Sailing Ancient Routes in the Balkans

Sailing Ancient Routes in the Balkans

August 01, 2016

THE BALKANS

A place where the mountains kiss the seas. Soaring backdrops contour the distinct steep rocky shores of the Balkans. I have been lucky to explore the coastlines of Croatia, Montenegro, and more recently, their less visited neighbour, Albania. It is still relatively unknown and untouched… a beautiful country, rich in history. I was part of a team of international scientists on the "Albania 2016 Marine Science Expedition", in search of ancient shipwrecks and artefacts along different sites in Albania, known in ancient times as Epirus.

exploring albania   

CORFU STRAIT & ALBANIA

Just as ancient sailors did over 2000 years ago, we embarked on our expedition from the Greek island of Corfu, sailing across to Sarandë, on the Albanian Riviera, then northward through and beyond the Corfu Strait to Vlorë Bay. We sought temporary shelter along the way at Porto Palermo, where the Ali Pasha Castle lies. Before reaching it, we had to watch out for the inconspicuous reef that was hazardous to sailors throughout antiquity, known as the Devil’s Tongue. Below the surface rests the Joni Wreck, a large 4th century AD Roman shipwreck. As we navigated along this mountainous coast, we faced changing winds and choppy waters, so we continually adapted to nature’s whim. Along the largely harbourless Karaburun Peninsula, we caught sight of the distinct limestone-ringed rocky coastline known as the White Roads in antiquity. We anchored en-route, strapped on our dive gear and explored the seabed of Gramma Bay, a small natural haven where Roman forces landed, and Greek and Latin inscriptions of sailors are engraved on the cliff walls of the way, a sort of sailors’ ‘rock diary’. 

We then set sail around the tip of the peninsula where it curves into Vlorë Bay, past the natural colour-changing border where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas merge. Along this stretch lies the Cave of the Illyrians, believed to have been a pirate hideout in the past. We explored threatened areas, finding evidence for ancient sea-level change and maritime trade. Our most exciting discoveries were large submerged remains at the fortified Roman port of Triport, proving to be far larger than previously believed, extending an additional 8 acres at least. It offered anchorage for ships on the sea and Narta Lagoon, linking ancient cities via major Roman roads and trade routes. On the return journey, we took the land route instead, driving south along mountainous winding roads through abundant national parks. We reached Lake Butrint, an inland lagoon linked to the Roman fortified colony and port Butrint, a key archaeological UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Albania. We carried out underwater cultural assessments of nearby areas, while enjoying evenings at our remote camp surrounding a fireplace in the company of scorpions and mosquitos, overlooking Corfu under a starry sky to the sound of crashing waves.

~ Carmen

Note: Albania content edited by Steven Lopez (MSc, specialising on Roman navigation in Albania) | Photography: Steven Lopez 

Expedition Publications: