When we took a marina berth in Lefkas for a year we had the intention of doing less sea miles than in previous years and merely pottering around the Ionian Sea exploring the local harbours and anchorages. This was not to be as Julie’s problem with the Schengen visa (she can only stay in EU countries for 90 days in any 180-day period) has meant that we have sailed Exotica from Greece to Montenegro via Albania.
We are currently in the delightful town of Kotor, nestled between huge mountains in this charming inland sea.
Prior to this journey we had a week around the Ionian with our friend Robert Mitchell. The day he arrived was stormy so we left Exotica secured in her berth and took a taxi to Nicopolis, just north of Preveza, where Emperor Augustus built a city to celebrate his victory over Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC.
The next day we sailed to Spatakhori on the island of Meganissy where we tied up alongside the powerboat of friends we had first met in Malta in 2015.
We joined them again the next day in Eufemia on the island of Cephalonia for another fine taverna meal.
Back in Lefkas we were joined by John Studdert and Dennis Mather and made a few short trips, the weather began dull and cool but warmed up as the week progressed.
We anchored one night in Petala, the first night at anchor on our passage to Athens, a tad warmer this time. Dennis and John swam….then another night back in Spatakhori at the wonderfully welcoming Taverna Porto Spilia
We then left the boat for an opera trip.
First to England and a night at Longborough, a favourite country house opera where we saw the new production of Rheingold which is the start of their next complete Ring Cycle. It was the most bitterly cold, wet and miserable night imaginable but the music was sensational. The production, under the direction of Amy Lane and the baton of Anthony Negus, was a breath of fresh air. The choreography, lighting and costumes made the most of the small stage and talented cast. It bodes well for the full Ring in 2023.
The following day we were off to Budapest for the complete Ring. This production, which we saw in 2008, is semi-staged, it was the cast of some of the world’s best Wagner singers in Stefan Vinke, Catherine Foster, Stuart Skelton and Gerhard Siegel that enticed us back. The Palace of Arts is famous for it’s acoustics, musically it is the best Ring we have seen but we felt the staging lacked imagination. Unusually the four operas which comprise the Ring were performed on four consecutive nights, this is hard on the singers, musicians and the audience sitting on seats where the upholstery has sunken somewhat.
We returned to Greece on June 19th. to find that summer had arrived and the coldest May and early June in living memory had finally departed. Jane and Jeff Carryer joined us for our passage to Albania.
The next morning, we approached the harbourmaster and police to leave Greece and were immediately wrapped in Greek officialdom and spent three hours marching from one to the other to get the right piece of paper. It was a frustrating morning when we had so far to go. However, we finally got away and had a long day of sailing and motoring to the island of Paxos where we found one of the most beautiful bays in Greece with turquoise water, sandy bottom and excellent shelter and holding. Needless to say, it was full of yachts but there was plenty of room for us.
From there the next stop was our first port in Albania. This country has been isolated from the rest of the world since the war with a hard line communist regime, a bit like North Korea. However, in recent years it has opened up a great deal and now has a kind of democracy. We were a little scared of going there as very few yachts stop in Albania and there is very limited infrastructure for non-commercial craft. Nonetheless we contacted agents in each harbour we stopped at and they were universally helpful and informative. Our first night was in Sarande, the southernmost Albanian port which is actually a popular seaside resort, only room for one or two yachts on the customs quay but very safe. We went ashore and had the best mussels ever in a seafront restaurant. Also managed to get an Albanian SIM card for the phone.
It was 57 miles to our next port, Albania’s only marina at Orikum. The headland at the entrance is the home of thousands of army bunkers, a truly sobering sight. We anchored for lunch and a swim in a sheltered bay on the west side of Vlore Bay. Jeff noticed fishing net around our prop, not easy to cut away using a snorkel so Terry deployed our battery operated deck snorkel, which enabled both Terry and Jeff 20 minutes under the boat to cut the net away.
Orikum marina is in the south east of Vlore bay, a huge, shallow, protected bay used as a naval base during WW1. Built with money donated by the EU the marina is somewhat underutilised and a bit sad with quite a few unloved boats growing weeds on their hulls. Julie and Jane decided to go to the supermarket in the evening but were forced to retreat by savage dogs.
A good 61 nautical mile sail with wind 10-18 knots behind us to Durres, the largest and busiest port in Albania where the agent put us alongside a rough old harbour wall. There were a number of cargo vessels close by as was Christina O, the enormous pleasure boat which used to belong to Aristotle Onassis and which has been beautifully restored at the cost of many millions. Now owned by a Greek under a Maltese flag and used for charters.
Our agent recommended a local restaurant serving traditional Albanian cuisine. The specialty was lamb baked in a ceramic dish. This proved somewhat disappointing as there was very little lamb and much polenta and it had obviously come straight from the microwave. The wine was pretty ordinary as well.
The extraordinary thing about Durres was the number of smart cars driving around in heavy traffic. More Mercedes, BMWs and Audis than anywhere else outside Mayfair. Strange considering the poverty of the country generally.
A grey day from Durres to Bar in Montenegro, storm clouds gathered, two of them with rotating funnels reaching towards the sea. Julie took fright, reduced sails and motored with haste away from the offending danger.Thankfully it was short lived but it was a long days motoring against wind and swell.
After the 65nm passage Terry then had another two-hour tussle with Montenegrin officialdom having to attend the Harbourmaster, Police and then Customs in that order as well as queuing for nearly an hour in the Post Office to pay 32 Euro. Every transaction requires reams of paperwork completed by people who can only type with one finger. There was no problem it just took forever.
From Bar we motored north to the Bay of Kotor, 40nm, and retraced our steps of 2015 by spending a night at Porto Montenegro, one of the fanciest marinas in the Mediterranean. Julie had wangled an invitation to the Yacht Club so we were invited to use the magnificent facilities including the infinity swimming pool with its spectacular view over the bay.
Exotica had two nights in Kotor, a very ancient city deep in the bay surrounded by high mountains and a dramatic city wall which stretches far up the hillside.
We had an hour long speedboat ride to the Blue Grotto, just at the entrance of the Bay of Kotor where our bodies became blue in the iridescent water, then into WW11 caves where submarines hid, and then to ancient Perast and the islands off it.
Having farewelled our crew we are now relaxing in beautiful, friendly Montenegro for a few more days before heading south again via Albania to Greece, alone this time but feel confident tackling Albanian ports and bureaucracy.
Thanks to Jane and Jeff who thought they were joining us for a gentle cruise around the Ionian islands and ended up helping us with the 250 nautical mile passage up the coast and to Jules Maxwell for her bubbly personality.