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A Week in Albania

After three years in the Med. we thought it was about time for us to return to the UK. Sailing in the Med. always sounds glamorous, wonderful weather, interesting islands and exotic food. The reality is that in summer it can be blisteringly hot, there is no wind, and Greek food is probably better in London! But worst of all there are just too many boats. Eight years ago when I visited Levkas in the Ionian there were about 30 to 40 yachts now there is a 600 berth marina and over a distance of about 12 miles down the coast to the south there are probably  another 500 boats on moorings. About 80% of these are owned by charter companies of all European nationalities.

So that’s why we decided to return and hopefully get some decent sailing. The problem is that if you are in Corfu it can take a long time to get back to the U.K with an awful slog up the Portuguese coast against the prevailing North Easterlies. The last time we had been in the Med. we had our Sadler 34 shipped overland from the Eiselmeer in Holland to the South of France by a very good Dutch company Van Der Wetterring. It seemed logical to contact them again and on their advice I arranged for Zamia to be shipped from Koper near Trieste to a boatyard on the Veersemeer in Holland. This would also give us the opportunity to cruise the Croatian coast which we had never visited by sea.

The next decision was whether to sail from Corfu north to the Italian coast and cut across to Dubrovnik or go via Albania and Montenegro. In the past Albania has been regarded as a “no go” area with high levels of crime.However, I found that over the last two years a handful of yachts had visited the country without any problems  so we thought we might have a go. The only difficulty was that to enter any Albanian port you had to get clearance from a Shipping Agent!

On July 17 Hugh (my crew and my son’s father in-law) and I left Corfu for our first port of call, Sarandes 20 miles from Corfu. As usual we spent most of the journey motoring .About half an hour away I called up Agim Zholi, the local Shipping Agent who to my relief spoke excellent English and advised us he would be waiting on the quay to help us moor. Twenty minutes later we were there and he indicated we should drop our anchor and back onto a corner of the quay so we could be alongside, a tricky manoeuvre since we unexpectedly had a stiff breeze blowing us away from the quay typical sod’s law –worse was to follow, the windlass jammed so that Hugh had to drop by hand a good 40 metres of chain.

Agim was very pleasant and welcoming and took all our papers, passports, bill of sale, insurance policy etc. to organise clearance and instructed us that we would have to stay by the boat until he returned. An hour later he came back with a sheaf of papers which we had to sign. Since they were all in Albanian we hadn’t the faintest idea what they said but we were assured that they indicated we were legitimate visitors and that I was the genuine owner of Zamia. For this service and a two night stay on the quay we were charged just over 200 u.s dollars.

After sorting the boat out and fixing the windlass, (all it needed was cleaning and greasing) we decided to go out for dinner. Sarandes is essentially a modern seaside town with a couple of miles of quite pleasant, if not outstanding beach. The town is alleged to be great honey moon resort.However, there appeared to be more families with children than young couples and it seemed strangely quiet for a holiday resort.

On the way back to Zamia we phoned Agim to organise a taxi the next morning so that we could visit the nearby ancient city of Butrint a Graeco- Roman site which was highly recommended in the guide books

The next morning we were rather cross that the taxi was almost an hour late. It was then that we discovered with embarrassment that Albanian time was one hour behind Greece! It was not surprising that Sarandes had been so quiet the previous evening.

We enjoyed our trip to Butrint immensely. The site was well preserved with city walls, a very fine amphitheatre and in a wonderful location about half a mile from the mouth of a river thus making it an important galley port in Roman times. The beauty of the site contrasted dramatically with Sarandes. Sarandes has suffered from a mad, speculative, building programme. In a desperate attempt at capturing some of the tourist trade from Corfu across the water every corner seemed to have a new hotel in the process of being built, but very few were finished.  Some parts of the town almost looked like a bomb site with rubble and unfinished buildings. In a number of instances an Irish company was involved. Another example, I guessed, of dodgy bank loans

We had planned to move on the next day but suddenly we had 25 knots of wind from the North. Since our next stop was almost 60 miles away we decided to stay on. There wasn’t a great deal to do other than relax on the beach and find a local restaurant. Eating out at 8.p.m was very different from our first night. Every where we went was packed with families eating out. The children, even the very young, were beautifully behaved, no public tantrums or moaning, they just got on with eating their food. The families radiated a very loving atmosphere which was a delight to see. But suddenly we could see very little. The whole town suddenly suffered a power cut. No lights anywhere. We were assured that it wouldn’t last for more than a couple of hours, fortunately the restaurant cooked by gas and I had my head torch!

We got off to an early start the next morning, the sea was rather lumpy and there was still a northerly wind of 10 to 15 knots. Our destination was Vlore, Albania’s second largest port, where there was a new marina in the south of the bay. There was some indication from the pilot book that it could be difficult to enter. It was also unfortunate that its precise location was not indicated on even up-to-date charts.

It was a pretty gruelling journey particularly since the wind got up again. The Albanian coast was dramatic and barren with steep cliffs, very few settlements and no shelter. After 11 hours of punishing motoring we finally rounded the cape and into the bay in which Vlore is located. According to the pilot we were supposed to check into the port of Vlore before proceeding to the marina. We decided to ignore the instructions and press onto the marina. The weather was still poor and it was getting dark. The only question was where was the marina? The best guide was that there was a wreck 100 metres north east of the marina so we decided that should be our waypoint! It worked well and we were glad there was still light as we followed a series of unlit buoys into the marina. The marina was very well organised with electricity and water on the pontoons. Indeed much to our surprise we berthed next to a smart British yacht that had obviously been there for a few weeks. We suspected that the owners might have caught one of the frequent ferries to Italy and had gone back home that way. We were too tired to go out to dinner at what looked quite a decent restaurant in the marina and instead settled for a French ready meal and a decent bottle of Italian wine.

The following morning we left for our last port of call in Albania, Durres, the principal port of the country serving the capital Tirrana about 25 miles inland. By this time the weather had improved and we had a patchy sail along the barren coast. The Adriatic pilot paints a dismal picture of the entrance to |Durres, referring to isolated shoals, cleared mine fields and heavy shipping traffic. In the event the entrance was fairly easy but the traffic from ferries was quite daunting. Our pilot guide suggested we contact a shipping agent to organise a berth. However, all our attempts to raise Captain Lambi were to no avail. After going round in circles, dodging ferries and cargo ships, we radioed the harbourmaster and finally got a reply. We were to head for a quay where an ocean going tug was berthed and we would see a man in a white uniform. Sure enough after 10 minutes we spotted him and with the help of a couple of dockers we came alongside the quay. This was so high that we had to stand on a stanchion to scramble ashore. Twenty minutes later another official appeared who announced that he was the Shipping Agent. More documents and this time a charge of 225 u.s dollars but no mooring fee. The latter was quite understandable; there was no electricity, no water and a lot of dust. In fact we were moored in the middle of a group of commercial vessels. As the only yacht we felt quite lonely. But the town was really very pleasant as we discovered over the next few days. Some smart new blocks had been built alongside old parts of the town. This still boasted Roman walls and the remains of a Roman amphitheatre. Unfortunately part of the town had been damaged during the war but the rebuilding had been certainly more judicious than the indiscriminate development in Sarandes.We also found good supermarkets and an excellent choice of restaurants.

But we had an interesting surprise on our last night. On our return to Zamia we discovered that a very large boat had moored in front of us of Russian oligarch size. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the registration and there was no flag. However, what was noticeable was a meeting taking place between five men on the after deck while on the quay several heavies who were obviously security guards were standing besides three large black Mercedes with darkened windows. I am happy to say they paid only modest attention to us. I remembered our Shipping Agent had mentioned that there was some joint deal being worked out with the Russians to build a new road to Kosovo. I suspect that was the nature of the meeting and I was sorely tempted to try out a little Russian to see if I got any re-action. However, discretion prevailed!

 That was our last day in Albania and we then sailed on to Montenegro. Was our visit to Albania instead of the East coast of Italy worth it? On the downside were the long sails along an interesting if barren coast without shelter; the bureaucracy and expense of Shipping Agents who really did very little for their money. On the plus side; it was fascinating to see a country emerging from its long spell of isolation, delightful to be in a country where there are few tourists and people are both surprised and pleased to find that you have come all the way from England to visit them.

Unspoilt

If you can, go before it gets spoiled.

Roy Beaumont.  Starlight 39 Zamia11.

Date Published 25th Jan 2010