Theth is a wonderful village in northern Albania’s Shkodra region. Set among the peaks of the Shala mountains, Theth is isolated, and in times of snow, practically inaccessible.
Edith Durham, a famous English traveler and writer on the Balkans, visited the area in 1908. She wrote of its seclusion:
‘I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from the entire world. It is a spot where the centuries shrivel; the river might be the world’s well-spring, its banks the fit home of elemental instincts–passions that are red and rapid.’
Legend has it that Theth was founded 400 years ago by 6 brothers. Individual parts of the village still bear the names of these brothers. In a presentation at the International Peace Research Association, Antonia Young, an anthropologist who participated in a 2005 research project in Shala valley, suggested this ‘perceived family link’ could be the explanation for the unusually low levels of internal conflicts and blood feuds in Theth. According to Theth’s primarily Catholic inhabitants, the village was founded as a refuge to escape conversion to Islam by the Ottomans.
After the Second World War and the country’s self imposed isolation, access to the markets in Montenegro and Kosovo dried up. The fall of communism led to emigration and a declining population. Antonia Young’s team only found 17 families who reside in Theth year-round. Many of these depend on remittances from relatives who have sought employment elsewhere in Albania and abroad. The inhabitants of Theth receive very little government assistance. They lack electricity as well as telephone or radio communication to surrounding villages.
Theth also contains 12 small mills and a functional hydro plant. During the period of March to November, Theth is visited by around 5000-10000 foreign tourists yearly.
UNDP is seeking to improve Theth’s economic prospects by promoting tourism in the area. In cooperation with the German Technical Cooperation Enterprise, GTZ, it has provided initial funds to several households which will allow them to convert their homes into Guesthouses. UNDP says this strategy could help the whole community:
‘Despite the challenges to tourism development in Theth, the potential is enormous. Residents young and old can benefit from increased tourism by becoming local tour guides, while others can produce and sell traditional handicrafts as souvenirs.’ Established in 1966, Theth National Park covers an area of 2630 ha and ranges in altitude from approx. 1200 m to 2567 m (summit of Mt Radohima). It is located about 45 km from Koplik and 72 km from Shkodra. Its main extension is on the embouchure of the river Theth. Human activity is subject to regulation in three distinct zones, A, B and C: in zone A all human activity is prohibited, in B it is conditionally prohibited and in C strictly regulated. If these rules were respected, there would without doubt be adequate protection for plant and animal life in the area. As things stand at present, however, no action is even taken against illegal tree felling.
The most striking mountain peaks and passes (moving clockwise from the north) are: the peak of Jezerca, which is Albania’s highest peak, lying just outside the park at the north of the valley (2679 m high), followed by Peja Pass (1776 m), the Dry Peak (2543 m), the pass of Lugu i Valit, the saddle of Zhapora, the peaks of Papluka (2569m) and Alije (2471m), the saddle of Valbona (1876 m) and Mt Valbona (1966 m) at the east, the wooded Mt Zorgji at the south (1663 m), Mt Arapi (2217 m), Mt Boshi (2415 m), Shtegu i Dhenve (‘Goat’s Track’, 2104 m), and Mt Radohima (2567 m) at the west.
Almost two thirds of the park are covered in trees; in many places, the steep wooded terrain is so inaccessible to humans as to be considered ‘primeval forest’.
The area is crossed by a water network that flows from both eastern and western slopes in the valley. The River Theth rises from several different sources and streams above Okol. The direction of the flow is from the north to the south. In heavy rains it is prone to a sudden and violent swelling, destroying crossing points and fords. Perhaps most famous is the gorge of Grunas Canyon, standing 40 m tall and just one meter wide. Visitors can look down into the canyon from a wooden bridge.
Following the path in an easterly direction, one arrives at a cascading waterfall. Further downstream at Ndërlysa, the River Theth merges with Lumi i Zi (‘Black River’), which in its upper stream consists of a raging torrent which carves a path through the rocks before reaching the tranquil lowlands and merging with the Theth to become the River Shala, which ultimately flows into the Drin. The river of Theth is crystal clear and foamy in some places. It flows with a range of 1000-1300 l/sec and an average water temperature of 7ºC. One of the most distinguished properties of this river is the abundance of mountain trout. Theth has over 80 water sources and three waterfalls, and they all flow to the river. There are also many springs of water named ‘Okol’, ‘Nikgjonaj’ etc. ‘Grunas Waterfall’ and ‘Gjeçaj Waterfall’ are two of the most sensational spectacles of the National Park of Theth. They originate from rocky parts of the mountains around the park. The height of the first one reaches 30 meters of root water and the second 24 meters.
The main streams of the valley are the brook of Shan Deda, the brook of the Sheep, the ones of Ded Lula, of Gurra, of Shkafi, of Vali, of the Border and the stream of Belona. These streams flow in the mountainous territory and are precipitous during the winter. Theth has many springs that can serve as water supply for tourists. You can virtually find water in every place you encroach in Theth, from the heights of mountains, to the center and they also maintain considerable flow in all seasons of the year. Theth waters have permanent purity and very low temperatures. Their flow varies from 0.2 l/sec to 10 l/sec.
The climate in these mountains is complex and the biodiversity is great. The Dinarides act as a climatic divide between Mediterranean (coastal) and moderately continental areas.
Moisture-laden warm air masses accumulate on the cool, high mountains, leading to comparatively high precipitation levels. The Park has a hostile climate in the winter with snowfalls that range from 1.5 meters in the lower part up to 3 meters in the higher part of the park. The park has an average of 2900-3000 mm rainfall per year. According to the seasons rainfalls are spread as follows: in spring 21%, in summer 9%, in autumn 32% and in winter 38%. Mostly the rainfall is in the form of snow creating a stable covering for some months. With small investments, the hallways of the valley with stable snow can fulfill the standard dimensions of stadiums for applying winter sports.
The temperatures range from +20º C to +26º C in June and go down to -14º C and -20º C in the freezing winters. The snow stands more on the slopes, largely in the western part where the sun falls less during the day.
Theth has 110 sunny days per year.
This diversity of habitats which is closely related to the mountain-Mediterranean climate has created through centuries a rich diversity of flora and fauna in the region of Theth. A study carried out a few years ago recorded the existence of at least 1650 plant species within the confines of the Theth National Park. 85 species are rare and threatened with extinction, 4 are endemic (found only here) and 16 are sub endemic.
The four endemic plant species are: Wulfenia baldaccii (plantain, or Plantaginaceae), Petasites doerfleri Hayek, Lilium albanicum and Viola ducaginica, which for obvious reasons have no English names.
On the other hand, the genus Gentiana is widespread here, continuing to bear the name it was given in classical antiquity, where it is said to have been particularly common in Ancient Illyria. Genthios was the name of the last Illyrian king, defeated by Romans in Shkodra in 168 BC. It is said the king was the first to use Gentiana asclepiadea (Willow Gentian) as protection against plague. In the area there are over 130 medical plants. 50 plants can be eaten and around 50 are used for coloring. All these come from the spontaneous flora as: beer plant, wild pomegranate, wild fig up to a height of 900 meters above sea level, etc.
The main species of mammals encountered here include deer, wolf, fox, brown bear, lynx, otter, wild pig, wild rabbit, wild goat, jackal, hedgehog, chamois, badgers, wild boar and roe. The European brown bear (Ursus arctos) is a very shy creature and a rare sight in these parts; stones upturned during the hunt for small animals provide an occasional clue as to their presence. The Balcan chamois (Rupicarpa rupicarpa balcanica) is also native to the high mountains. Hunting animals are the wolf, hare, ibex, weasel, and fox. And in the river can be found the speckled trout, which is also one of the nicest fishes.
Bird species include the golden eagle, snake eagle, honey buzzard, peregrine falcon, capercaillie, rock partridge, scops owl, Eurasian eagle owl and the snow finch. Among the amphibians there are the alpine salamander (southern most distribution), fire salamander, yellow-bellied toad and fire bellied toad. The rich herpetofauna include the fence lizard, green lizard, Greek tortoise and snakes such as the true vipers including the poisonous horned viper and adder.
The forest is mainly composed of oak, pine, bushes, hornbeam, osier etc. If the forests of the national park are well maintained, they can produce a considerable amount of wood for fire thus fulfilling the needs of inhabitants for heating.