. It’s about another 30 minute drive up the heart of the Valbonë Valley. This valley is even more amazing and it’s the best road we’ve had yet!
Two friends get out at their accommodation while the other needs a place to stay. I’m unsure if I did have a reservation or not at ‘the other place’ so we both enquired and being a quiet time, there were rooms available. The other car just kept going so we have to find her colleague and travel companion first. We get driven to the other place, some distance in. They don’t have a reservation but do have rooms and our lost travelling companion shows up after no luck calling/messaging him. So decision time: time, all three of us stay here or go back to the first place. This place is closer to the major hiking trail but we’ve all decided not to do that now after it apparently snowed the other day. The first place looked a lot nicer, had a restaurant and was more accessible so back we went. It turned out to be a great decision.