There's an air of cautious mystery around Albania. Locked behind southern Italy on Europe's Balkan Peninsula, the small nation borders Greece and Montenegro, with around 200-miles of its coastine flirting with the Adriatic Sea. Given its geographical pinpoint, it is not a country you associate with surfing. But given enough time, study and dedication to the pursuit of mysto-waves, you'll find folds where you least expect it.
You know, Albanians don't even call Albania...Albania. The country, in its mother tongue, is actually called Shqipëri (Shi-per-ee-ya) and at one time was actually the cannabis capital of Europe – the small village of Lazarat was somewhat (allegedly) Mafia controlled and produced hundreds of tonnes of marijuana a year, hence the cloaked tones when whispering the country's name.
Fancy a trip around the Adriatic? See our swell chart, here.
And it was only recently that surfers first explored the shores of this semi-secretive, intriguing corner. Erwan Simon, a Frenchman based in Brittany, has been keeping watchful eye over illusive waves all along the Adriatic – and recently set out on a strike mission to Albania as the conditions, time (and a healthy dose of luck) all finally aligned.
But first, some credentials. Over the past 15-years, Erwan's explored more new surf spots and unknown destinations than (almost) anyone else on the planet. His focus has been on Africa, the Indian Ocean, west Pacific, the Med and more, usually taking a calculated stumble into the most remote parts of those locales, and scoring, big. Around a decade ago, he launched an expedition to Croatia and Montenegro with Antony Colas and Michel Isaia. There, they found a “great beachbreak” at Ulcinj in Montenegro, right near the Albanian frontier – and so the seed of curiosity was planted.
“The Med had been really active that winter but Albania... it's not really well exposed to the swell,” he says, which makes sense, given Italy's big ol' boot is right in the way. That means you'd need a big S or SW swell to hit dizzying figures before it can set the Albanian coastline off.
“I saw a positive forecast with a swell born near the Tunisia/Libya border and going to the Adriatic sea and I thought 'this is the chance to try to surf in Albania'. I called up photographer Thomas Deregnieaux and he decided to jump in the plane with me.”
Though in Europe, Albania's not actually a part of the EU, but has been on the accession list since 2014. More Albanians actually live outside of Albania than they do in the country, so perhaps surfing has remained a bit of a unicorn, an afterthought, because people aren't hanging around to watch, track and analyse swells that sometimes reach the country. Because of that, there isn't a grass roots surfing network so a lot of the nuance of the coast remains a mystery.
“The local people told us it was not possible to surf in Albania,” laughs Erwan. “No waves according to them. They looked at our surfboards like they were the most curious things they'd ever seen.”
But after scouring the coastline for only a few hours, the duo lucked out, paddling out and pitching into knee-to-waist high waves. It wasn't a lot, a slow start to the expedition, but a life affirming first slide nonetheless. And, as with most stories, it only got better from there.
“It is rare to get decent swell on this part of the Adriatic,” he adds. “We had between 24 and 36 hours of swell. So we had to hurry up and explore and find more surf spots. In the end, I surfed four different beachbreaks, from windy to glassy, from knee high to head high. It was not world class, but really fun beachbreaks with nobody surfing and the superb landscape of the Balkans.”
I ask about the culture and of course, about the long Mafia history and its influence in some parts of the country.
“It is a former communist country with a bad reputation of Mafia,” he nods. “The Mafia controls a big part of the national economy. A lot of people try to escape to enter the European Union.
“The country has a bad reputation... but in fact, people are really friendly, helpful. They are happy to meet foreigners.
“The landscapes are unique especially where the Balkan mountains meet the Adriatic sea. There is a special atmosphere. Surfing is completely unknown there,” Erwan adds. “Albania is one of the poorest country of the European continent.”
In terms of what was on offer when foam hit water, Erwan describes a playful set of conditions with no one out, despite being side-eyed from weary locals.
“We found the most consistent waves near Shëngjin but the best quality beachbreaks were near Velipojë,” he says of a south facing village on the coast, which stretches like a hook, running eastward, then towards the south east, ripe for picking up southerly swells in the country's north west – a few miles from the border of Montenegro.
“I always keep an eye on the Med - a place where there is still plenty of new waves to discover.
“My good friend Randy Rarick - a surf legend and one of the greatest surfing explorers in history - he surfed briefly in Albania in the 70's but he can't remember where exactly.
“We explored only a little part of the coastline. I am sure there are more waves to be discovered. I would be happy to go back there, one day.”