14 to 16 July 2018
Agios Stefanos, Corfu to Sarandë, Albania, N39° 51.05’ E20° 02.05’, 7nm, 1 hour 30
to Palermos, N40° 03.07’ E19° 47.54’, 17nm, 3 hours
to Orikum, N40° 20.32’ E19° 28.18’, 65nm, 8 hours
Our first few days in Albania served as a very useful introduction to the country and its history and main protagonists. The crossing from Corfu was quick. We had not accounted for the time difference (Albania is an hour behind Greece) so arrived an at what we thought was 10am but was actually 9am. That’s how excited we were about getting to Albania!
Arriving in the harbour at Sarandë we couldn’t help but notice the huge cruise ship anchored off. Our agent responded quickly to us on the radio only to tell us that we couldn’t come in to the quay because the cruise ship’s tenders were using it until 6pm and that we should anchor off the beach until called in later. And we thought we were going to find Albania a lot quieter!
Despite the cruise ship we were able to take our own, albeit smaller, tender to meet the agent and deal with checking ourselves and Pintail into the country. Like Turkey doing this with an agent was quick and painless.
While Stefan stayed with Pintail in an increasingly windy anchorage I ventured to the market, always a good place to start to get to know a place. I found a small, dark covered market with about 10 almost identical stalls with women urging me to try their honey. They were persistent and I gave in to one, buying the smallest jar of the sweetest honey at what I am certain was tourist prices! I did better with the vegetables though. Getting this lovely haul for 180 lek – that’s about £1.30. And for Stefan, the holy grail – some hot chillies!
Once the cruise ship had departed we, and a number of other yachts waiting in the anchorage, were waved in to the quay. Sarandë will go down as one of the most unusual harbours we have moored in. We were alongside the ferries toing and froing from Corfu, streams of passengers wheeling their cases passed Pintail and our exit to the town was through the ferry terminal. Well, we suppose Pintail is a ferry of sorts and for two nights she was very happy there whilst we got to know Albania.
Sarandë is a seaside resort full of concrete hotels and apartment blocks. My friend Jenny who has visited with her Albanian husband had described it as being like Spain in the 70s and she wasn’t wrong. Packed with holiday makers in mid July, every inch of its tiny beach was being used.
The only remnants of the town’s ancient past are the ruins of a 2BC synagogue and a precarious piece of the old city wall teetering over the beach.
It is the ghosts of its more recent past that are more visible. Marked by an isolated danger marker in the bay we found the wreck of an Italian warship sunk during their occupation of Albania from 1939. We could just make out the spooky wreckage from the dinghy.
We also found our first bunker. Part of Communist leader, Enver Hoxha’s strategy to stave off further foreign invasion these bunkers are everywhere and speak to his paranoia and desire to keep Albania isolated from the rest of the world. “Spot the bunker” would become our game of choice on our travels in Albania. “This is the smallest museum I’ve ever been to”, Stefan said, climbing into the bunker on one of Sarandë’s streets.
We were learning that Albania is not that yacht friendly. Perhaps not surprising for a country still emerging from the ravages of communism but also something to do with its incredible landscape. The southern coastline sees mountains plunge straight down to the sea with very few bays or safe harbours.
The only viable anchorage however was to serve as a very atmospheric introduction to another of Albanian’s key historical figures. On our approach to Palermos Bay we were greeted by a pod of dolphins – at least 10 of them, playing at Pintail’s bow. It never stops feeling magical to have dolphins swimming with us and these Albanian ones were certainly as friendly as the people we had met so far. I just need to work on my dolphin photography – they are so hard to capture!
Albania’s only real anchorage is certainly one of the most picturesque we have stayed in. On a peninsular attached to the mainland by a thin, shallow isthmus is a spectacular castle built by one of Albania’s most ruthless late Ottoman empire rulers, Ali Pasha.
Byron, who visited him, described him as “60 years old, very fat and not tall…a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties”. Tyrant aside, Ali Pasha built some very fine castles and the one in Palermo Bay was a great example. 3 and a half metre thick walls kept enemies firmly out and an atmospheric series of half lit rooms evoked the terror Ali instilled, particularly in the basement prison.
With renewed enthusiasm for ancient sites, Stefan declared this to be “the best castle so far“. It was also the nicest smelling one. As we walked around we noticed a lovely sweet perfume in the air which belied the musty looking old walls. We realised that it was the scent of the fig trees surrounding the castle. It had its own Jo Malone like fragrance!
Another Albanian ruler’s more recent defensive structures were also half visible around the bay. If you looked lobg enough Hoxha’s bunkers were everywhere on the shore and climbing up the hillside keeping watch out for invaders.
From Palermo we sailed through the night around the Karaburuni Peninsula into Vlorë Bay and down to Orikum and Albania’s only marina. With just the one pontoon and tucked amongst the mountains it was a beautiful spot for us to leave Pintail to explore inland Albania.
She’d be safe enough there. The entrance was guarded by a bunker…