July 2014 : Croatia, Montenegro and Albania to Crete

This month’s plan, on leaving Croatia, involved going slightly off the beaten track to cruise the coasts of Montenegro and Albania, which are more often than not bypassed by cruising yachts moving between Croatia and the Ionian Sea - just over 200 miles as the crow flies, though our actual route was 333 n miles. We had expected this phase to be at the rough and rugged end of cruising and we were right - neither country is particularly well set up for yachts and there is a dearth of ports and anchorages, in comparison with the multitude of perfect bays and islands of Croatia. Conditions for sailing for the whole of this month were somewhat trying. The supposedly prevailing winds from the north, which we had anticipated would waft us gently southwards down the Adriatic, failed to materialise at all. Instead conditions were generally unsettled - usually a light southerly airflow - but sometimes strong and stormy with hours of torrential rain. Forecasts from the various sources available were often contradictory or just wrong. Despite all this, we enjoyed a fascinating month accompanied by our friends Ralph and Ellen who were particularly keen to explore Albania.

A gentle motor along the coast on a glassy sea, watching Dubrovnik recede behind, brought us to the entrance to the Bay of Kotor - and into Montenegro.

KotorBay of Kotor
We spent three days exploring this vast fjord like indentation in the coast about 17 miles in length with a shoreline of nearly 70 miles, comprised of three main basins. It has a reputation for spectacular scenery, but initially we were slightly underwhelmed by a coastline more developed than we had envisaged - small villages, resorts, small towns and a commercial port - against a background of mountains. However, it grew on us as we gradually made our way through a narrow channel to the innermost bay which was truly magnificent - mountains soaring straight up from the shoreline to 1000 metres, little medieval towns, and monastery covered islets. The medieval Venetian town of Kotor is encircled by a wall which rises high up the mountain behind it. We climbed the 1,350 steps (261 metres) to the fort at the top of the the walls, rewarded by stunning views. The dramatic mountain scenery did however have its downside when we were hit by katabatic winds touching 40 knots at around 3 in the morning. Montenegro envisages the Bay of Kotor as a major cruising ground for yachts - a small naval port is currently being transformed into a state of the art super-yacht marina - but it is hard to envisage the area, with few anchorages, becoming the Solent of Montenegro.

From Kotor we continued southwards to Sveti Stefan, to anchor behind the picturesque 15th century fishing village turned up-market hotel. Situated on an island connected by a causeway to the mainland it should have provided perfect shelter from the prevailing winds, but in the unsettled conditions, some uncomfortable rolling spoiled the otherwise idyllic situation. This is an extremely popular beach resort, largely populated by slav and Russian tourists.

Next to Ulcinj, right on the southern border of Montenegro along a dramatic coastline of folded mountains, silhouetted islands – and terrible tourist developments. We were tempted there by its unusual history as a pirate stronghold. During the 16th century the Ottomans turned a blind eye as pirates from Malta, Tunisia and Algeria made it their base and the guide books talked of an exotic oriental atmosphere - it seemed too good to miss. We anchored in the minute and alarmingly shallow bay, surrounded by a beach of holidaymakers frolicking under the gaze of a minaret. However, although the fortified old town, high on a promontory at one side of the bay looked enticing, we found a bland restoration in the form of restaurants and holiday apartments – quaint paved alleys but no atmosphere. Given the dicey nature of the anchorage we resorted to Plan B and returned to Uvala Valdanos - a likely looking bay we had identified a few miles to the north. There, as it turned, out we spent a delightful evening swimming off the boat followed by a memorable meal at the beach restaurant, chatting to the charming manager Aslan about the history of the derelict former naval holiday camp there – most of it still off limits to the local populace.

We then had to retrace our wake a little way back north in order to clear out of Montenegro at the large port of Bar. The marina here provided a useful pit stop after a week of anchoring - re-fuelling, provisioning, cleaning and taking on water, etc. Bar itself while not a highlight, appeared to be an up and coming commercial centre. At this point the weather took a serious turn for the worse with a forecast for strong winds and high seas from the direction of our next destination 55 miles away. Not wanting to hang around in Bar and with our Montenego cruising permit expired, our indecision was fuelled by inconsistent local knowledge and advice. Caution prevailed, Plan B emerged and we stayed in Bar for an extra day before finally departing Montenegro for a closer port – the right decision as we later heard.

Albania - known to itself as Shqipëria – felt like a mysterious destination, having suffered its notorious isolation over so many years. The country is slightly smaller than Belgium, though with less than a third the population (3 million). Though dramatically scenic (mountains cover 70% of the country), the coastline of 190 miles (as the crow flies) is inhospitable for small boats - very few ports, off-lying shoals at the northern end and no secure anchorages until the far south near the border with Greece. A law banning privately owned boats has only recently been repealed and there are no facilities for yachts apart from one marina. Not surprisingly given its history, formalities are required in every port and apparently complex and onerous enough to require an agent - though we did suspect that agents’ fees were probably money for old rope.

We enjoyed a rare and excellent sail the 36 miles into Albania and the port of Shengjin - our Plan B destination.

ShengjinSkanderbeg
Where we were directed to moor ourselves to a rusty old fishing boat. The fishing boat was home to several crew members who put up with our climbing in and out - the only way to get ashore. Our Albanian history learning curve started here with a visit, in torrential rain, to the town of Lezha about 5 miles away to visit the tomb and memorial to the great 15th century Albanian hero Skanderbeg. His valiant defence against the invading Ottomans, though ultimately unsuccessful, is considered (in Albania at least) to have prevented the Ottomans from encroaching further into Europe.

From Shengjin we sailed and motored the 40 miles to Durres. Having left in a deluge, the weather improved though squalls caused more showers, the lowering skies highlighting the startlingly luminous turquoise water. BunkersHere we had our first sightings of bunkers ashore - there are said to be 60,000 bunkers in Albania - though fortunately no longer manned.

Founded in 7th century by Greek colonists from Corinth, Durres is Albania’s largest port and second city. Durres PortHere we were directed to a high concrete wharf beneath a crane where, ahead of us, cargo ships bringing grain from Russia and Ukraine were being unloaded. Leaving the port involved passing through a police checkpoint - which made for a good feeling of security. Durres itself was a busy town with Greek, Roman and Byzantine archeological ruins to inspect, and also the pink summer palace of King Zog. Durres was a good safe place to restock and generally observe port operations - downsides were the rats scampering along the quay at dusk and an almighty squall one evening which left the boat covered with black sand blown off the quay. We spent 3 nights here which enabled us to travel inland to the capital Tirana and then on to Skanderbeg’s stronghold and museum at Kruja. Nationalism Tirana's museum of history consolidated our growing knowledge of Albania - from Bronze Age Illyria, through periods of Greek and Roman rule, then Serbian and Ottoman rule before independence in 1912 and the later monarchy of King Zog. Communism under the increasingly hardline Enver Hoxia followed the 2nd world war until 1990. It has been a hard history. Jazzily painted tower blocks demonstrate attempts to cheer up the look of the place. Our impression of Albanian was of friendly people, proud and glad to have thrown off their isolationist and communist past and to be living in an open society. English was widely spoken particularly by the young – keen to practice on us.

From Durres we made our longest passage of 61 miles to Orikum - the one and only marina deep in the Gulf of Vlore. This was a little haven of comfort and tranquillity. From here we travelled inland to visit the UNESCO Heritage site of Berat - 'town of a thousand windows' – those of the preserved Ottoman houses rising up the hillside toward the citadel at the top. The journey there gave us views of Albania demonstrating the contrasts of its current situation as it modernises – terrible roads/swanky new cars, slums/plush apartment blocks, squalid litter filled alleys/pristine garage forecourts – and many halted building projects - construction is apparently a widespread front for money laundering.

Vlore is the nearest part of the coast to Italy - Otranto is less than 60 miles away - making it the location for mass escape from Albania – which has occurred at several times in its history and explains the seriously large number of bunkers and fortifications on the route out southwards. This leg of 46 miles involved some sailing (!) in strange little acceleration zones. With the swell mercifully from behind us, we moved from the Adriatic into the Ionian. The coastline of the 'Albanian Riviera' becomes less barren with beaches - and ugly looking resort developments. Our penultimate stop was in the Bay of Palermos, dominated by Ali Pasha’s early 19th century Venetian style fort topping a promontory in the bay. Palermos wharf We berthed on a very rough 3 metre high concrete jetty – quite a climb out of the boat. The air here was suffused by a wonderful smell of herbs which we traced to a primitive operation on the beach for drying herbs - on an industrial scale. This turned out to be one of our more sociable stops as we encountered a very jolly Italian mini-flotilla making a circumnavigation of the Adriatic from their home port in Venice. We also encountered, for the fourth time, the tiny yacht Jana – crewed by an Austrian/English couple with their two very bright kids. They had no pilot books and little experience. Coming from our position of prudent RYA training and our glut of information, we were not sure whether to admire their unfettered sense of adventure – ignorance is bliss – or to see them as irresponsible parents. Our last encounter with them was in Gouvia marina – where they were eagerly seeking out laundry facilities!

Finally to Sarandë - 18 miles on, most of it under sail in delightful gentle winds - toward the southern end of Albania, opposite the north end of Corfu just a few miles away. Sarande wharf This a large resort town - by far the most prosperous we have seen with its smart and tidy promenade all around the large bay and an appealing family atmosphere. Here we were directed to the ferry quay which seemed curious - in most ports yachts are ordered firmly to keep clear of ferry quays. However, we were quite comfortable - and again felt very secure inside the guarded port - if slightly nervous when ferries arrived, backing in beside us. Our main objective here was to visit the archaeological site of Butrint, which provides a microcosm of Mediterranean history, with substantial Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian remains. We enjoyed a morning strolling around this fascinating and beautifully situated shady site.

R and E left Aremiti here, boarding the ferry to Corfu town for their flight home. After some provisioning - including a stock of the excellent fruit and vegetables which have been evident throughout Albania - we pottered off to seek out a quiet bay on the north-east coast of Corfu - eventually ending up in Kalami - a pretty wooded bay and beach where the author Lawrence Durrell had a home (now an excellent restaurant) right opposite Butrint just 4 miles across the Corfu Strait. We spent a quiet few days here doing nothing – just what we needed after such intensive sightseeing. However, on the third day a wind piped up which had yachts dragging their anchors all over the place and we decided to move, finding a secret bay hidden behind a headland. Threading our way past fish farms we found a rustic idyll - horses on the beach, cows, goats and sheep, complete with shepherd and a veritable flock of herons. Finally we had to drag ourselves away to the awesomely huge marina of Gouvia near Corfu town - where we truly returned to the world of yachting. Aremiti stayed here while we returned to UK to visit family.

We back on board now, ready for the islands of the Ionian!