As we left Montenegro there was only one thing between us and the Greek Ionian Islands – Albania. Mind you, if you had asked me a year ago where Albania was, I would probably have pointed to somewhere in the Black Sea! With it is 362km of Adriatic coastline it is not a small country, and its southern-most part is only 1nm from the Greek island of Corfu. With its recent history of communism and isolationism, Albania seemed somewhat mysterious, exotic and a little bit scary so we had a lot of discussion about whether to stop there or just bypass it as many sailors do. At the last minute, we decided to recoup our investment in the Albanian courtesy flag, delay our arrival in Corfu and head in to Saranda for a few days to see for ourselves.
Albania is not really set up for cruising yachts (although there have been some steps in the right direction) and its laws treat every size of boat, from a super-tanker down, the same way in terms of entry formalities. Check-in with an agent is required at every port and commercial or cargo docks may be the only option for you to moor in some places! Apparently, the minefields that previously extended up to 15nm off the coastline have now been removed, and rumour has it some have been defused and repurposed as mooring buoys! That said there are numerous positive reports about visiting the country and the wonderful and welcoming people. Nowadays Albania may be considered a “developing country”, whatever that means, nevertheless it provides universal health care and free primary and secondary education to its citizens and has applied to join the EU. Like everywhere else in the world these days, Albania is very keen on the tourist dollar (or Euro) and increasingly welcoming to visitors.
We made email contact with a local shipping agent, Jelja Serani of Saranda Summer Tours. She and her husband run a tour company and help yachties to navigate through the formalities required to enter Albania, as well as organising tours and activities around the local area. Jelja heard us call the harbourmaster on VHF16 as we entered the harbour, which is lucky because the HM did not respond. She directed us to anchor in Saranda Harbour with the other yachts (there were quite a few!), and dinghy ashore with our documentation to meet her. She made all the necessary arrangements and paperwork for us, familiarised us with the town of Sarande and nearby attractions and in very short time we were welcomed as tourists to Albania. We had dinner ashore and an early night to recover after our over-nighter to get here.
Saranda is very much a holiday town with tourists from all parts of Europe and beyond. English, German and Italian is widely and proudly spoken and there is no shortage of reasonably priced restaurants and bars. We spend a day relaxing, exploring Saranda and swimming off the boat to keep cool. There is an excellent fresh produce market in town and supermarkets of course! It’s the height of holiday season and the place is lively at night, with holiday makers promenading until late in the evening and the bars and restaurants that line the shore pumping out all kinds of music until the wee hours. Luckily we have no trouble getting to sleep.
The next day we decide to take ITIKI down to the Ksamil Islands for the day. These lovely islands are just over 5nm south of Saranda and are very popular day tripper destinations from Saranda as well as from the smaller resort towns that line the shore. We check with Jelja that this is ok, and we are advised to inform the HM on VHF 11 that we are leaving the harbour for the day, and advise again when we return. She will inform immigration. Gee, bit of a palava but always best to do the right thing!
We heard that the harbour in Saranda is a bit of a junkyard and close to the shore you can see plenty of old tyres, rope etc are lying on the bottom. When we up anchor there is a 3-4m long piece of fishing net wrapped tightly around the anchor swivel which we eventually had to cut away.
When we get to the lovely Ksamil islands the designated anchorage is roped off with swimming buoys so we go around to the south of the island and anchor there for lunch and a swim. Not much protection here but it is a beautiful location for the day, with crystal clear water it is perfect for swimming off the boat. The island of Corfu is so close here too – that will be our next destination. We have lunch and relax for a couple of hours before it is time to head back to Saranda for the evening.
The next day we have organised a hire car (through Jelja) to do some touring. It is still pretty hot so we will need to take it easy. Our first destination south of Sarande is the National Park of Butrint. This large park contains rivers, lakes and wetlands but also some extensive Roman ruins. We arrive at the site to find ourselves in a eucalyptus grove – that unmistakeable smell of home – beside a Venetian tower! The principle architectural monuments in the park include a Roman theatre, Dionysus altar, Thermae (roman baths), Aqueduct (of course), temples of Minerva and Asclepius, the Lion Gate and a Baptistery. The site was declared a UNESCO's World Heritage Site in 1992. Fortunately the park is well forested providing much needed shade to visitors on another super-hot day. Very impressive site and well worth a visit.
The slideshow below gives you a virtual tour of this extensive site:
Our next stop is further north at a spot called “The Blue Eye”, a deep mountain spring that does actually look like a blue eye. We imagined having a dip to cool off, but aside from the fact that swimming is not permitted, the water is around 10oC! We get to our mid-shins before realising we can’t feel our feet and a cooling splash is all we can manage. Hardier souls jump from the viewing platform into the springs (also prohibited) which are reported to be over 50m deep!
Back to the air-conditioned car to head further north, over a winding mountain road and down along the valley on the other side. Here we find the charming old town of Gjirokaster, which is 300m above sea level and dates backed to the 1330s. The town is a fine example of Ottoman architecture, overlooked by a huge stone fortress. After lunch we brave the heat to climb up through the cobbled streets of the town to the fortress, inside the thick layers of stone it is sooo refreshingly cool! We explore the fort which has amazing views over the village and the valley below. The heat is intense and that is all we have energy for today so it is back to the boat for a final swim in Saranda. We have really enjoyed our taste of Albania, as always there is so much more to see and a visit is highly recommended.
A tour of the town of Gjirokaster, Albania
Lynda is slowly getting used to the transition from working to not working and racing to cruising.