About 50km northeast of Kopliku, at the head of the River Shala, lies the national park named after its largest settlement, the village of Thethi. The area was a tourist resort during (and, indeed, before) the communist period and its attractive, traditional features were accordingly maintained, while in other parts of highland Albania they were destroyed either deliberately or through neglect. Edith Durham visited Thethi in 1908, and described her stay there in her book High Albania. ‘Life at Thethi was of absorbing interest,’ she wrote. ‘I forgot all about the rest of the world, and… there seemed no reason why I should ever return.’ The modern visitor’s reaction is likely to be similar.

There are 200 houses scattered across this Albanian valley, although only a handful of families live there all year round. Most people spend the winter in either Shkodra or Kopliku, and return to Thethi in April or May, for the start of the tourist season; they leave again in September or October, before the harsh winter weather sets in. The traditional houses are built of stone, and roofed with shingles (wooden tiles). They were designed to be easily defensible – these mountains were once the heart of blood-feud territory and every family needed to be able to defend its menfolk against revenge. A traditional house of this kind is now the village museum.

Of special interest is the ‘lock-in tower’ (kulla e ngujimit), the only one remaining of its kind that is easily accessible to visitors. The beautiful little church dates from 1892. All buildings are found in the town’s main settlement and can easily be visited during a day trip. A longer stay in Thethi will allow you to explore further afield and see some of the beautiful natural phenomena in the park. There are also many longer treks for the fit and well equipped, including the popular hike across the Valbona Pass to Tropoja.

Getting there and away

The main road to Thethi is clearly signposted from the highway north from Kopliku to the border with Montenegro. Just over an hour from Shkodra is the village of Boga, which was photographed by Marubi in the late 19th century. Boga has guesthouses and a campsite; given the relentless climb that lies ahead, these may be especially appealing to those intending to cycle to Thethi.

A series of increasingly steep and alarming hairpin bends leads up to the pass, Qafë-Thora, 1,775m above sea level. The road is asphalted as far as the summit, but not (at the time of writing) much beyond it. The views on the way are outstanding on a clear day, with towering mountain peaks on either side. There is a viewpoint at the pass and a café nearby.