Presentation of the destination
Kukes is a stunning regional town located on an artificial lake. It was entirely built during the 1970s after the original Kukes was submerged beneath the reservoir for a hydroelectric dam. The town is also known as Kukesi i Ri (New Kukes), but mostly is referred to as Kukes. It is surrounded by lush green hills, and the snow-capped peaks of Gjallica Mountain, part of the Dinaric Alps. While there is not a huge amount to do in Kukes, there is plenty of beautiful wilderness nearby for hikers and nature lovers to explore. Hike up Gjallica Mountain or try some of the walks at the Valbona Valley National Park to see the wonderful beauty of Albania’s pristine areas. During winter you can go skiing in nearby Shishtavec, or just relax in the alpine air and bask in the villager’s warm hospitality. Kukes sits right on the Albanian/Kosovan border, so it is a handy place to stop for a night before making the journey across the mountain range. Kukes is the only town in the world to have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize due to its intake of hundreds of thousands of Kosovan refugees during the Kosovo War in the late nineties.
Points of interests / things to see
Enjoy the daily market in Kukes from dawn til lunch time at the northern end of town. Here you will find authentic traditional clothing such as beautifully embroidered slippers, food and produce such as apples, honey and walnuts, the Albanian alcoholic grape drink called raki and handcrafted items. Kukes also has a carpet factory, as well as carpet makers around the region so you may find a bargain on a traditional woven rug at the bazaar. Kukes bazaar is the largest market in the Kukes region, so is a hub for agricultural producers in the surrounding areas to sell their wares. The minibus station is handily located nearby the bazaar, so you can stock up on snacks before you head off on a mountain hiking trip or over the border to Kosovo. Head to one of the nearby cafes after your shopping trip to try out some of Kukes’ specialty foods: stuffed cabbage rolls, and delicious fried flatbread.
When the old Kukes was abandoned due to the hydroelectric dam built on the White Drin River in the 1970s, the town was flooded and is now habitat for the fish of the Fierze Reservoir. From some angles when the water is low and clear it is said you can see glimpses of the old town beneath the lake. The stunning shores of the reservoir are a popular place to enjoy the sunshine, go for a swim on hot summer days, and have a picnic with views of rolling hills in the background. Unfortunately Albania has a littering problem, so the shores of the reservoir are sometimes a bit garbage-strewn. The reservoir can be seen from some of the hotels on the hillside, making a spectacular scene at sunset. For those wanting to enjoy a little more time on Albanian waters, take the spectacular two-hour ferry trip on Koman Lake from Fierze to Koman. Rocky cliffs covered in greenery rise straight out of the lake, which was also created by the Fierze Hydroelectricity project. Fierze is a few hours’ drive north from Kukes, and is not far from the Valbona Valley National Park.
The beautiful Albanian Alps and peaceful Valbona Valley are located 122 kilometres north west of Kukes, a few hours’ drive away on the border of Montenegro. The area is part of an international park shared with Montenegro and Kosovo, where you can enjoy the untouched natural beauty of the Alps. Hikers can camp in the glorious wilderness by the icy-blue Valbona River, discover the deliciously fresh (and organic) local food including honey that comes from the thyme that grows around the valley, and enjoy the hospitality of the small village of Valbona. You will be welcomed into houses by the locals Keep an eye out for traditional Albanian buildings, such as ancient watermills and stone bridges. Herders run their goats and cattle over the green pastures, wildflowers colour the hillsides, dolomite cliffs rise from the Valbona River, and clouds puff across the hills. You’re likely to see wild boars, black and yellow fire salamanders on wet days, otters and if you’re lucky, the occasional European Brown Bear. This truly is a nature-lover’s paradise. Some tour companies provide guided tours of the Valbona Valley area, which make it easier as they provide translation, transport into the valley and make sure you’re on the right hiking trail and not following a goat track!
The highest mountain in the Kukes region is a picturesque place for keen hikers, with its snow-capped peaks and beech forests. At the peak of the Gjallica hike nearly 2500 metres (8000 feet) above sea level, you have an eagle-eye view over Kukes and Lake Koman and to the Albanian Alps in the Valbona Valley National Park. The mountain is mostly dolomite and limestone, and begins in lush grassy slopes, transitioning to alpine forest and progressing to rocky dolomite and limestone peaks. It is best to be well prepared as there are no facilities on the mountain, so provisioning with food and water, and camping gear is the best way to ensure your hike is an enjoyable one. The best routes up the summit are nearby the old copper mine a few kilometres out of Kukes, or from Shtigen, the outlying town on the south of Kukes. Tracks lead over the mountain pass to the picturesque alpine villages of Brejke and Topojan. It is best to hike in a group as there are sometimes lynxes, grey wolves and European Brown Bears around the Dinaric Alps, of which Gjallica forms a part. The numbers of these species have dwindled due to human interference, so while it is rare to see one, it is an exciting event when they are spotted!
On the Kosovan side of the border in the town of Prizren you’ll find the Albanian League of Prizren Museum, where you’ll discover the ethnographic and political history of Albanians, Bosnians and Turks from the region. On this site the first meeting of the League of Prizren was held in 1878 to place diplomatic and then militarily enforced demands for Albania’s autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. The demands were not met, and the town remained occupied first by the Ottomans, and then the Serbs, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgarians and then became part of Serbian-Croatian Yugoslavia. Many of the leaders of the League of Prizren were imprisoned or killed during a backlash by the Ottoman Empire after the murder of a Turkish diplomat. During the late 1990s the museum buildings were largely destroyed by occupying Serbian forces, however they have now been completely rebuilt. In the four-building museum complex you’ll see patriotic art, busts of the League members, historic photos, a traditional Albanian costume known as a xhubleta and traditional Albanian hats. There are no English captions in the museum but there is a collection of letters and documents written in English by expat observers of the Prizren League. The museum has very cheap entry.
Just under an hour’s drive from Kukes over the Kosovan border is the historic city of Prizren. Wander over the old stone bridge, and discover the mosques and churches of the town. The Sinan Pasha Mosque, was built in 1615 by the Ottomans out of salvaged stones taken from a ruined monastery. Enter through the stunning triptych of domes and arches to discover the beautiful frescoes of flora and inscriptions from the Koran inside the main dome. The mosque is still used to prayer to this day, so it is best to check with locals about prayer times and remember to remove your shoes on entry.
The village of Shishtavec sits high on a plateau above the Vanave Gorge, between an hour to two hours’ drive away. The area contains a wealth of geological fascinations to explore, from the beautiful rocky mountains, natural caves, waterfalls and fantastic areas for canyoning. The locals are extremely welcoming and there are several guest houses to stay in to discover Albanian mountain food. In the summer you can explore the birch forests and camp in the luscious green pastures of the highlands, and in winter there are opportunities for skiing. Unless you are taking the minibus from Kukes you definitely need a four wheel drive vehicle to navigate the road to Shishtavec.
Because of the novels of Ismail Kadare, Albania has become known for its roadside towers known as kulla, which have historically offered sanctuary for those involved in blood feuds in accordance with the traditional laws known as Kanun. In the village of Letaj you can visit a three storey tower built in the 1800s. Its impressive traditional stone structure has no windows on the first floor. A ladder inside allowed men involved in blood feuds to climb to the next floor and withdraw the ladder, ensuring their safety for as long as they stayed inside. Often their wives and children would bring them food and water. Towers such as the Kurpali Kulla represent a tangible part of Albania’s cultural and often bloody history.
Though it is a long drive to Valbona Valley from Kukes city, it is well worth the journey for the pristine natural environment you will encounter. Camp in green fields, take a hiking or mountain biking trip, and stay in the guest houses of rural Albania where you’ll be served traditional food such as spit roast. With the views over snow-capped mountain peaks, the rushing Valbona River, and ancient stone and thatch houses, Valbona Valley is a photographer’s dream. You can even go skiing during the wintertime, but you need to have a sense of adventure, and take your own gear as there is no ski lodge or lifts.
Vacation rentals in Kukës (Kukës County)
How to get there ?
Fly in to Tirane or Durres, the main cities of Albania. A recently completed highway from Albania’s capital Tirane to Kukes makes getting there by hire-car or bus quite easy, although the bus ride takes six hours and driving only takes two hours. It can be a good idea to rent a car in Tirane as Albania’s attractions in this area are quite spread out. There have been few attempts to develop the Kukes region for tourists, but this is also what makes its wilderness areas so special. Minibuses known as Furgons run from Kukes to Shkoder, a larger city by the Koman Lake, and to Shishtavec an alpine village where you can camp in green meadows during summer and ski during the winter months. Minibuses also run to Durres on the coast where you can enjoy the Adriatic Sea and explore Roman Ruins. You can also get in to Kukes from Prizren in Kosovo via minibus. Although there is the occasional cyclist who braves the highways to cycle into Kukes from other small towns it is not recommended as the roads can have poor visibility around bends and because of having to wind around mountains the road in makes for a very long journey. Weather can also be unpredictable because of the mountains. There is an airport outside of Kukes but it is only used for private flights, cargo and flying ambulance services.
Hotels in Kukës (Kukës County)
8503 - Kukës
Indicative price : 25 EUR - 50 EUR
Rruga Mehmet Hoxhe Brruti
8501 - Kukës
Indicative price : 5 EUR - 15 EUR