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10 Things We Hated About Sailing in Albania (And 5 Things We Loved)

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On the fence about sailing in Albania? While we can’t decide for you, our experience is a reminder for sailors to remain practical and realistic about the challenges of sailing in Albania.

is sailing Albania worth it?

We wanted to like it, we really did, but alas, as we sit here, anchored off the coast of Himare in southern Albania we have to acknowledge that it has been difficult.

An afternoon thunderstorm lashes the bay but does little to curb the oppressive 37-degree heat. So we sit, waiting, optimistically, for the teenager who we gave our last 50 euros to buy the 20 liters of diesel we desperately need to get out of Albania and into Greece. And as we sit we wonder where it all went wrong.

Our first week in Albania was a challenge

Before we sailed to Albania from Montenegro, we had read a lot online about the challenges and pitfalls of sailing in Albania. We spoke to many people cruising the Mediterranean who planned to skip Albania entirely.

Prissy sailors, we chuckled to ourselves, they just didn’t know how to hack it in a developing country. They’re not cut out for it, they’re not true travelers. It would be a different story for us. After all, we had already spent so much time backpacking through the Balkans, traveling through Mexico and South America by van, and motorbiking through South-East Asia, sailing the coast of Albania would be a walk in the park.

But we were wrong, and they were right. It pains us to have to walk that smugness back, to admit that in the end, Albania just wasn’t a nice place to sail. Having only been opened up to cruisers in the nineties, perhaps it makes sense that facilities and processes might drag a little bit behind established sailing regions like Croatia and Montenegro to the north and Greece to the south. However, the problems here go deeper than needing a little time to play catch up. To us, it seems that the experience of sailing in Albania, whether by design or folly, has been set up to be as unwelcoming as possible for sailors and to drive out sailing tourism from the country.

Much of the strife we have endured in Albania might have been avoided if we had prepared better or made different decisions along the way. After all, many people have reported wonderful experiences sailing in Albania. So perhaps if the cards had fallen differently we would be espousing the unbridled adventure of cruising Albania’s coastline. Instead, our experience lends weight to the already widespread notion that a successful voyage through Albanian waters remains the exception rather than the rule.

10 Reasons to Avoid Sailing Albania

Albanian Check-in Procedures

Both checking into and checking out of Albania by boat require an agent. Unlike many countries or even the Albanian land borders, where you are able to simply hand over paperwork and documents to the relevant authorities, checking in with a boat the use of an agent has become essentially mandatory. Although strictly speaking it is possible and lawful to check in without an agent the reluctance of authorities to deal with tourists directly makes it very difficult especially if you don’t speak Albanian.

An agent’s role is to organize, complete, and submit the necessary border documents for you and your boat and make sure you are legally covered to be in the country. Ostensibly, these professional agents are needed to bridge the language gap and navigate the complex bureaucratic procedures associated with clearing Albania’s borders.

In reality, our experience checking-in, which was completed entirely at a table in a small rundown bar in the Schëngjin Commercial Port, was the least official border crossing either of us has witnessed entering over a hundred countries by land, sea, and air.

Our check-in agent did not speak English well, which hindered communication and his ability to fill in the required forms. After completing the forms in illegible chicken scratch with an old blue Bic biro, he wandered over to another table where the border police were seated, drinking from small tumblers filled from an old plastic container. After a brief discussion, they in turn called another woman from a third table at the bar who shuffled off across the dusty marina with our documents.

When she finally returned we were relieved to have our passports back, and thoroughly bemused by the process. We asked if we were free to go, and our agent explained in halting English that unfortunately although we had left at the crack of dawn from Montenegro to reach the port well before close of business the harbor master had left for the day and wouldn’t return until early the next morning.

Nevertheless, he reminded us he was at our service and would return whenever it was convenient the next day. Eager to get going as early as possible to sail 36 nautical miles to the next port, we suggested 8 am…10 am was the best he could do.

At 10:00 the next day, we met in the same cafe with the agent and harbor master and finished the boat documents over a coffee.

We had been advised this service would cost €50 euro already a staggering amount for a job that we could have handled in 10 minutes on our own, but there was also an extra €10 euro tariff that our agent didn’t quite have the English to explain to us but was very adamant about its requirement.

As we parted our agent said, ‘Welcome to Albania, you are free to sail our coastline, call me if you need anything!” he smiled at us warmly, that would be the last time we ever heard from him, despite reaching out for help several times on our ill-fated trip down the coast.

You Are Not Allowed to Anchor in the North of Albania

Coast guard boat with guns
Nothing like a visit from a heavily armed coastguard in the dead of night

Before we set off from the Port of Schengjin, our agent had assured us we should feel free to anchor anywhere in Albania. Warily we asked about the reports that other sailors had been moved on from many promising anchorages, especially in the north, by military boats with large mounted guns, often in the middle of the night.

“No, no, no, you must feel free my friends, welcome to Albania, stay anywhere you like.” he promised.

Despite his insistence, all of the information available on cruising forums and websites seems to disagree. Countless reports indicate that anchoring in most bays in the north comes with the risk of being politely moved on or aggressively chased away. There have even been reports of boats that took shelter in anchorages during poor weather that were sent packing in the middle of the night.

Not wanting to be caught out we planned to only stay in anchorages that had been marked as safe and welcoming on cruising apps and forums. Unfortunately, none exist in the north of Albania, and only after passing into the waters of the Ionian Sea near the city of Vlorë in the south do the authorities seem to relax about sailors anchoring.

There are Mine Fields along the Albanian Coast

Old mines washed ashore on a rocky beach. Another challenge of sailing Albania
Mine fields are another thing that detracts from sailing in Albania

So you have made it south of Vlorë or you are coming north from Greece, time to pull up in a beautiful bay chuck out your anchor and enjoy.

Not so fast.

Minefields have been marked up and down the coast of Albania and while they have apparently been swept, the fact that the coastline was at one point booby trapped gave us pause for thought, not just when we were dropping anchor but all through the night as our chain swept the sea floor.

There are No Decent Marinas in Albania

A large cargo vessel at port
Neighbors: Having to stay in commercial ports is one of the big downsides of sailing Albania

Sailing is not popular in Albania and so there are no services for sailors in Albania and so sailing is not popular in Albania.

With heavy restrictions on where you can and can’t anchor in the north of Albania, you are limited to using marinas in the north of the country. But unfortunately, there aren’t any.

In the four major commercial ports along the coast, enterprising Albanians have roped off sections of the dock to allow sailors to moor up, but these facilities cannot (or have not tried to) disguise the fact that you are in a working industrial port complete with cargo ships, cranes, huge ferries bound for Italy, customs and security protocols.

Putrid water, the smell of petrol, and fields of jellyfish were the standout characteristics of the ports we discovered on our trip south along Albania’s coast.

Around us, the sounds, smells, and lights of our industrial lodgings were ever-present as the ports operated around the clock. The constant unloading of cargo and people. The wash of massive ferries bound for Italy. A never-ending stream of semi-trailers loading in and out of the terminal.

The ports are not set up for sailors and were often miles from any services, shops, or anything else of use. Security personnel seemed forever bewildered every time we tried to exit or enter the ports of Albania, and explaining that we were staying in a sailboat using pigeon English and mime became part of our daily routine.

Despite the lack of facilities and the less than inviting location, the prices in these ‘marinas’ were similar to what is charged in Croatia, Montenegro, and Greece for modern, dedicated yachting marinas with services, facilities, and helpful marina staff. However, with no other option, sailors are forced to spend money but more importantly their time moored in the dirty and dangerous ports.

Middleman

The use of the agent upon check-in was our first introduction to the middle man culture in Albania but it wasn’t the last.

We found that whenever you try to organize any sort of transaction in Albania, you generally need to go through a middleman. The check-in agent is the best example but it is an idea that crops up again and again. Need something done? Someone knows someone who can arrange it. No one will ever direct you to the service provider or give you directions to the store directly. They will arrange the service and they will nominate the price.

Not that there is anything wrong with this concept, the people should be entitled to sell their services and provide meaningful value to clients who would likely pay well for the convenience of having someone who has developed their network and learned the skill of facilitating what could otherwise be a difficult process or transaction. However, this was rarely the impression we got.

Costs and processes were never transparent or straightforward, fees were convoluted and to top it off the use of agents and middlemen in our experience did not facilitate any sort of ease and convenience. In fact, we were able to get almost nothing we needed in Albania for love or money.

Avash Avash, Slowly-Slowly, (Possibly Never)

It has been touted as the easy living motto of a culture that lives a stress-free life by invoking the Albanian motto ‘avash-avash’ or slowly, slowly. Things happen when they happen, right? There’s no point rushing them.

Well wonderful, except eventually, it would be nice if things happened at all. There is no way around avash avash, and you can’t compel someone to provide service or assistance. Add that to the fact that it is very difficult to get things done on your own in Albania as a result of the language barrier and the middleman culture here.

Planning our trip through Albanian waters and realizing we would need to spend a lot of time in ports due to the restrictions on anchoring, we tried to put this time in port to use. Understanding that things take a little longer in Albania we reached out to the ‘marina’ in Durrës to enquire about laundry, diesel, LPG refill, and a mechanic to look at our outboard weeks before our arrival.

To our surprise, the marina emailed us back immediately assuring us that organizing these services on our arrival would be absolutely no problem.

We arrived on Sunday night and were once again assured that everything we needed would be simple to arrange. First thing on Monday the marina manager would be at our disposal and available to help us. On Monday, the marina manager accepted our clothes and LPG cylinder for collection and told us a mechanic would be by later to look at our engine and confirmed how much diesel we needed.

As Monday afternoon came and went we guessed that the mechanic had been caught up doing something else. So, on Tuesday morning we returned to ask about the bits and pieces we needed, again we were waved us off with promises that everything would be taken care of later in the day. We couldn’t help but notice our laundry still sitting in sad pile in the corner of her office next to our LPG cylinder. Realizing we would need to be more pro-active we asked if we could contact the laundry directly and maybe take it directly ourselves, or if we could be pointed in the direction of a gas distributor. Neither was possible.

And so it went each day we enquired and each day we were assured nothing was a problem. Eventually, we started to get the picture, in Albania no one wants to tell you no. Everyone wants to appear helpful and friendly, but the promise of doing the thing is as far as it goes. Friday, we picked up our unwashed laundry, and empty gas cylinder, resecured our broken outboard, paid for our stay, and set sail south without the diesel we sorely needed.

It is Very Difficult to Track Down Fuel in Albania

Old rusty fuel pumps
Finding fuel when sailing in Albania can be a struggle

There are no public marine petrol stations in Albania, with the exception of Sarandë, another consequence of the non-existent yachting industry. Diesel for boats is generally trucked in large quantities and any must be pre-arranged through a fuel company or third party. Of course, no one is going to bother delivering the individual quantities of fuel required for a tiny sailboat. For that reason, finding fuel for your boat is a well-known challenge in Albania.

However, before we had left for Albania, after researching and speaking with other sailors, we had come to the conclusion that although difficult it was indeed possible. And so we had confidently rejected the opportunity to stock up on spare jerry cans and diesel in Montenegro.

Having struck out with the Durrës marina, we remained optimistic that it couldn’t be too hard to find diesel. And so we opted not to walk our jerry cans the several kilometers to the nearest service station to stock up. And instead, find somewhere else along the way that might have marine diesel. We set sail for Vlorë and along the way we reached out to agents, marinas, and fuel distributors trying to find an obvious and easy solution to what we assumed was a fairly run-of-the-mill request. Many calls and messages went completely ignored but we also received we received plenty of messages back, “Hold on …. I will ask” followed by radio silence.

The point we realized we couldn’t find marine diesel in Vlorë and that no one was going to get back to us to help was also the point that we realized we were burning diesel a bit quicker than we thought with long distances and little wind. Nevertheless, we had to press on and try again in Himarë.

Despite being almost completely becalmed we tried to sail as much as possible, crawling our way down the coastline. In the end, it took us three days and thirty hours of sailing to make it just forty nautical miles from Durrës to Himarë.

We just scraped into Himarë emptying our last few liters of diesel a few miles out. Rowing to shore we prowled the promenade asking each and every boatie and tour operator where we could get diesel. Literally, no one wanted to help us.

Eventually, a tour operator took pity on us, waiving over a teenager who offered to take our jerry can and fill them. We negotiated down from 70 euros to 50 euros for twenty liters of diesel. Just enough to get us to Corfu, Greece.

It is Very Difficult to Get LPG in Albania

Truthfully, it is not difficult to find LPG in Albania most major fuel stations have LPG. But be sure to take the necessary adapter for your cylinder because it is very difficult, or in our case impossible, to find gas vendors with adaptors.

Perhaps naively we hadn’t considered that getting LPG would be difficult in Albania as we hadn’t had a problem throughout the rest of the Adriatic.

After failing to motivate the marina in Durrës to help us, we realized we would have to take things into our own hands. But each time we disembarked clutching our cylinder we were met with blank stares or rueful smiles. No one at the ports seemed to have any clue where to find LPG. At the petrol stations, helpful attendants apologized in broken English that they didn’t have the adapter but never wanted to disappoint us. Almost everyone we met promised that the next gas station would DEFINITELY have one.

As we traveled further south, we began to realize just how hard it would be to find LPG and began to moderate our gas usage. First, we cut out hot breakfast, then coffee, and finally dinners, opting to cook a large batch meal once every few days and eat leftovers for dinner and wraps for lunch.

One evening in, we saw a man walking across the port holding a gas cylinder. Clambering out of the boat I rushed him. “Where are you going?! Where did you get that gas can you get more?!”.

The man clutched his cylinder close to his chest, “w-what do you want” he stammered nervously in a thick Albaninan accent. Realizing I had accosted this man out of the darkness like an addict, I drew back. “Sorry, sorry…” I muttered , regaining my composure. “Let me start again. We are out of gas. Can you help us get more?”

The man’s nervous expression was replaced with a wry smile “of course, I can!… €15 to fill.” Frustrated by the inflated price, the thought of eating any more peanut butter wraps for dinner helped me keep my emotion in check and I agreed thankfully. “I will come tomorrow the man promised.”

The next day, we spotted the man, walking across the port. He didn’t seem to remember us, nor his promise to help us find gas. But after jogging his memory he promised once more, “Of course! tomorrow I will come!”. Our heart sunk as we realized this guy had no intention of helping us even at five times the price of gas.

The Summer is Brutal

old boats at sunset
In about two hours the temperature will start to go down a little…

It isn’t necessarily that summer in Albania is necessarily hotter than in any other country in the Mediterranean but it certainly seemed to be.

For starters, during our sail in Albania, there was a heatwave that saw temperatures sore to 38 degrees even on the coast. Still days meant there was no breeze to moderate temperatures.

Certainly sitting in the ports, amongst the concrete structures, without a breeze or the possibility to jump in for a swim the heat was unbearable. The long distances to walk into town, to lug back groceries and drinking water did little to help.

We found it difficult to sleep at night as temperatures wouldn’t reced until late in the evening.

The baking heat seemed to magnify our struggles in Albania, and our stress, in turn, seemed to magnify the intense summer heat.

Combined with everything else, the heat became an unbearable hallmark of our time in Albania.

Using Cash and Credit Cards is Difficult and Expensive in Albania

A building with a signe that read €1 = $1 in Cash Only
Cash only – most places won’t accept credit cards and exchange rates can be punishing

It seems unfair to complain about currency in a country where everything is so cheap. But the feeling of getting cut by currency conversion and ‘broken’ credit card facilities at every single turn began to wear us down as we sailed south along the Albanian coast.

Albania is still very much a cash economy, but the local currency Leke is a closed currency, and difficult to exchange outside of the country. Everyone in Albania will accept euros, but as a foreigner, you should expect an average exchange rate in stores and restaurants. Currency exchange offices have fairer rates but these rates should be checked and confirmed before exchanging large amounts of cash.

In our experience, changing euros to Albanian lek, vendors would skim almost 10% off the top, atms charged even more to take out cash in local currency (except Credins bank which was very good).

Also of note is that some services, especially in regard to agents and marinas charge in euros, so it is important to check in advance. At one point, realizing we had to pay a large amount in marina fees (and confirming that the marina, like many others, didn’t accept visa) we went to a currency exchange to trade our euro at a more reasonable rate, only taking a haircut of around 5%. Returning to the marina, pleased with ourselves and our foreplanning, we were fairly dismayed that our bill was in euros and that the exchange rate going from euro back to leke was less than favorable.

No Potable Water

A great rule of thumb we follow when traveling is generally to do as the locals do.

In Albania most people (when possible) use bottled water for drinking and tap water only for washing and cooking. Here, the issues with tap water stem from over chlorination which can lead to cramps and illness, and a lack of regulation which can mean a contaminated water supply.

For sailors, this is a bigger issue than for land-based travelers. Unable to fill onboard water tanks with a hose, sailboats will need to collect enough bottled water or treat the water. Sailors without water treatment or a desalinator will find themselves lugging plastic jugs of water from town every time they pull into port. Something that got pretty old pretty fast for us.

Constantly making sure we had enough water to survive the sizzling temperatures added another layer of challenge to the already trying conditions.

5 Reasons Not to Miss Sailing in Albania

So we had some challenges sailing here. But it would be unfair to write Albania off completely. After all, there are some wonderful things about sailing in Albania.

Albania Remains the Cheapest Destination to Sail in the Mediterranean

Outside of agent fees, marina fees, and diesel costs, if you plan to stay for a while the low cost of day-to-day expenses in Albania will start to outweigh these initial costs.

If you are on a budget, then the costs of sailing in the Mediterranian can quickly add up. Your euro will go a lot further in Albania, especially after you have worked out the idiosyncrasies when it comes to doing business and using currency here.

A typical meal out at a sit-down restaurant will generally cost less than €15 and a cheap gyro on the street under €2.

Once you have a sim card (€20 with Vodafone), you can get unlimited internet for only €8 which is extremely affordable if you work remotely or have high data requirements.

Basic groceries are affordable and readily available, although imported foods attract high taxes and import costs and can quickly blow out the budget.

Tours, car rentals, and hotel accommodation is also far more affordable in Albania than in other countries in the Mediterranian. We rented a small car for €35 a day in Sarandë, and stayed in a four star hotel on the beach in Durrës for under €100 a night (when we couldn’t take staying in the port anymore).

Our weekly spend in Albania was 25% – 50% cheaper than when sailing in Croatia, averaging less than $350 USD per week. This was despite the fact that we were doing more activities, and dining and drinking out more in Albania.

The Food Is Phenomenal

Albanian food on a platter including cheese, grilled vegetables, and pies
A mix of Balkan and Greek cuisine, Albanian food is unique and delicious!

Food in Albania is not only cheap, it is also unique and extremely delicious.

Restaurants on the coast of Croatia and Montenegro very often have the exact same menu, one that leans heavily into the Italian style of cuisine with a focus on pizzas, pasta, risotto, and seafood. And Greece has a Mediterranean cuisine that is well known around the world.

Not as many people know about the delicious and unique dishes of Albania. Albania benefits from its unique exposure to the Mediterranean, Southern European, Eastern European, and Middle-eastern cultures and cuisine.

Baked clay pots, pies, stuffed vegetables, roasted goat, and flavored rice, are all popular and unique dishes you can find in the many traditional restaurants that dot Albania’s coastline.

Some delicious and popular dishes include burek, a famous staple of the Balkans, known locally as byrique, a lamb baked in yogurt known as tavë kosi, qofte meatballs, stuffed peppers known as speca të mbushur, and dolma japrak, the stuffed vine leaves known as dolmade in nearby Greece.

You won’t go hungry in Albania and traditional restaurants are extremely popular, cheap, and of high quality.

It’s Unique and Unlike the Rest of the European Mediterranian

You can find evidence of Albania’s fascinating history everywhere, like this Roman Amphitheater in the middle of Durrës

Albania has a culture unique and distinct from its neighbors. It enjoys a rich history that stretches back thousands and thousands of years and during this time it has been a part of some of the most influential empires in history as part of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Ottoman Empire.

Each of these empires has left its distinct mark on the country, and you will find beautifully preserved towns and castles in the Ottoman style, roman amphitheaters, and ancient Greek ruins. Many old towns and archaeological sites here have been listed by Unesco.

Beyond the history, the culture of Albania is interesting and unique. For westerners traveling here, it may feel at once familiar and at the same time exotic as the meeting place of western and eastern cultures. Many cultural norms and traditions set Albania apart from its neighbors in the Mediterranian. The people are warm, friendly, and welcoming to tourists at least in their demeanor.

The Coastline Is Incredibly Beautiful

With a small population of under three million people and a long coastline, Albania’s beautiful sea is largely unspoiled except for some mining and port operations primarily in the north and a number of tourist towns further south.

The coast is particularly beautiful in the south where the Ionian sea begins. Known as the Albanian Riviera this idyllic stretch of rugged coastline is characterized by white pebble beaches, deep bays, and beautiful turquoise water and is backdropped by striking white cliffs and rolling mountains beyond. Small villages and livelier tourist towns dot the coastline and provide opportunities to go ashore and explore.

As a Sailor, You’ll Have it (Mostly) to Yourself

Birdseye view of a boat anchored in a narrow inlet
Having space to yourself is a luxury you are not always afforded when sailing the Mediterranean

Sure, Croatia and Greece are better set up for sailing with a more developed sailing culture, more facilities, and more opportunities to anchor, but this also means more sailors!

Sailing in peak season in Croatia and Greece can be a nightmare. Especially around major ports where many holiday charter boat companies are located.

Marinas are full and chaotic on Fridays and Saturdays with charter vessels returning to port and setting out again with a new crew on board. The most popular anchorages often fill up early. Many boats are skippered by holidaymakers with no more than a crash course on sailing, safety, and etiquette, increasing the risk of having your own boat damaged in the marina or at anchor.

Not so much in Albania. With so many barriers to sailing, there are far fewer sailors along the coast of Albania. This means that you will almost never struggle to find a spot at the ‘marinas’ and when you do find anchorages in the south you will generally have them to yourself (or at least have plenty of room to spread out). What’s more, with no major yacht charter companies, the sailors in Albania are mostly liveaboards, full-time (or seasonal) sailors living on their own boats. As a result, there is less chance that someone is going to cause damage coming into or out of the or drop their anchor over yours.

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It won’t be long before we make the crossing into Greece, and I can’t say I won’t be pleased to put this leg of the journey behind us. But I can also say, that I will be back, to tackle Albania again. Better prepared and with a better understanding of sailing Albania.

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