I Am Embarrassed To Confess
I have a major flaw as a new sailor, it’s to do with one of the fundamentals. Living in the Northern hemisphere, I no longer instinctively know where North is.
By crossing to the other side of the world, North along with South, East, and West have all moved. On the positive I still know where the sun is rising and setting back home in Tasmania. Unfortunately this piece of information is not useful in Europe. When the voice on the radio said “you are going the wrong way turn North” I was standing at the front of the boat, I didn’t know where to turn, the tell tale masts of other boats may have helped but none were present.
There was a moment of What The?
Checking In To Albania
We eventually found our way, the welcome and check in process more than made up for our slow entry. Agim the port agent assisted with our docking and Ada his second in command, who spoke perfect English, took our documents and returned 30 minutes later with passports stamped and all documentation for clearing in complete. To check in to Albanis you must use an agent, however the 65 euro fee is well worth it and includes one night in the new docking area in Sarande.
Check In Awards Thus Far
10/10 Albanian check in. Greece wins for the longest process, French the least interested, Italy ask no questions, have no problems policy, Tunisia continues to hold the award for the most dramatic entry. A warship greeting will be hard to beat.
When we arrived we moored backend /stern first, our anchor out front on the new wharf, which is shared by ferries that travel from Albania to Greece. We only stayed one night as our boat had small damage on the rear, as a result of a big swell that came in, it pushed our boat into the wharf. The first damage to our girl and the Captain nearly cried, such was his distress. For the next two weeks we anchored in beautiful holding sand in the bay of Sarande. Regarding the damage at the rear, the fiber glassing has been fixed and she is as good as new. My advice to those who follow in our footsteps, moor side on to the wharf or sort your paperwork and then move out to anchor.
Albanian First Impressions
As you enter the waters of Albania, you are struck by rows of concrete bunkers along the shore line. The bunkers all 70,000 dotted over the country are the end product of a paranoid dictator who was fearful of everyone, this probably included his grandmother. Many of the bunkers are now falling into wreck and ruin. When asking about the bunkers, residents seemed a little embarrassed regarding their presence. Other striking features include clean water devoid of any rubbish, huge mountains that rise straight up from the water into the clouds, and city buildings with their washed out colours and uniform construction surrounding the harbour.
A Quick Albanian History Lesson
Albania is viewed as an important piece of territory due to its location, for centuries different countries and cultures have invaded, settled, impacted and departed. Then it was someone’s else’s turn to play king of the region. Romans, Greeks, Venetians and Turkish Empires along with others have all had a crack at taming and calling Albania their own. For those unsure where Albania is located, it borders Northern Greece, opposite Corfu Island and the heel of Italy. It’s northern border is with Montenegro. Albania is perfectly placed for visa counting Australians needing to get out of the EU, yet wishing to remain close to Greece and Turkey for a quick re-entry.
In recent history, Albania gained independence from its Turkish neighbours in 1941. Unfortunately for the average Albanian, a local lad, former college lecturer Enver Hoxha who loved all things Russian and in particular the Communist Party took control of the country. For the next 40 years until his death in 1985 this guy kept Albanian’s under an oppressive regime. Stories of people disappearing, huge prison sentences for minor indiscretions, hunger and fear were told. Terrible times for the average Albanian. Mad Enver was so paranoid the West and even the East once it started reforms, would invade Albania. He effectively closed all borders and access to the outside world, this became the one of the most isolated countries in the world. It was weird to look at the barren hills stripped bare only a few nautical miles from the lush Corfu Mountains. By keeping the hills barren, his theory was it would be easier to spot those pesky invading neighbours. It was 1999 that Albania allowed yachts to visit the country and started opening it’s borders to the rest of the world. As you move around the countryside it’s not hard to imagine life only a couple of decades ago, how hard it would have been for the people as poverty is still are reality here.
Modern Albania is a new era of hope and prosperity for the locals. Visiting yachts and tourists are helping in the change process.
As well as sailing past our destination, we also managed to fly the flag of another country as we entered, so not a grand start. Accidently we flew the Montenegro flag which is very similar, but close is not good enough. If you fail in the flag department you can purchase a flag from Agrim for 2 euros, as well as a pilot book of the country and it’s neighbours Montenegro for 10 euro. The happy welcoming nature of the Albanians was evident right from the start and never failed for the full two weeks we were guests in their country.
Ports and Marinas Of Albania
Cruising in Albania is still new, there is only one official marina in the town of Okium. We made a trip to the marina with the intent of going to the inland capital. The marina is owned and operated by Italians who took a page out of “how to be rude to paying visitors”, and ran with it. The marina has seen better days and is a couple of hours from the small local town 5 to 6 hours bus from the capital. Local hospitality helped us overcome the shock of having to deal with Italian service, when the local guy kindly gave us a ride into town and showed us around a little. It’s an out of the way location, Okium is south of the town Verne, which you must visit if you wish to check into the country. I struggle to give any reason why others would wish to visit this port, except to park your boat and leave it. Yet if someone can tell me why, I look forward to being corrected.
Second day in Albania we caught the bus to travel 27 kilometers to the “must see” tourist attraction called Blue Eye. Blue Eye is a natural spring that rises from below the earth’s core to birth a river. The minerals in the clear blue water, offer amazing blue and crystal clear clarity. Divers have descended 50 metres, however the true depth of the spring in unknown. In years prior only the communist elite got to visit this special place now it is classed as a must see Albanian attraction.
We caught the bus with our bikes intending to ride home. Someone had told me it was all downhill. This was wrong, it was all hills, and when you ride up those hills they felt like big bloody mountains. In between the two mountain ranges we cycled, there was a large flat plain so to be fair it wasn’t 100% hill work.
As we got off the bus with our bikes, fellow passengers looked on us with a mixture of disbelief and pity, their looks were unnerving. As we crossed the road we looked at the sign to blue eye, it had been pushed over and was pointing in the wrong direction, a sad gravel road leading up was the only indication that this road led to one of the largest tourist attractions in Albania.
As we dodged the potholes we passed a couple of cars, a herd of goats and the accompanying shepherd. I stopped to take his photo and as he shook my hand he enthusiastically welcomed us to Albania and wished me good luck riding on the road. The highway to the site itself was picturesque and included huge amounts of water flowing at the side of the road, a dam with ancient infrastructure and the odd abandoned building. As we arrived it felt like a “twilight zone”, there were a few deserted accommodation buildings, a faded sign saying we had arrived. You enter the spring via crossing a small wooden bridge like part of a large empty restaurant. It would be easy to miss it. Many of the trees were introduced species we suspect, and very beautiful. It didn’t feel like a major tourist attraction and once again we were alone. After a short walk we came to the spring revealing why all tourist books say visit this place.
The full impact of this natural phenomena was not achieved until we climbed onto the dodgy rusty viewing platform. As you look over the edge you see the clear blue water gushing up, with a deep electric blue edging. The movement and clarity of the water had a hypnotic effect. This place was worthy.
Captain Hardy braved the 10 degrees and went for a quick swim, I wanted to preserve the moment. This was my excuse for not swimming. The hordes of tourists that visit this place must have come early or were waiting for the summer months as for the entire visit we remained on our own.
It Was A Bad Day To Forget My Bike Helmet
After viewing the eye there was the matter of getting home. It was time to ride, I was a little apprehensive as I contemplated the 27 kilometer ride home. The Captain took the lead and I focused on the road ahead, I once again pondered how cruising takes you out of your comfort zone. As these thoughts passed through my head I held onto my handlebars like a woman possessed, even though it only made my arms ache. The Captain calls these moments stress challenges. After 26 years of marriage I am still reserving my judgement on the stress challenge, though I am always happy when they are completed.
Most Albanians appear to be decent drivers, we have been informed it is the atrocious conditions of the road that is the major cause of accidents. Drivers regularly beep their horn as they approach each corner to let any potential travellers know to stay on their own side. I loved the horn beeps as they allowed us time to take our front tyre as close as possible to the edge without losing control. On one occasion I stopped my bike as I wasn’t prepared to cycle as a truck approached one way and a bus the other. For me it was scary and stressful, I saw the number of lost souls whose shrines were on the sides as we passed. The tally was many and showed how treacherous this section of road is.
18 Persons of Significance to Others
2 Dead dogs on side of road
1 Dead Cat
Stepping Back In Time With A Visit To Butrint
Butrint another must see attraction of Sarande. Unlike visiting the eye the connecting road was funded by the European Union and is new and roomy. The road was 27 kms each way, and as we cycled towards our destination we passed half a dozen tourist buses that were coming from the direction of Butrint. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist attraction of Albania we were expecting to share the journey with others so the buses were no surprise. What did surprise us on this major road, was sharing it with different groups of donkeys, horses, goats and cows that appeared to move about as they wished to newer pastures or road edges to eat fresh grass.
We Were Transported To Another Time And Place
Butrint is a small island and is considered a microcosm of European history as it exhibits remains from the major empires including Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Evidence from the bronze age to the middle ages makes Butrint only second to Pompeii for preserved ruins, yet hardly anyone knows about it. In previous times the communist elite had access, the ruins remain protected by nature.
As we entered the large gates we stepped back in time for the next 3 hours.
We moved anti clockwise around the island and for 2 hours we did not come in contact with any tourists or staff. The afternoon sun was hot, this was my first time walking in European woods and it felt magical and straight from the pages of a Tolkien or Enid Blyton. These were the forests of my youth’s imagination and the light and the woods added to the mythical nature of the place.
The walls both inner and outer were so massive it was easy to grasp how big and important a place this was. Helping make the day so special was the excellent signage which was clear, concise and included an English account. Each building and section moved through different periods of time. There were churches, an almost complete theatre and gymnasium, constructed by Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Information about the city is well-presented in English and Albanian brochures, featuring historical facts and dates to aid visitors.
Interesting things to see in Butrint include the Greek amphitheatre (later remodelled by the Romans), the baptistry, the cathedral, the lion’s gate, and the museum which includes many interesting artifacts found in the area.
These are just a few pics from our walk around Butrint
Random Observations About Albania
A Question Of Economics
The local currency is a Leke and one Leke is worth a whopping two cents more for every Australian dollar which I found rather unsettling all things considered. It is clear that Albania is a poor country in transition and options of transport include carts being pulled by donkeys yet their economy rates higher than our own. Although the currencies are similar in value the value for money one gets in Albania is staggering in its difference. Here’s one example.
When I purchase a hair colour 100% the same, same brand, same box and in English packaging, in Australia I pay $14 to $16 and in Albania it is 2.75 leke. I purchased the 5 boxes the store had in stock for the next time vanity moves me to place toxic paste on my head and use a significant amount of precious water to wash it off.
It’s Noisy In A Nice Way
There are two stand out noises in Sarande and the surrounding countryside. Cow bells and children. Cow bells are not exclusive to the many cows you see, goats, donkeys, mules, and horses all wear bells that make constant noise. We have seen all of the above on the major roads with or without an accompanying shepherd. Regarding children, Sarande reminds me of Australia in the 70’s, of an early evening the streets are jam packed with children playing. Even though 18,000 people live in the city this place has the feel of a village and the children were polite, friendly and from what we could gather growing up happily.
It’s Nice Not To Be Careful
You can walk around Sarande and feel safe. Never have I felt that someone would snatch our bag or steal. Interesting there are several shops we have been into where two shops are physically separated by a wall but one person looks after both. This would suggest that common theft is low and I know for sure this system wouldn’t work in Australia or anywhere else we have been. Unlike Tunisia and even France at times the military presence is very low key.
More Albanians Live Outside Than In
The population of Alabania is just over 3 million people. It is estimated that between 7 to 10 million Albanians live outside the country, mostly close by in other countries, though there are large groups in Tukey, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland and Greece. It is illegal for Albanians to own pleasure craft to stop them from jumping across the short distance to other surrounding neighbours. This lack of pleasure craft explains why we had the harbour to ourselves and the lack of infrastructure with marinas.
Mother Theresa comes from Albania. Impressive considering the mad dictator Enver Hoxha decreed that all religion was illegal activity and that Albania would be the first atheist country in the world. It became a very bad place for priests of any denomination and all churches were closed or converted to new purposes.
According to recent statistics Albania is a little over half practicing Muslim and the remainder are Christians or “other”. Unlike visiting Tunisia I was hard pressed to see any evidence of any religion be it Muslim, Christian or Other. I did see two women wearing the head scarf and you do hear the call to prayer, yet everyone seems to go about their business regardless. The bars are full, alcohol is cheap and easy to obtain, the cafes are brimming with both sexes and families are out and about seemingly unconcerned with matters relating to the rule of Gods. This is not the male dominated religious influenced culture that was Tunisia.
Throughout the city of Sanadre we noticed many of the shops and homes had garlic hanging from the door handles on the wall. On asking why, we were told to ward off the black eye from black magic.
Other famous sons of Albania are actor brothers John and Jim Belushi.
My first impression of Saradne was that it was quite ugly with the entire bay surrounded by tall high rise buildings. Adding to the dismay were a significant number of the buildings seemed incomplete or started and abandoned. On enquiry regarding the non-completion it seems that in post revolution years 1995 and 1996 a massive pyramid get rich scheme wiped billions of dollars from the pockets of ordinary Albanian citizens. No doubt a rude shock to new democracy and capitalism, causing fresh elections.
Then a strange thing happened. The longer I stayed in Sarande the more I appreciated and grew to like the buildings in the bay around us. I got to appreciate the character that was Sarande and the buildings that give this town some of its personality, in fact the bunkers even started to look like they belonged. No doubt as capitalism and resources move into this new economy the town’s architecture will change and Sarande will start to look like other cities.
Food, Food Glorious Food
Eating out in Australia is very expensive, Albania is the opposite, it is actually cheaper to eat out than it is to cook at home. Our first night in port as we walked about the town of Sarande and into a Souvlaki shop Boom! It became one of my trip highlights, the best Souvlaki I have ever eaten. Fresh, hot, delicious pork and salad and the perfect amount of ingredients including fresh yogurt. The surprise ingredient was a handful of hot fresh chips, mustard and mayo. Two souvlaki cost an amazing $3.06.
Restaurants, cafes and takeaways are all exceptional value. The best value food we purchased was in a shop about three streets back from the beachfront where we saw locals going in and out. We purchased two giant pasties. Fetta cheese, spinach and vegetables in homemade pastry. Each one was 50 cents and the size meant that one was enough to share.
Sarande Work Gangs
Sarande is super clean. 7 days a week small groups of men and women sweep and clean the streets of Sarande, early morning and late afternoon. Not sure about the rest of the country and if it is paid work or organized groups for the good of the community. On some streets the large “skip bins” are overflowing yet overall this place gives the rest of the cities we have been to a lesson. Not once did I ever see someone litter, whereas this is a common occurrence elsewhere.
There is an abundance of older and some new Mercedes cars in Albania making them the car of choice. Mercedes is considered a car that can handle the conditions of Albanian roads. To help keep your car clean throughout the city there are many car cleaning businesses.
I mention begging as this is a common feature of all European cities we have visited. Not in Sarande. On one occasion did I see a woman with a baby asking for coins and that was it!
Dentist, Doctor, Hairdresser and Pants
Prior to my arrival in Sarande I had chipped my tooth and was anxious to locate a dentist. As a traveler you are in luck, in the city there are 20 dentists for 18,000 citizens. I entered the small yet fairly modern reception area and was taken through to the small clinic room. I arrived at 5 pm and departed at 8 pm with the chip repaired and one full root canal complete. My wallet was $80 lighter and I couldn’t believe my good fortune that my tooth had been repaired. Outstanding service and professional care, I can only recommend Sarande as the new dental holiday destination!
Agim did tell us the story of an Australian couple who were travelling in Sarande on their way to Greece. The wife had broken her leg, however as the health insurance didn’t cover the injury in Albania they were making their way to Greece as quickly as possible. Un-Bloody-Believable!! Agim took the poor woman to the hospital and a hundred dollars later she was fine.
As well as the dentist I went to the hairdresser, had a haircut, my eyebrows waxed all for $6,and the Captain had 6 pairs of shorts adjusted (he has lost a significant amount of weight) for the sum of $14. AMAZING
Move over Greece, Albania is next door and beautiful.
When asking why the beaches and water ways are not heavily populated, one theory presented was that it was not in the interest of Greece and other European countries to share the news about how special Albania is. I don’t know if this is true however the word is getting out, 5 years ago visitors to Albania was 500,000 and two years ago this figure had increased by four million.
Before we arrived we were told to be very careful as the country is poor and its people needy. Having visited Albania I now know how wrong and misleading those words were. What we found was a European city (minus the McDonalds) full of welcoming, friendly and kind people. Strangers waved and welcomed us and were very happy to share their city with us. Perhaps much of Albania’s charm comes from the lack of infrastructure, however I feel this will change as the country moves on from its darker days.
Albania was a happy place to visit and I would like to hope one day to return as I for one would like to see how she moves forward.
PS Albanians are friendly. I have a theory that this friendly welcome is true of all countries that start with the letter A. Australia and Albania are outstanding at the warm welcome. There is no way to confirm this theory unless I visit more countries, however the testing continues.