Late April, early May 2023
As April drew to a close, and our marina contracts were set to expire at the end of the month, the winter cruising community at Porto Montenegro began to disperse. One by one, boats left to continue their Mediterranean meanderings. Some went west to southern Italy, some went north to Croatia and Venice, some went south to Albania or Greece.
Awildian was included in this last group: we had to be near to Athens, Greece, by the end of May, when our daughter, Kelly, and her boyfriend, Daniel, would arrive to spend a few days with us. We'd decided to make some stops in Albania along the way, to see a bit of this anachronistic country, and to delay our entry into Greece, which would start the clock on our 90 day Schengen visas. The trip to the Athens area would be about 500 miles, taking us around the bottom of the Peloponnese Peninsula. We had to take "the long way," since the Corinth Canal, which cuts across the top of the Peloponnese Peninsula, creating a shortcut between the Ionian Sea to the west and the Saronic Gulf to the east near Athens, wouldn't open until June 1.
Like everyone else, we began making our final preparations: buying extra groceries, filling our water tanks, checking the weather, saying our goodbyes. For us, it also included another trip over the mountains to Podgorica, to submit our applications for Croatian citizenship - with their reams of supporting documents - at the Croatian Embassy. Application accomplished, we focused on clearing out of Montenegro.
The first leg of our trip would be 90 miles, from Porto Montenegro to the port of Durrës, Albania, which we could do either as a long day trip or an overnighter. We chose to do the day trip, which meant that we'd have to leave very early in the morning, which then meant that we'd need to start clearing out of Montenegro the day before.
Clearing out of Montenegro involves a trip to the harbormaster (during business hours), who makes sure that our tourist taxes have been paid, and issues us a one-day "vignette" (basically a cruising permit), for 47 euro, that allows us to legally move Awildian from his slip in the marina to the Customs dock next door. The rest of the process, which is done with Customs and the port police, can be done at any time since they operate 24/7.
The day before we planned to leave, Eric went with Miloš (pronounced Mee-losh), one of the two Yacht Assist agents who are named Miloš, to visit the harbormaster, returning with our vignette. Next, we walked to the marina office, checked out of the marina, said goodbye to the helpful women who work there, and left them with some chocolates as thanks for all their help during the winter.
When our alarm went off at 4 am the next morning, we got up and had some coffee. By 4:30 am we were ready to go. The sun wasn't quite up yet, but between the marina lights and the brightening sky, we could see well enough. We put our headsets on, released Awildian's lines, and motored over to the Customs dock. Eric took our documents to the Customs building to get our passports stamped and complete the checking out process. A little while later he returned with the goods. We were ready to go. As we left the dock and motored toward the mouth of the Boka, I waved goodbye to Montenegro and said, "See you in the Fall."
The trip to Durrës was blissfully uneventful. The sun shone, the air was warmish, the sea offered up only minimal waves. With a breeze behind us, Awildian scooted along at 8 to 8.5 knots, propelled by the Things and, sometimes, a sail or two. From the water, Albania looks a lot like Montenegro. But once you get closer, or dig deeper, the similarities stop.
For instance. Along the northern Albanian coast, our chart plotter had some odd icons on it. When we looked them up, we discovered they were mines, as in, anti-ship mines. Hmm. That's something we hadn't seen before. Along with the icons, the chart had two notes:
"The sea area represented on this chart in front of Albania was formerly mined. Although this area was cleared, anchoring, fishing and diving as well as any other activity on the sea bottom are potentially dangerous."
"The area reported in this chart is dangerous because of former mined area. Vessels should navigate only during daylight hours and follow the recommended tracks shown on chart."
We didn't quite tiptoe through the area, but it did make us wonder about how conscientious the mine clearers had been. Fortunately, the mines had been cleared decades ago, so we weren't likely to bump into one they might have missed.
Also, all along the coast, everywhere we looked, igloo-shaped cement bunkers were perched on the headlands. More about these later.
By 4:30 pm we were in the channel approaching Durrës Harbour. We'd expected to anchor out, but Ilir Gjergji, our agent, texted that we should bring Awildian into the marina. Yachts are required to use a local agent, to clear into Albania, and Ilir had come highly recommended by other cruisers. Rightly so, it turned out. When I called on VHF Ch 16, the Durrës port control operator was extremely helpful and friendly, welcoming us to Albania, directing us where to tie up, and wishing us a pleasant stay.
Ilir and a few burly dudes were waiting when we arrived, ready to catch our lines and tie Awildian to the dock. The dock being a crumbling concrete quay, with rebar sticking out here and there, and some old tires slung alongside at intervals to provide a modicum of cushioning (as well as creating black abstract art wherever they touched the hull).
The dock in Durrës
Ilir welcomed us to Albania and came aboard. While I was busy adding more fenders between Awildian and the dock, Ilir told Eric a bit about Albania, and wrote down some useful Albanian phrases for us. Then he took our boat paperwork, and some money for fees (euros were accepted, if you don't happen to have any Albanian lekë handy); he returned later, having checked us into Albania. Fun fact: your passports don't get stamped when you enter Albania by boat. I don't know whether they do if you fly in.
Awildian tied to the dock
Soon after Ilir left, we saw a pair of our friends, Seb and Suzanne, walking along the dock toward us. Wait...Seb and Suzanne had left on their boat, Racoon II, the day before, heading for Preveza, Greece. What were they doing here in Durrës? What they were doing was recovering from a very uncomfortable trip, having been bounced around all night long in lots of wind and steep, confused seas out in the Adriatic. Eventually they'd made the decision to abort their trip to Greece and head for the shelter of Durrës Harbor. A decision that they were quite happy with. They were able to contact Ilir during the night and he'd set everything up for them in the marina prior to their arrival.
A little while later, some of our other friends from Porto Montenegro, Sarah and Peter, arrived on Flying Fish. Sarah docked their boat directly in front of us. Ilir took their paperwork and went off to clear them in.
The six of us then convened on Awildian's front porch for drinks and snacks, to celebrate our safe arrival into Albania, mark the beginning of a new cruising season, and to share the details of our passages.
A reunion in Durrës
Seb and Suzanne's was by far the most dramatic. Here we all were, in a shabby but sheltered marina in Albania, a country that we knew almost nothing about, and couldn't have located on a map a year ago. But that's part of the fun of cruising.
The next morning, after Flying Fish continued south, Ilir gave the four of us a lift into Durrës. Along the way, he told us about life in Albania: for instance, no one was allowed to own a car until 1991. Just one of the many edicts of Albania's controlling, paranoid, and bat-shit-crazy dictator, Enver Hoxha, who was in power from the mid-40s until his death in 1985.
In addition to banning private cars, Hoxha also outlawed the practice of religion and "purged" many members of the clergy. His "purges" extended far beyond the clergy, encompassing his political rivals, aristocrats, old high school friends, intellectuals, and apparently anyone else who happened to cross his mind.
One aspect of Hoxha's paranoia was his constant fear that Albania would be invaded by any number of countries, and so he ordered the construction of more than 750,000 concrete bunkers, a policy known as "bunkerization." Many of these bunkers are still around, their domed lids popping up seemingly everywhere you look in Albania, a tribute to Hoxha's unbridled paranoia. Though most are decaying slowly in the elements, some bunkers have been repurposed as art objects, restaurants, or even B&Bs.
Some examples of bunkers, images from the web:
You can read more about the transformation of some of Albania's bunkers here:
Hoxha was apparently so impressed with the design of the bunkers that he went to visit the engineer who'd designed them, Josif Zagali, and asked whether the bunkers could withstand a tank assault. When Zagali proudly confirmed that they could, Hoxha ordered him to go inside one of the bunkers, and then had a tank shoot it with an artillery shell. The bunker held up perfectly and Zagali emerged unscathed - except maybe for his hearing, and the need for a new pair of trousers. Zagali later fell victim to one of Hoxha's "purges"; he was arrested and thrown in prison for eight years.
The population of Albania was essentially isolated and held hostage by a deranged politician for forty years. There's a lot more information out there, about Hoxha and his policies, as well as life in Albania during his rule and after. It's some crazy stuff. I'll leave it for you to explore more if you'd like.
On our day out in Durrës, Eric, Seb, Suzanne, and I explored an ancient Roman amphitheater that's located right in the middle of the city.
Only discovered in 1966, it's been partially excavated; the rest will have to wait as there are entire modern neighborhoods built on top of it. We paid our 200 lekë apiece (about 2 euro), and had a wander around the grounds. It was very interesting. There were tunnels under the spectator stands, just like in a modern stadium, and pens where combatants were kept. We could almost imagine the lions and gladiators waiting there, before their entry into the arena to satisfy the bloodlust of the audience.
Modern snails, ancient walls
After leaving the ancient amphitheater, we strolled through modern Durrës - which is an interesting blend of old, really old, and new - arriving at a seaside promenade.
Davey Jones in dry dock.
Sculpture at the port
Why is it, that we cruisers, though we spend most of our time on the water, still gravitate to it, when given the opportunity to walk on land? We strolled along the wide paved path, past occasional sculptures, and beside a flotsam-littered beach.
Vendors hawked their wares - sunglasses, jewelry, balloons - and locals sat on benches, enjoying the sunny day. We climbed a concrete "ziggurat," and sat there for awhile, chatting and watching the waves.
Seb and Suzanne on the ziggurat
Van and Eric on the ziggurat
Then we found a beachside restaurant and had some lunch. The local beer, Korça, was very refreshing.
After lunch, we walked back to the marina and looked at the next day's weather forecast, confirming that it still looked good for us all to head to Orikum, about 60 miles south.
The view out the window. Not a good look!