May 21, 2016
We arrived in Sarande, Albania Thursday around noon, after a 36-hour sail from Crotone, Italy, in the Calabrian “instep” of the Italian boot. We have done a lot of overnight sails since leaving Licata, but the sail from Crotone was the longest so far, done with our friends Morten and Anne-Inge of Vid Vandre, a similar sized boat to ours, from Norway.
Leaving Sicily was a little of a culture shock, but coming to Albania is more of one. Sarande is not a large city – 21,000 people clustered around a wide bay, and as you approach the harbor one of the first things you see is a large mosque just outside the town. One of the first things you hear if a very amplified and melodic call to prayer periodically drifting across the town. Albania is described as the only majority-Muslim country in Europe, although it is a slim majority. Some 52% of Albanians describe themselves as Muslims.
But It’s definitely a multi-cultural place. Besides the calls to prayer, there are other prominent sounds – church bells ring loudly with equal frequency to the prayer calls, and in the evening the thud of electronic disco music from the beach-side bars seems almost loud enough to cause ripples in the water. Maybe we will have reached a truly higher stage of evolution when sound ordinances apply equally to garbage trucks, Harley-Davidson owners, disco bars, and religious enthusiasts – with, of course, exceptions to allow for special occasions.
The territory now contained by Albania’s borders has been occupied by humans for many thousands of years. 5,000 years ago it was populated by over thirty distinct tribes, each with its own language – much like the Pacific Northwest. Except that no one came along to spread smallpox among the natives. Also like the Pacific Northwest, the tribes developed a trade language – Salish, in the case of what is now British Columbia and Washington State – and Albanian here.
Then the empires came. The territory has been conquered by Greeks, Carthaginians, Ostrogoths, Romans, Turks, and the Ottoman empire. A revolt against Ottoman rule made Albania an independent nation in the early 20th Century, only to find it occupied again, first by the Italian Fascists, then the German Nazis during World War II. A largely Communist resistance movement took power as the Nazis were driven out in 1944, and a truly bizarre period began.
“Cult of the Personality” barely hints at the excesses of the Enver Hoxha regime, which besides jailing and/or executing anyone suspected of political independence, placed some 700,000 (that’s right – 700,000!) pre-fab concrete pillboxes around this small country of 3,000,000 people. Hoxha died in bed in 1985, and things actually got worse. His cronies ran the country, and when the “People’s Republic” was abandoned in 1991, the wealth of the country was “privatized” (meaning “passed out to friends”) and the economy collapsed.
This was followed by more weird stuff. Most of the money in the country ended up in government-promoted and bank-sponsored “Ponzi” pyramid schemes. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “The schemes began to collapse in late 1996, leading many of the investors into initially peaceful protests against the government, requesting their money back. The protests turned violent in February as government forces responded with fire. In March the police and Republican Guard deserted, leaving their armories open. They were promptly emptied by militias and criminal gangs.”
A UN “peacekeeping” force, mainly Italians, occupied the country for a while after this, and in 1999 the country was flooded with refugees from Kosovo. Things appear to have stabilized somewhat in the last ten years, and tourism has become a major industry. It’s cheap here, there are some beautiful ruins and beaches, and the countryside is wild and dramatic, including the Albanian Alps.
We’re mainly here to get out of the E.U. – which all non-EU registered boats must do or theoretically they have to pay 20% VAT on the value of the boat. I say “theoretically” since no one in Italy seems to pay any attention to the rule, but why take a chance?
So we’ll explore a little, the move on to the Greek Island of Corfu in a couple more days. The food is good, people are friendly, and the streets are clean.
One odd thing: last night around midnight, as we were sleeping with the boat fendered off a sharp-edged concrete pier, Serafina suddenly began leaping around, like nothing we have ever seen before. The mooring lines threatened to snap like rubber bands, the fenders groaned and looked like they might explode, and we could barely stay on our feet. We ran up on deck to see what was going on, and could see no big waves! The shaking lasted about five minutes, and was followed by a second, but milder episode a little later. It was an earthquake! Our first on the water…
It rained all day yesterday, a cool, soaking Seattle rain, except when it was interrupted by violent thunderstorms. Ah, the Mediterranean life of the cruising sailor…