After more than 4 weeks in Corfu we had to get out of Schengen, so Albania, Greece’s closest neighbor was the obvious choice. We had been intrigued by the sound of this country which had been pretty well shut off to the world until the last 20 years. We had heard mixed reports and our memories from sailing by in 2009 were of reports of unexploded mines in the waters off the coast.
We are pleased to report that our current impression of Albania is very positive. We have thoroughly enjoyed the country, its friendly and extremely helpful people, the food and the spectacular scenery. At no time did we experience any feelings of insecurity.
Check in to Albania was in the large holiday town/port of Vlores, assisted by the agent Freddi. Fortunately there was no wind as Sea Cloud lay next to concrete and black tyres in the commercial harbour.
Vlores, like all Albanian towns we visited is a massive construction site – new apartment buildings, new roads, and surprisingly, a very cosmopolitan feel. It has a string of beaches between the town and Orikum, the location of the only marina in Alabania 7 Nm further south in the Vlores gulf.
Orikum marina, set up in 1994 by an enterprising Italian, Luigi, only has about 6 visitor berths. The marina is very safe with laid lines, but has a horrifyingly shallow entrance – only just deep enough to cope with our 2.34m draft. (Shallowest sounding was 2.6m). The grand plan is for an 800 berth marina, but there are no signs of expansion at present although the barriers to such enterprises seem to be decreasing in Albania.
We rented a car to explore the Ancient sites and UNESCO listed towns scattered throughout Albania. The first at Apollonia, a Greek then Roman city, just north of Vlores.Left over from communist era (ended in 1992) are an estimated 700,000 concrete bunkers, scattered throughout the country including among the well tended, fertile farmed land, very typical of Albania.
Driving is a challenge. It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every road in the country seems to be under construction or repair and potholes can be huge! There are main highways along the coast and to the capital, Tirana. We have never seen more Mercedes cars in one country – yet they share roundabouts with donkeys, horse and carts…
Berati is an attractive village, set on the river, with well preserved white Ottoman houses nestled on the hill (of “a thousand windows”) to the citadel on the peak. The citadel, which encircles the top is still inhabited and has wonderful views of the nearby mountains and the village below.
During the communist era, religion was banned and most places of worship in Albania were demolished. Fortunately, the mediaeval churches and two mosques in Berati were classified as being of historical significance so were preserved. One of the churches has a very impressive collection of icons by the 16th century Albania painter Onufri.
The town has a very Ottoman feel – as can be seen in the Ethnographic Museum (C 1810).
The pedestrian mall along the river is lined with cafes; full but remarkable for the lack of women in them. It is the focal centre of the town, with all the locals promenading here each evening.
Hotel Osumi, was typical of our accommodation in Albania – friendly people, good simple clean and comfortable accommodation and great breakfasts. All for about half the price of anywhere else.
Tirana, Albania’s capital is a bustling, mainly modern city with an interesting mix of old and new architecture.
Hotel Opera, where we stayed had only been open since January this year. Its location next to the National Museum and within walking distance of all the sites, was in a great location. The view from our room is very typical of Albania – old buildings being surrounded by construction.
Korca, in the east of Albania was our next stop. The town, which has been recently modernized has some lovely old restored buildings in its very cosmopolitan feeling main street.
Its pedestrian mall ends in a rather strange tower, which provides a great view of the town.
We lucked out here. A highlight of Korca for us was the opportunity to attend an intimate concert in the local arts centre. This was sponsored by the Italian ministry of culture who funded 2 highly accomplished Italian musicians to give a master class for the local kids followed by a concert performance comprising Concerti for guitar and viola including works by Schubert and Paganini. It was quite surreal, being surrounded by teenage men with mohican hair cuts riveted to this lovely music.
Parking, as in all these towns is a challenge in incredibly narrow (yes – two way) streets. You can see why rental cars check for scratches on return! This small guest house had the BEST breakfast.
Korca has a great local produce market in the original Ottoman market area.
The roads between Korca and Permet were a not to be repeated experience! They were very challenging with the 160km through the mountains taking about 8 hours – rarely getting into 3rd gear. The good news is they are rebuilding a lot of the roads, and the views were fantastic.
We had made a very last minute booking to join a 3 day hiking trek through the Zagoria mountains staying with local farmers, organized by Zbulo, or Discover Albania (http://zbulo.org). We would highly recommend this company which has established great travel adventures for tourists in conjunction with local Albanians.
Unfortunately, a wrong choice at a roadside restaurant the day before meant we missed the first day of the hike. The bowl of what was billed as “chicken soup with meat balls”, comprised tripe and pieces of liver floating in a lukewarm milky broth. Although this sent alarm bells, but we were stupidly polite and suffered the consequences. This was our only bad food experience. The food overall is simple, fresh and delicious – definitely Albanian, but with Greek, Turkish and Italian influences. As we were tied to a hotel bathroom for the first 12 hrs, Endrit from Zbulo tours arranged for our host for the first night, Mani, to pick us up in his 4 WD and drive us to the village late that day. Seemed fairly easy, until we realized the isolation of the village and the roads these people have to negotiate to get to town. The amazing views were well worth the bone rattling drive up to and over the 1200m pass to the valley behind.
Mani and his family live in Limar, a small village of 5 or 6 sheep farming families high in the hills.
As well as teaching the 5 local children in the village, Mani and his father milk their flock of 200 sheep twice daily. They grow their own fruit and veg and honey. During spring and autumn, Mani and Marguerite host small groups of walkers to supplement their income. We were treated to wonderful food and Albanian hospitality, but did decline the traditional Raki to kick start the day.
Cimi, our local guide and Robyn a co-hiker from Canada, were great company. Cimi spoke enough English to communicate his love and knowledge of the mountains and the way of life here as well as the wealth of herbs and edible vegetation along the route.
The trek from Limar to Hoshteve took us 10km, through villages and mountain meadows. The paths have recently been signposted with the assistance of Cimi.
After a rainy walk we arrived in the small bar in Hoshteve for Raki and a local beer in front of the fire. We were transferred by 4wd to the Duli Guest house in Sheper, where we spent the night hosted by Anetta and Edmond. Mani had transported our bags to Sheper by donkey – he was heading back on the 3 hour journey in the rain after meeting us for a drink.
Dinner was in the cosy lounge room in front of the fire. It was strange to be sitting there watching Spiderman on TV with Albanian subtitles!
Cimi’s brother arrived with his horse accompanied by its 4 week old foal to transport our luggage. It was incredible how the foal coped with this trek, which it had first done in its first week of life. Both mum and foal remarkably sure footed on some very steep scree slopes.
We trekked up to the Dhembeli pass along ancient caravan trails which are still used by shepherds to move their stock from southern Albania (over 10 days walk) to these lush alpine pastures.
A lunch break overlooking the town of valley was much appreciated before the 1250m descent back over rocky scree slopes into Permet.
We passed through a small village of Leuse, which has an Orthodox church with the most lovely frescoes.
The walk was the most wonderful experience – an absolute highlight of our Albanian visit.
Leaving Permet, we had a leisurely drive back to Sea Cloud over decent roads.
We stopped in Gjirokaster, another UNESCO town with a castle (used as a prison until recently), cobbled streets and attractive houses.
The following winds en route from Orikum to Saranda, the southern most port in Albania, gave us the opportunity to continue to refine our poled out headsail and boom preventer so necessary for the weeks of continuous downwind sailing we will be experiencing later in the year.
Saranda is a bustling touristy town only 7Nm from Corfu.
It has a small, very secure yacht harbour adjacent to the ferry dock. Including Sea Cloud, 3 out of the 8 boats had Aussie flags. In recent weeks, not a day has passed that we haven’t been anchored near Australians. Our agent (compulsory) in Saranda was the lovely Jelja Serani (Saranda summer holidays; info@sarandasummer tours.com). She and her husband were extremely efficient and friendly, made the check in/out process very painless; renting us a car and providing us with information about the local area.
We visited the Roman ruins of Butrint much of which have been excavated in the past 10yrs.
The Blue Eye about half an hour north of Saranda where the pure spring water gushes up to the surface from a cave hundred of meters deep, is the most beautiful colour. The dark centre and blue “iris” give its name.
A very rainy few days ended our time in Saranda, doing jobs on Sea Cloud before our next adventure, heading north to Croatia.
Back in San Stefano, the season has definitely started – we were the only boat here 2 weeks ago, last night there were 8! Summer also seems to have finally arrived…..it has been very slow coming this year.