‘You’re the only English voice I’ve heard since I arrived here 9 months ago’ said the only English voice we’d heard since being in Albania. It’s easy to see why. The country has a bit of a reputation.
‘Don’t leave you’re boat unattended in Albanian waters’ says the Mediteranian Almanac.
‘Be careful there!’ says a Facebook friend
‘Gulp’ says another on hearing our intended destination.
The man we ended up chatting to had come to do contract Customs and Excise work. Albania is trying to get a grip of collecting taxes so it can invest in it’s infrastructure. Apparently many of the Albanians, particularly the gangsters, don’t like paying import duty. They definitely don’t like getting their shiny new sports car impounded when they refuse to pay the bill. The result is our fellow Brit had to have an armed body guard with him when he’s on the job.
Despite the dangers he was very upbeat about the country and expounded the delights of the southern coastal region.
‘It’s pretty safe in the south’ he said. ‘The far northern rural regions are a little more worrying’
Not many Brits go to Albania. I’ve never heard of anyone from the UK who’s done a holiday here, but the country has a tourist industry that is growing exponentially. If you ever wondered where Kosovons go on holiday, wonder no more, it’s Albania! It’s popular with the Italians as well given the easy access by ferry.
Albania was on our route down south to Greece, but we might have sailed past this gem if it hadn’t been for a lone positive voice- the ‘777’. The ‘777’ is a must have guide for yachtsmen in the Adriatic It’s not very well known in the UK, but it should be. It beats any of the Brit guides hands down. The author has Albania Mania and expounds the virtues of the South coast.
Given the widely accepted reputation, we played it safe with the start of our trip.
Orikum Marina – First Port of Call
We headed for Orikum Marina. It’s Albania’s only marina, guarded by a man with an AK47! Needless to say, we felt pretty safe leaving the boat there to explore.
Going into Orikum makes life pretty easy. They have a Port Agent that will do all your Customs entry procedures for you. You pay slightly over the odds for it (80 EUR), but it’s convenient. It also has Luigi, the Marina Director, who will happily give you info about the best local places to eat and visit. He knows about good food, he’s Italian! He also sorts out Car Hire for you. This is where our explorations began.
Orikum itself has very few tourist attractions. If you go to the Naval base on the Northern shore the military will let you in to see some well preserved Greek / Roman ruins. I’d like to show you some photos, but we made the mistake of visiting this place in the evening, at which time it was swarming with mosquitos from the adjacent Lagoon. We literally ran back from the site with a cloud of the evil insects chasing us. There was some consolation to our otherwise marred excursion. On the drive up to the ruins I rounded a corner and saw something in the road. After slamming on the anchors the tyre stopped literally a foot away from a Herman Tortoise. He reminded us of our Herman – Mr Murtle back at home.
Orikum is within spitting distance of a number of other places to visit.
Llogora National Park
The Llogora National Park is only 30 minutes drive from Orikum.
Driving in Albania is quite interesting and our drive up was no exception. There is a feel that this country lives in a different era. You’ll be on a main road and see a horse and carts, cows grazing on the hard shoulder. Add to that, there’s an almost lawless feel to it. Boy racers rev past you on high-powered motor-bikes dressed in shorts and t-shirts wearing no helmets, their girlfriends gripping them while dressed in a similarly unsuitable style.
“I wonder what the mortality rates on the road are?” I say to Bernice as we survey the scene.
The crazy bikers have an extra danger to contend with; the highways are in quite a state and need a lot of investment. On our way up to Llogora we noticed how some of the road had just slipped down the side of a hill. Perfectly acceptable in Albania, you just repaint the road lines to go round the void!
Ignoring the road quality, the Llogora pass has to be one of my favourites roads. From sea level at Orikum you climb up to 1000 meters. The road was built by the Italian Army’s “Alpini” division on their occupation of Albania in the 30s. It’s said that a mule was sent ahead by the construction team to use it’s senses to get the best line. To be fair to the mule, he did a pretty good job.
When you get to the summit of the Llagora Pass, you see the high peak of Cika at 2000m and there are remarkable views to the coast around Himre, which include the large fan like Delta of the Rio Palasa. We even got a glimpse of Corfu in the distant haze.
We tried to do a hike here, however Natioanl Parks are not quite what they are in the rest of the world. There’s only one obvious trail / dirt road, no marked tracks and no information about walks. We followed several dead ends, although it was very pleasant. Next time we visit we’ll get a bit more organised and get a guide who knows the area.
We settled for good lunch at the top of the pass, accompanied with a stunning view down to the sea. We left the restaurant and a very shiny new Mercedes pulled up to the door. The driver got out.
“Was that my imagination” mused Bernice “That driver looked like he was only 12”
I concurred, he was indeed, very young.
For one moment I was transported back to my home country and I was standing in the New Forrest. Bracken, daisy’s, thistles, black berries. It was spooky, but then I looked around and there was some Roman ruins in my view with some Aloe Vera plants on the periphery of my vision. I really was somewhere else. To be fair I should have realised that given I was feeling very warm while stood in my shorts and t-shirt on a cloudy mid-October day.
Apollonia is a magical place. Even if it wasn’t an archaeological gem, the site occupies an idyllic high point that overlooks vast coastal plains to the West and beautiful rolling hills to the East. The restaurant on top of the hill is possibly one of the nicest setting to dine in. This meal was typical of the food we experienced in Albania, standard simple Mediterranean style cooking, fresh ingredients and cheap.
The Apollonia site is located near Fier, to the north of Vlore. It’s just over an hours drive from Orikum marina. I won’t go into the detail of the ruins here, but they were initially excavated by a combined French and Albanian team. The city dates back to the Greek civilisation, but most of what you see here is from the time when the settlement flourished under Roman rule. If you are going to visit and you want deeper info on the place, I’d advise you to do your own digging around before you go. The info onsite isn’t that great. It’s a shame really, because the 13th Century Monastery here houses a museum that has some great stuff in there, it’s just hard to understand the context.
The Land of 700,000 Bunkers
The bunkers give you an insight into the paranoia of the communist regime, who seeing the fate of Czechoslovakia, feared a similar Soviet invasion into their homeland. Approach any part of the coast that’s not a cliff, i.e. has potential to land an army on, and you’ll see what look like a scatteringof concrete R2D2s half buried. It’s the rectangular slot that ‘cemented’ the likeness to me.
There are many parts of the Southern Coastline that give you an insight into how heavily militarised the area was. The evidence is underwater too. We went snorkelling and saw quite a few shells. Not the one’s we were expecting to find, but the unexploded variety.
Getting Braver – Going Down South
Given some of the bad publicity, our original plan had been to just go to Orikum and explore the country from there, safe in the knowledge that we were protected by rule AK47. However, we had had a pretty good experience with everyone we’d met. It was time to venture out and explore the coast South of Orikum. The plan, to go to a remote anchorage and then do our exit procedures at Sarade. We said goodbye to Luigi and ventured out.
Our confidence on the journey down South was only slightly marred by the patrol that RV’d with us after lunch, they were very friendly and just asked for our vessel details and our names. This patrol rib was working in tandem with a large Navy vessel and they were literally combing every bay of the coast. It was bitter sweet. On the one hand we knew people were keeping the waters safe, but there was a little voice in the back of our heads that wondered if there was something about to ‘go-down’ , or maybe shit goes down here all the time.
The Southern Albanian Coast is stunning! A lot of it is so remote as well. There are numerous bays with beaches that have no roads nearby, the only way there is by boat. Here’s a selection of the bays we saw.
Our night time anchorage was the beautiful Grama Bay. It was the perfect remote anchorage until the swell built up considerably. This coast is not great in any winds that have a southerly aspect. Even the South Easterlies can yield a swell that creeps into bays that look sheltered. We had to make an early exit having had the smallest amount of interrupted sleep.
Exit Albania – Sarandë
Sarande isn’t a pretty city. It’s a bit like the Albanian equivalent of Benidorm. However we wanted to do our exit procedures there, because it’s the furthest point south in Albania with a customs office. At Sarande, you are obliged to use a Port Agent. Our agent was Agim, he had been recommended to us by Irene, a lady we’d met at Orikum who runs Albania’s only Charter company.
We got the warmest welcome to the quay from Agim, his son and daughter, who share responsibilities in their family run business. Our initial plan was just to do the paperwork and go straight to Greece.
“You should stay” said Agim
“Have a look at the city, eat some food”
We felt pretty safe about leaving the boat here. It’s on a Customs Quay and there’s a Police presence. In addition Irene had suggested that Agim would most likely keep an eye on our boat for us while we weren’t there (I can’t validate that he did this but all the signs suggest this was true, his son was fishing by the customs quay that night and Agim was there chatting to the Police when we returned later). We could also stay for free which was an added bonus.
We had dinner, it wasn’t our best meal in Albania, but it was ok. Looking over the bay we could have been in any large coastal town in Europe. Everything was surprisingly Med like and normal, but then we heard the Call to Prayer echo across from the town. It was a beautiful yet strange sound and gave the bay an enhanced ambience.
It was a fitting end to our Albania trip and cemented my thoughts about the country- it’s very European Mediterranean, but with a twist. I know for sure we’ll be back because there’s a load of stuff we would have liked to have done, but didn’t have time to. I’m hoping this article will encourage a few people to give Albania a chance and book a holiday there or visit by yacht.
*If you do decide to try it out feel free to message me (comment on this page and I’ll reply) for any tips or advice.