Iris inimitably has managed a small miracle. My son and I are in Dhërmi to visit Grama Bay. It is her present for my son’s first day in Albania. Blue miles of water await.
Romeo captains a low-slung zephyr, bobbing in the gentle swell offshore, beneath a gargantuan new hotel complex. The hotel is part of the spreading vacation homes now occupying the slopes overlooking Palassa sands at the northernmost limit of the Albanian Riviera. Here Caesar landed in 49-48 BC to confront his former ally, Pompey. Caesar’s legions trudged up over the Llogara Pass and descended by stealth to take the port-town of Orikum on Vlora Bay in the shadow of the long Karaburun Peninsula. Battle was to ensue further north at Dyrrachium.
I will always remember the first time I took this road from Orikum. One minute we were on the Mediterranean in all its dazzling colour; the next, an hour later, we were beside alpine chalets in the narrow pass below the unforgiving penumbra of the Acroceraunian Mountains, rising to 1,500m. These mountains are curiously well known in the West. Percy Shelley opens his poem, ‘Arethusa’, with a reference to this repudiating massif:
From her couch of snows
In the Acroceraunian mountains…
Recited by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (she attributes it to Keats at first), these desolate Albanian mountains for many centuries marked the fortified beginning of Asia. Far below them, Caesar’s beach was then eerily deserted. At Dhërmi, the first village, there was lovely white sand with a line of concrete bunkers about 20m above the high-tide mark. The only other intrusion was a military installation and a block of worker holiday flats angled towards the coast, not the sea, to curb any longing for foreign places. This was not to last the arrival of the new millennium. Modern Albania did the maths. Its oil industry and metal mines were not profitable. Its beaches were and are. As much as it pains me to write it, these blissful strands had to be sacrificed to generate enough GDP to ensure the protection of the Karaburun Peninsula and, far to the south, the Homeric landscape around ancient Butrint. It is a bold strategy for a young country that – understandably, now it is free of totalitarianism – passionately indulges in beach holidays and the beat of electronic dance music.
It is pretty obvious this is not exactly my kind of place, and Romeo reads it in my face. He is a young, broad-shouldered man from the village of Dukat in the hollow fold beneath the Llogara Pass. Like all Albanian millennials, he is polite and helpful. Every day he takes someone to Grama, he says cheerily, mostly to swim in its crystalline waters, but occasionally to see, as he says, the old things.
Into the blue
We board from a blue, floating plastic dock and settle into the back of the Bobi G. Then, with gusto, Romeo throttles away into the intense white light of the sun. The boat tips up a little and the warm breeze now becomes balm. Two hundred yards from the shore, we speed past acres and acres of new developments. Each gated community comprises large cookie-cutter sized boxed dwellings, all aimed like sunflowers at the sun and sea. Swallows glide around, finding new habitats in the miles of voluptuous bougainvillea being introduced here. It is awesome: much, I resignedly think, as the Romans brought once to this land. Even an uncannily straight road is being punched through the mountain to a new airfield on Vlora Bay. This is the work of dreamers eager to get the country’s economics adjusted to EU balance sheets.
The zephyr brings back memories. Years ago, I was on a slow old ferry plodding from Albania’s southern port of Saranda to Corfu, when one of these rubberised machines zipped menacingly around us. It appeared from nowhere, such was its agility. We were only three passengers on the ferry: my friend Telemakos and a Greek lady reclaiming her stolen speedboat, being towed and tossing awkwardly in the furrowed bay behind us. Suddenly spitting bullets arced overhead and the adroit Tele pulled me roughly to the deck. The ferry then abruptly stopped. We were boarded by two pirates wearing ski-masks. They untied the speedboat and, with a further burst of gunfire and some joyous whooping, tore away. It was all over in a minute. It had seemed like hours.
Such stories belong to another Albania. In the country’s short history since the collapse of Enver Hoxha’s regime, freedom has released an extraordinary energy. What might that satanic dictator have made of the flotilla of kayaks hugging the inner shore as we reach the Karaburun? Above them the long peninsula rises to a height of 1,500m. Low shrubs clothe the lower slopes. Higher up, the naked summit is grey and bare, empty save for priceless flora that bridge Mediterranean and alpine climes. The emptiness is simply astonishing to behold. Every so often, the craggy coastline is punctuated by caves. Some are the size of a seal; some are much bigger. Romeo swings the boat towards a large cave and eases it inside. In a second, we are concealed, and the water below us is clear and sapphire pure. This is the Blue Cave, he says, pointing to the blue sky like flavoured ice outside. Next, we pause at an old barrack block overlooking a narrow shingle cove. Enver Hoxha, he mutters dismissively. Romeo belongs to the transition era, and rocks his head as if to show his disdain for those lost years. He bags a cigarette from a friend sunbathing on its beach (it is apparently forbidden to smoke and drive the boat), giving me the time to photograph the abandoned building.
We will soon reach the Grama, Romeo says proudly. And, in a further few minutes, we do. Old, he mutters, modestly pointing at the flat hewn rock-faces, squared off to the right side of the cove. This is a lambent loophole into the outer world from the stern seclusion of the towering Karaburun above. There is a discreet little bar here for patrons of the deep clean sandy beach. Behind it, a path leads off up a narrow leafy cleft, rising more than a thousand metres to the far grey top of the peninsula. Many have paused here, as soon becomes obvious. The cove and the sweet waters of its fountain have had sacred status for Ionian Sea mariners.
Grama takes its name from the Greek for ‘word’. Its rock walls are man-made, having been quarried in antiquity for their stone. Archaeologists have speculated that the stone was taken for building works at ancient Orikum, on the far side of the Karaburun Peninsula, or even floated along the rivers to inland Apollonia and upland Bylis. Was the stone also taken to Italy to towns like Egnatia near Brindisi? In this enclosed space, these works were far from easy. The quarrying prepared the smooth, flat surfaces that generations of seamen took advantage of. Apart from the modern graffiti, and the large red painted inscriptions of later Communist times, the walls of the cove are covered in small inset inscriptions. One estimate is that there are 1,500 of these intricately incised diminutive devotional altars. Each is indented, a concave icon about the size of an iPad. The rock walls are worn. Time and sea-spray are wreaking havoc. But soon your eyes adapt and before you emerge myriad ancient and modern mementos. There are so many it is hard to focus: the obviously ancient Greek and Latin inscriptions catch the eye (the earliest being from the 3rd century BC), but I soon pick out Greek inscriptions from the 1930s and 1940s. Then, too, there are simple graffiti: a Roman lighthouse, a banana-shaped boat, a Byzantine cross, and much besides. The effect is magical. Even the young barman is intrigued by his long-distant predecessors here.
The inscriptions have been known since a restless antiquarian, Cyriacus d’Ancona, passed this way in 1434. He published seven inscriptions and put the bay on the map. The port, known to Albanians as Grammata, appeared on Venetian portolans (sailing maps) made after 1534. Centuries, however, passed before further visitors left accounts. Léon Heuzey and Honoré Daumet, responding to Napoleon III’s fascination for Caesar’s campaigns, visited in the 1860s and published inscriptions in their Mission archéologique de Macédoine (1876). This prompted a visit by the intrepid Austrian archaeologist Carl Patsch in the spring of 1900. He was to publish 14 more inscriptions. Patsch’s work was a cornerstone of subsequent research by the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, led by the late Faik Drini and his French mentor Pierre Cabanes. Cabanes and Drini interpreted the earliest dedications as offerings to the cult of the Dioscures. These were the twins Castor and Pollux, reunited as stars in the sky by Zeus after Castor’s death and regarded as protective patrons of sailors. The twins were sons of Leda, Pollux fathered by Zeus, and Castor by the mortal Tyndareus. After Castor’s death, Pollux spent half his days with his half-brother in Hades and half with the gods in Olympus. The cult dates back to the 6th or 5th centuries BC. A 5th-century sanctuary, for example, existed on nearby Corfu. Did such a sanctuary exist here? The likeliest spot for it is a narrow ledge, unfortunately now colonised by a Communist-period cistern fashioned in crude concrete.
During the Hellenistic period and earlier Roman Empire, the Dioscuri were not the only deities invoked at Grama. At least one inscription indicates the presence of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility. She was also known as the goddess of motherhood, magic, death, healing, and rebirth. Isis was the first daughter of Geb, the god of the earth, and Nut, the goddess of the sky.
The inscriptions bear witness to the passage of all sorts of mariners. None suggest, pace popular tradition in Albania, that these were pirates. The slave Evhemeros prays to the gods for Hermocrates and Demetrios of Ilion. A citizen of Heraclea of Pontus, Heras son of Heras, left his mark. So, too, did Theodonus the Pelagon, from Pelagonia, in northern Macedonia (today the region between Bitola and Prilep, in the region watered by the Erigon). There is Eutychos, a native of Phocaea in Ionia; Archippos is from Sebaste (probably ancient Samaria), while a certain Herod was present as well. These dedications confirm the circulation across the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea of travellers who originated from Asia Minor (Phocaea, Ilion, Heraclea of Pontus), or from Palestine (Sebaste); who came by sea or by the trans-Balkan routes, especially the Via Egnatia; and who attempted to cross the Ionian Sea, in one direction or the other, and made a stopover in this isolated cove.
Some names have stood out for the palaeographers of Grama. The most remarkable is that of Gnaeus Pompeius (or is it his son?). It was probably above a list of names, perhaps of soldiers, that have dissolved with the erosion of the stone. The presence of the name of Caesar’s rival is, of course, related to the events of the civil war in the winter of 49-48 BC. From the same troubled era there is the name of the consul P Dolabella, who shared a magistracy with Mark Antony, in the year of Caesar’s assassination, 44 BC. Dated to AD 11 – during the more peaceful years of Augustus’s new empire – are the names of two consuls who paused here long enough to incise their names into Grama’s polished walls: T Statilius Taurus and M Aemilius Lepidus.
Byzantine inscriptions are almost as common as ancient ones. The transition to Christianity made only a minor difference to the votive customs of this place. The perils of the sea, after all, were timeless. Most of the Christian inscriptions date from the 6th to the 13th centuries, running from the world of the Emperor Justinian to the time of the Crusades. Later Roman inscriptions are curiously absent. These medieval inscriptions are often preceded by a cross, more often Greek in form as opposed to Latin. This was normally placed in the upper left corner of the votive rectangle. Only occasionally was it put at the centre of the inscription, interrupting the lines. In one inscription, the cross is surrounded by the acclamation to Christ Ί(ησοΰ)ς Χ(ριστό)ς νικά (‘Jesus Christ overcomes’).
Mariners from Methoni (south of Pylos) and Zakynthos are among those mentioned here. The most astonishing medieval inscription states that in the year 6877 (1369 AD) King John Palaeologus of the Romans was here:
One year he came
King of the Romans
John the Palaeologus
As it happens, the resilient John met Pope Urban V in AD 1369. His journey had momentous implications. The Turks were close to taking his capital, Constantinople, and were exacting tribute from him. As the net closed in, he embarked on a journey to acquire help from the West. In October 1369, he travelled to Naples and then Rome. In the presence of the Pope, he converted to Catholicism in a bid to end the centuries-long schism between the Latin and Greek churches. It proved to be in vain. Worse was to happen. Later that autumn, he was detained as a debtor in Venice. This was not to be the end of his woes, as he struggled to sustain the empire.
Why did John pause in Grama Bay? Was it on the anxious voyage westwards, late summer 1369? Was he the victim of bad weather? The inscription is incomplete. Was it a prayer, invoking God’s help? Or was it simply an indelible reminder of the Byzantine Emperor’s lonely sojourn to save his ultimately doomed empire?
Grama Bay has had an afterlife as well. In 1919, following the First World War, the Greeks and Italians were exercised by the exact line of the newly created Albania’s southern frontier. For a number of days, agreement was reached that the bay should be the border. Ultimately this was rejected, but it shows how well known this cove was in modern international circles. That, perhaps, was why in the Second World War the SOE codenamed the cove ‘Sea Elephant’, a place where they had an arms dump in case their principal base at Seaview, up the coast, was overrun by the Germans.
Iris has added a treat for me to this gift to my son. Romeo’s eyes twinkle as he launches the zephyr off the soft sand and out into the bay. The sea here has a depth and tone as though it has swallowed the cloudless sky. We pass more small coves with their sea-sculpted rocks, before reaching a cove I had long wanted to see. Romeo is pleased with himself and turns to grin at me as he slows the vessel abruptly. Into the little bay, we gingerly advance, its arcing sable beach is more than inviting. Then, quite unexpectedly, he veers off to the left, and the dark cleft in the rock dog-legs into a narrow corridor. Beyond us is a tiny beach, now almost entirely occupied by a fisherman’s boat. The fisherman glares. Is he a smuggler? Romeo shouts out and then tells me the British were here in the last war. I know exactly. With unalloyed passion, I tell him this is Seaview beach and above is the SOE’s Adriatic Sea mission headquarters in interconnected caves. He smiles, but watches the fisherman warily as the zephyr bobs up and down trapped between the polished walls of this storied place. This beach was made famous by Anthony Quayle’s novel Eight Hours from England (1945).
Romeo smiles and we cross generations when I tell him Quayle starred in The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia, long after his stint as an officer behind the German lines in 1944. From this very beach, a party of ten American nurses, as well as medics and flight crew, were exfiltrated by Quayle’s mission on 10 January 1944, after a ten-week trek across southern Albania, following a forced landing near Tirana. Later that day, President Roosevelt christened them the flower of American womanhood after disembarking from a British speedboat in Bari harbour. I wanted to climb the vertiginous 500m to the cave there and then. But without good boots it wasn’t possible. Quayle records the accommodation with a certain nostalgia:
The cave was very small indeed, and what little space existed was taken up by a table made of machine-gun boxes. Sleeping bags and blankets lay on the floor, and every cranny and ledge in the walls held papers, ink-bottles, revolvers, maps, and ammunition magazines. In a rough hearth blazed a wood fire and by this and a few home-made oil-lamps the place was lit.
After the last, awful hike through snow drifts on the Acroceraunian mountains, the American nurses were struck by the Britishness of the mission. That morning in 1944, as freedom finally beckoned, they breakfasted on rashers of bacon washed down with either strong black tea or scotch.
As Romeo eased the boat backwards from the glaring fisherman, I looked into the transparent water no more than a metre deep. It resembles, on this summer’s day, lightly dappled glass. Here, as the winter wind whipped the sea into a frenzy, several Italian members of the mission drowned when their canvas boats capsized. Like Grama Bay, this secret cove holds hundreds of now-forgotten memories.
A Mediterranean crossroads
Romeo guns the boat. We speed back towards Dhërmi. The flotilla of kayaks has made great progress; several paddlers wave to us. Zipping along, the warm wind in our faces, you realise how welcoming Grama Bay must have appeared to mariners tracking this long peninsula and heading southwards to the brilliant blue of the Ionian islands. You realise, too, as the Southern Albanian boundary commission did in 1919, that it was at a Mediterranean crossroads of sorts. This helps to explain why Seaview was located here in 1943-1944. It was a straight shot, dangerous open water of course, to ports in southern Apulia and thence Sicily. You realise, too, however much the German occupiers of Albania wanted to winkle out the British, Seaview mission was so discreet its cove looked like hundreds of others reaching back to the strand where Caesar once landed.
The brooding Karaburun is indubitably one of Albania’s treasures. Part of the Acroceraunian mountains, it has a unique place in Mediterranean history quite apart from Shelley’s poetic reference and Audrey Hepburn’s daffy recitation of it. Romeo is well aware of this and, keen to read more about his homeland’s history, asks my name to Google it. As I stumble ashore, back to a world of electronic dance music and lines of baked sunbathers, thanks to Iris and him, my son and I have joined age-old armadas of mariners gifted an unforgettable memory.