An Epic Voyage along Lake Koman into Kosovo

Do you want to experience one of the world's most spectacular boat trips? How about spending just 10 Euro per person to get from Shkoder to Fierza; a stone's throw from the Kosovo border? Would you like to get caught up in the romance of slow local-style ferry travel? Is seeing more of the stunning Albanian countryside appealing to you? If so, look no further than this easy to follow guide to ride the Lake Koman ferry; the fourth part of our three-country Balkan summer escapade!

The Fourth Part of a Family Adventure Through the Balkans

Although some families consider long, adventurous journeys undesirable with young children, we've exposed our son Rafael to challenging travel situations from a very young age. Born on Siargao Island, Philippines, he joined us on a rugged journey along the coastline of eastern Mindanao at just four years of age. A couple of years later, he established himself as Saudi Arabia's only kid surfer and survived a series of grueling Eastern European train journeys. Keen to maintain the momentum, this year we booked a open jaw ticket to the Balkans and decided it was time for us all to see a region low on the radar of most travelling families. Through a succession of grueling overland journeys, we hoped Rafael would thrive and embrace a road trip on the less trodden path. Lake Koman into Kosovo was the fourth part of our summer adventure, which had already taken us to Istanbul, Tirana, and Dhermi Beach.

Dhermi to Shkodër

While sorting out our Albanian itinerary, I had joked with Miras that if something went wrong 200 would probably be enough to put it right. Turns out we needed 250 to do the trick. Albanian public transport is definitely not its strong point. Originally I had eyed up an awesome train journey from Durres to Shkodër, but during a last minute re-check I found the train service had been dramatically altered from what I had noted previously. Therefore, on our last night in Dhermi, I approached the kind waiter who had served us so well at Lucianos and asked him if he knew anyone willing to drive us all the way to Shkodër the next day. I mentioned 200 Euro as the right sort of compensation for the 275km journey by private taxi. It took him less than ten minutes to find one of his friends willing to make the most of a quick cash opportunity. However, due to the distance involved, his friend insisted on 250 compensation which we rapidly and happily agreed to.

While a short-hop taxi to Durres and chugging slow train to Shkodër would have been a memorable experience, the convenience of a door to door taxi straight to our hostel was certainly incredibly comfortable and efficient. The first part of the journey simply retraced our steps almost all the way back to Tirana until we suddenly lurched to the north about 20km before the capital. Fast roads, distant mountain ranges and fairly flat landscapes dominated the entire journey. About five hours later, the taxi deposited us in the heart of Shkodër town, where a no-drive zone made it difficult to get to our accommodation of choice: Bulldog Hostel. Therefore, we asked our driver just to drop us and relied on some google map printouts, dragging our bags through the main thoroughfare and down a final cobbled side street to Bulldog's prime location.

Shkodër

During check-in formalities at Bulldog, it became immediately apparent that Shkodër was far more than just a place to stop for the night en route Lake Koman. Although I had briefly read about the
Valbonë Valley National Park during the planning stages of this trip, I had dismissed the possibility of seeing much of it without a seven-day commitment. Bulldog's super-friendly owner quickly convinced me otherwise, but it was too late to change our schedule now.  However, if you decide to come up to Shkodër you should think about staying a few days longer in order to visit the park - one to three-day tours are available.

Apart from the tour information and arranging our onward travel along Lake Koman for just €10 per person, Bulldog's owner recommended a super local-style restaurant and advised us how much we should pay to visit Shkodër's famous castle; the only two things on our agenda for the remaining afternoon. After a scrumptious late lunch at Vila Bekteshi (more information and photographs below), we took a taxi to the edge of the city and up a rocky hill to Rozafa Castle. Offering striking views of the city skyline, nearby rivers and distant mountains, it was a real pleasure to explore the ruins with few other visitors around. Sadly, it was impossible to find a taxi for the return trip so we decided to walk the 2km back into the city centre - perhaps we should have just paid our taxi to wait! Already tired from the long car journey from Dhermi, the walk back took its toll and made us decide to grab some snacks and sleep early to prepare for the next day's sunrise departure.

Places to Stay & Eat in Shkodër

Shkodër definitely has the feel of an up and coming city. There's already heaps of accommodation and restaurant options, and many more will probably spring up in the years ahead as tourism begins to boom. We'd definitely recommend our lodgings, Bulldog Hostel, to anyone looking for a super-cheap €8 room or a comfortable family room with balcony for 25. Like anywhere, it's the people who make the place and the family who run Bulldog immediately make you feel right at home. Spotlessly clean, perfectly situated, able to arrange onward travel and tours, it's the perfect place for a few nights in the city. Alternatively, if self-catering or independence is your thing, consider checking Airbnb for a variety of homes, rooms and spaces from €10 a night.

Alongside its burgeoning accommodation scene, restaurants abound the streets too. Of course with just one night in the city we only tried one place, but it was definitely a sound choice. Situated away from the main tourist drag, Vila Bekteshi offers magical Albanian food in wonderfully traditional surroundings. Soup starters, meat main dishes and ice cream desserts filled us up and made us happy - isn't that what all good restaurants should do?

Shkodër to Koman

While public furgons (minibuses) ply the Shkodër to Koman route, we felt more comfortable availing of Bulldog's package price: €10 per person from Shkodër to Koman including the three-hour ferry trip and half price for children. Bulldog's owner kindly waited with us and helped load up our luggage once the private minibus arrived. Taking a generally easterly direction, we were hurled around bend after bend by the energetic, youthful driver who never made us feel unsafe. Dramatic mountain and lakeside scenery kept us all gripped for the entire journey - well worth the €10 charge in itself, but the best was easily yet to come.

The Lake Koman Ferry

Situated on the Drin River in Northern Albania, Lake Koman is a man-made reservoir constructed between 1979 and 1988. Surrounded by Scandinavian style forests, vertical slopes and deep gorges, the stunning scenery is accessible by a daily ferry which runs between Koman and Fierza, not far from the Kosovo border. While the lake itself is a massive draw with the few tourists who make it up to the north, we decided to include it on our itinerary for both its reputation for beauty and the practicality of getting closer to the Kosovo border, rather than going back to Tirana and flying to Prishtina.

Once the private minibus dropped everyone off beyond the huge dam, ferry staff hustled us aboard a moderately sized car transporter style ferry. Clearly keen to leave on time, we had hardly been there five minutes when the captain sounded the horn, ordered all ropes pulled in and ignited the engine. Over the three hours that followed, the Lake Koman Ferry delivered some of the most insanely beautiful scenery you could possibly imagine. Hilly landscapes became craggier and craggier, and towards the end it felt more like Norway than the Balkans. Protected by the sheer drops, the water became like a mirror or a sheet of glass in certain sections. In short, if you are anywhere near northern Albania, this is an unmissable trip; and for us it was absolutely the best ferry ride of our lives! 

Follow in our footsteps

Dhermi to Shkodër cost us 250 Euro by taxi. Public transport options via Durrës are available for far less - buses, vans and trains are super cheap, but you have to expect slow buses, schedule changes and being generally inconvenienced to make the 275 km trip to the north. Also, you might be forced to spend the night in Durrës, pushing up your costs unless you'd like to visit the city too.

– Hiring a car in Albania is definitely the best option if you have an international driver's licence and good driving skills.

– Check booking.com and Airbnb for accommodation options in Durrës and Shkodër. It makes sense to book ahead using booking.com (using free cancellation option if plans change) to ensure you get the right place for the right price. 

– If you want to stay where we did, Bulldog take bookings on their own website or you can find them on agoda. They are currently not taking bookings on booking.com.

– Once you arrive in Fierza there are limited public transport options available to connect with Kosovo in the same day - you could try your luck at Bajram Curri or find a taxi to take you across the border. For us, we decided to get a taxi rather than risk the possibility of another night in northern Albania. Fortunately, two taxis were waiting for the boat's arrival and we negotiated €50 for a direct trip to Prizren. From Prizren it's easy to arrange onwards transportation to anywhere in Kosovo including the capital Prishtina.

Rafsworld - Video Highlights (coming soon)

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