John Weller and Lola Culsán find themselves mixed up in an Albanian swimming caper
There’s a buzz of excitement at the beach, where we’re presented with a comically large buoy to tie around our waists. I gaze across the bay at the Islands of Ksamil. The Ionian sea is translucent, sunlight bounces off the schools of sparkling fish. Sea fishing was considered bourgeois and banned under the Albanian leader Hoxha’s regime; anti-revolutionary.
Where and why Albania?
We’ve had a long fascination with this secret country that closed its borders to the world in 1944.You have to be a little intrigued by a former communist country which has Norman Wisdom as one of its national heroes. Our obsession with swimming is an open secret. Albania is on the Balkan Peninsula in south-eastern Europe. In other words, turn left at Italy. We discover the website of Albania Open Water Swimming (AOWS), who are hosting the 3° Trophy Ksamil Island Race in June. ‘A race for everyone in the country of eagles.’ Three distances are on offer: short; medium and big.
AOWS is the brainchild of Italian swimmer Simona Bertino and ex-professional Albanian football player, Sajmir Rica. The couple met eight years ago in Turin, where they studied sport at university. According to Simona: ‘We created this event to meet people from different cultures, to share our love of Albania and promote swimming to young Albanians. This is difficult, families here are poor. The sea is wonderful, but few Albanian children can swim. People compete from Kosovo, Macedonia, Italy, Turkey and Moldova. Finishing times are unimportant - it’s essential that everyone meets diverse people of other nationalities and we realise cultural differences are beautiful and we’re all friends.’
Spring is spent training at Parliament Hill Fields Lido. We’re set to pull off our big swim in Albania. Our curiosity in the country fuelled by the novels of Ismail Kadare. We arrive in Albania via trains, planes and a pretty boat, disembarking at the port of Sarandë, the Monte Carlo of the Albanian Riviera. We take a short cab ride to Ksamil, check-in at Hotel Luxury. It appears that ‘luxury’ is Albanian for ‘no swimming pool’. Our room, however, boasts a balcony with panoramic view of the bay and the islands.
The race starts at the beach, swim clockwise between the two islands and return to the finish. A smash and grab raid for those doing 2km like Lola, a competitive open water novice. I’ve opted for 6km. We have fun listening to the Italians trying to say ‘buoy’ (boowoy). They are confused when we tell them it’s pronounced ‘buoy’. Hopefully, I’m about to put months of training in to effect. Swim three times round the island, what could be easier. Those of us taking part in the 6km race start first. The sea is warm and welcoming. I ebb into a steady rhythm, the Moldovans and Italians sprint ahead, I try to make an effort to keep up. The wind picks up as I approach the island and sighting gets difficult in the waves. Keep going straight, neither to the right nor to the left, I remind myself. I bask in the freedom of open water swimming; no lengths to count so I sing Walk On the Wild Side. ‘Candy came from out on the island’.
Between the tiny islands lies a narrow strip of pebbly beach which we must cross. The stones dig sharply into the soles of my feet, reminding me of my mammalian evolution. My return to the sea affirms that I’m happier in the water. The Moldovans and Italians are long gone; they went that-away. The other 6km swimmers bring up the rear. The faster 2km and 4km swimmers begin to overtake me, I’m grateful for their brief, if fickle, company. One island and a sixth of the race accomplished. I’m starting to enjoy myself. The sea is calmer on the other side of the island. A fellow swimmer incurs my displeasure by constantly swimming directly in front of me. I put my foot down and lose him by the time I reach the island for the second time. So far so good. I can do this. As I approach the beach for the second time, the two lap 4km swimmers head for home and glory. I turn and head back to the island for my third and final lap. I can see no other 6km swimmers ahead or behind me and suddenly feel very alone.
Corfu hovers and shimmers in the distance. I recollect stories of Albanians who attempted to swim to the Greek island to escape the brutal dictatorship. Unaccounted numbers drowned, many were run down by patrol boats. Hopefully a good many successfully made the crossing. I feel humbled and privileged to take part in this event; just for fun. My life doesn’t depend on finishing this race.
I cut across the beach between the islands for the last time, and get my skates on for the crowning leg of the swim. A moment of panic: have I miscounted my laps? I make short work of the final stretch of the race and I’m greeted with loud cheers as I clamber back up the beach and cross the line. A long and celebratory award ceremony takes place where I win a medal for the fastest in my age category. There’s an incredible atmosphere. Flags of many countries are waved triumphantly. We didn’t bring one. Taking part in this event was never a question of prestige.
Over lunch in the Castle Restaurant, overlooking the bay, we discuss all things swimming with our fellow competitors. The largest team, 26 members, are from Rome. Adriana Curica, 39, an English teacher, tells us: ‘We’re here for the second time, Ksamil is the Seychelles of Albania. I had no expectations but have found that it’s a really relaxing place. The Albanians don’t try to take advantage of us. We feel the simplicity and welcome – that’s what makes the experience, not just the place but the people.’ Carlos reflects: It’s not what you do in your life, it’s the memories you take with you.’ Sergio Bevacyka, 42, from Moldova, who came second in the 4km race, says this is his first time in Albania: ‘I prefer racing in open water because there is more resistance. I hope to come next year and try the 6km. I like the place, the people, the sea. I like to meet other nationalities. This event has been organised well – promoting friendship rather than competition.’ We have the honour of meeting Nesrin Olgun Arslan. In 1979 she became the first Turkish woman to swim the English Channel: ‘I had great fun. The challenging part was the path between the two islands. The best thing was to meet with new friends from all over the world.’ We discuss swimming to Corfu next year. ‘Hang on, Lola. I’ve got a great idea.’
What to expect in southern Albania: warm hospitality; Greek salad; highest number of sunny days in Europe; spectacular sunsets; Mediterranean food; unspoiled beaches; delicious seafood risottos and spaghettis; respect towards women; unfinished buildings.
Don’t expect: stag/hen parties; hotel with swimming pool.
This article first appeared in the Outdoor Swimmer Magazine - the only magazine in the world dedicated to open water swimming in all its forms.