My friends wanted to visit some of the numerous travel agents in the town's main street and they did this whilst I strolled along nearby. They obtained several new-to-them ferry company brochures and were very happy. We finally arrived at the town square and could take an overhead walkway leading over a dual-carriageway road and right into the port ferry terminal. That felt much safer and the views in the gathering darkness were good too.
We had to queue to show our tickets and passports for only a couple of minutes and then we could walk out of the terminal and across to the RIGEL II.
The two sister ships loomed ahead in the darkness, with lots of lights blazing from the public decks. We walked up one of the two ramps leading to the car decks on RIGEL II, and were directed up to Reception to collect cabin keys.
At last we are on board this 23,842 gross tons ship, built in 1980 as VISBY, and now named RIGEL II. This seems to be the sixth name in her life. One of my friends very kindly prepared a note about her history and here it is:
"In terms of Sealink she is one of a kind, but as built she was one of a pair, built for Rederi AB Gotland as the Visby and delivered in 1980; her sister was to have been the Gotland but never entered service as such.
The Gotlanders didn’t really want new ships by all accounts (their existing pair, the current SARDINIA REGINA and CORSICA VICTORIA, were less than a decade old) but the government leant on them to order the pair from a Swedish yard.
The VISBY was famously overweight when delivered so after some frantic weight-saving was only in intermittent use until the harbour in Visby could be dredged to accommodate her. In 1988 Rederi AB Gotland managed to lose the concession to operate the routes to Gotland so the ship was chartered to their replacements, Nordström & Thulin. N&T later half-owned Estline and were involved when the ESTONIA was lost, after which they renounced passenger shipping. The VISBY had moved on by that stage, becoming in 1990 a large and impressive presence on the St George’s Channel between Fishguard and Rosslare as Sealink’s FELICITY, later STENA FELICITY.
Rederi AB Gotland got their operation back in 1998 and reclaimed their ship from charter to operate to Gotland once more under her original name; by all accounts they were not enamoured with what eight years of Irish Sea passengers had thrown at her, so she was pretty comprehensively refitted into the style you still see on board today.
Replaced by new tonnage in 2003 she passed to Polferries for operation between Nynashamn and Gdansk (as SCANDINAVIA) and thence to Ventouris Ferries in 2015 becoming the RIGEL II for whom she has operated the Bari-Durres route ever since.
Her unwanted sister enjoyed a varied early career, initially as the WASA STAR. In 1983 she was improbably chartered to Karageorgis who sailed her to the Adriatic and put her into service between Ancona and Patras. This did not end well with rumours of unpaid charter fees and after a couple of months a Swedish crew was despatched to commandeer the ship and sail her back to Scandinavia in a rather dramatic rescue mission. She was sold to Larvik Line, becoming the fourth PETER WESSEL (replacing the ship which is today Jadrolinija’s MARKO POLO). Lengthened in 1988 she remained on her Larvik-Frederikshavn (later Larvik-Hirtshals) route for almost 24 years through the takeover by Color Line in 1996.
In 2008 she was replaced and sent back to southern Europe as the SNAV TOSCANA; when SNAV and Grandi Navi Veloci merged she eventually became the GNV AZZURRA and has finally settled down on the same Bari-Durres route as her sister. On board she is still dolled up in an occasionally regrettable Norwegian folksy style and externally is less well proportioned than her unstretched sister, not helped by the unfortunate livery application of her Italian owners.
Both ships, though, retain either in full or in part their superb external deck arrangements and the outstandingly massive funnels and main masts which were bestowed upon them by the design office of Knud E Hansen."
We were all looking forward to seeing what the RIGEL II is currently like on board.
The excitement started when the cabin door was opened and original upholstery could be seen above each of the bunk beds. It's worn very well by the look of it. The cabin is in one of the corridors set port to starboard across the ship, but rather far forward. The bathroom, forward and opposite the cabin door, seems to be original too.
We went for a look around this interesting ship, admiring the artwork and design, the Panorama Bar etc. and then it was time for a welcome gin and tonic in the Pub/Bar before going for a snack in the Self-Service area.
We sailed late at 12.30 (half an hour past midnight) and noticed there were few passengers to be seen. The ship can hold 2,300 passengers but I think she must be quite light tonight.
We stayed on deck to watch us sail out of Durres, here in Albania, and saw the lights of the Fly Bar gradually disappear in the distance.
It was time to enjoy the original cabin and hope to be lulled to sleep as we crossed the Adriatic sea overnight. We are sailing back to Italy, this time to the familiar port of Bari.
Ships seen: St. Damian, Rigell II and GNV Azzurra
To be continued...
Tuesday 17th July 2018
This morning we are still sailing through the Adriatic Sea on ST. DAMIAN, heading in sunshine towards Albania and the port of Vlore. There was time for a breakfast cappuccino and croissant from the lovely Forward Bar that I had only seen last night after we boarded in darkness. This morning it was flooded with light from the semi-circular windows and full of cheerful people waiting to disembark in the port.
I had time to take some more photographs and then look at the port of Vlore ahead of us. The city there now looks huge, set against the magnificent mountains behind it. I recollected that I have been to Vlore once before, so it will be interesting to see how the port has developed since July 2007. These are some of my notes from that visit.
12th July 2007
Arriving in Vlore, Albania, on Kapetan Alexandros A.
Under intense heat we walked along the jetty (still under construction) to the terminal building to collect our passports, and wait for the staff to decide whether we should pay a tax, even though we were foreign tourists and only visiting for an hour, until the ship set off again. After discussion, we paid no tax, and set off through the terminal exit door to view Albania.
Oh my, I think ‘frontier town’ says it all: mountains behind Vlore, a small town with a new part in the process of construction, dust and sand everywhere, high security fencing all around the port area, uniformed guards and security-labelled people everywhere. I admired the way the country and this little port are trying to encourage tourists, after years of being closed to much of the outside world. We walked beyond the jetty to take photographs, still within the fenced port area, but were soon accosted by a policeman who knew just one word in English: “stop” and pointed to us to go back to the ship. On the way back we stopped at the one and only port café for some tea, achieved through sign language, giggling and a certain maritime author’s quick sketch of a steaming cup of tea. A sign on a little jetty building told us to “Have a nice trip”.
end of quote
Now, in July 2018, the city has developed enormously by the look of it. High rise buildings can be seen everywhere, with wide shopping streets and traffic. Those magnificent mountains form the backdrop to an ever-increasing city, with a population at the 2011 Census shown as 104,827. The Republic of Albania, as it is officially known, has had what I shall only call an interesting past, but it is no longer communist and is described as an emerging democracy.
We arrived about 8 a.m. and disembarked into the hot sunshine. Passport Controls were ahead of us all, but many people must have had Albanian passports because they were in a different queue and were soon waved through. The rest of us had to wait to enter a small office at the end of the jetty. My passport was looked at, and so was I, then it was copied and finally handed back to me. At least I had my passport with me when leaving ST. DAMIAN, which was not the way of it in July 2007 when all the non-Albanian passports (probably half a dozen) were handed in to Passport Control for checking first.
Once free to enter Albania we could start putting today's plan into operation. My friends wanted to take some photos of the ship at the quayside, and I sat in the shade along the waterside looking after the rucksacks and watching the world go past. They were soon back and then it was time to find a local taxi driver who would be prepared to drive us north to the port of Durres. We are to sail from there tonight on another ship, back to Italy.
We found a local taxi driver, who seemed to approve of us as passengers as we did of him after a short chat. A price was agreed, which seemed acceptable for a distance of 118 kms. (about 80 miles) and our bags were put into the car boot. We set off through this huge city, admiring the wide dual-carriage way roads, the colourful painted high-rise apartment buildings, and then on the outskirts soon joined another dual-carriage way route through the mountains and then through obviously fertile countryside.
An hour later the driver pulled into a big petrol station with an air-conditioned cafe and we all had cool drinks and a small snack. We thanked him for that stop, paid for his drink and set off again north up to Durres. He dropped us at the seaside, near a pier, and near the port. We all shook hands after paying him, and he drove away; we always like to try and establish good international relations on our travels.
Nearby we could see a couple of ship funnels, and also a really tall building. Our destination was the 14th/15th floor Fly Bar. My friends had been there before and delighted in showing me the location and views. There in immediate sight were two sister ships: the GNV-SNAV AZZURRA and, our ship for tonight, RIGEL II of Ventouris Line. After a cup of coffee we set off along the sea-side promenade towards a row of restaurants.
Our destination was Belvedere Bar Restaurant where we enjoyed a cheerful lunch watching the sea and eating well. This meant that the beach then beckoned where we could enjoy comfortable big beach chairs for a couple of hours, in the safe shade of large umbrellas.
We walked back along the promenade, admiring the unusual pier structure jutting out into the sea. Back at the Fly bar we could indulge in afternoon tea and enjoy the views, before deciding to visit some of the travel agents in the nearby streets.
Before we left I was amazed to see the remains of the ancient Roman theatre in the nearby hillside; one of the thoughtful Bar waitresses decided to open a big window so I could see it over the balcony and take a photo. That looks an interesting place for a future visit.
Ships seen: St. Damian, Rigel II, Azzurra
To be continued...
Monday 16th July - afternoon
We arrived in Bari just over an hour later and I had to alter my wristwatch to show Italian time, one hour behind Greek time. We took the train from the airport to the city's railway station and discovered that some of the longer-distance trains were delayed for all the usual Italian reasons. There was time for a meal in a favourite small restaurant near the station before heading back for a train down south to Brindisi, leaving at 6.29 p.m. This is where we are to embark on our next sailing, on board ST. DAMIAN. She is another vessel with an interesting history, and we are keen to catch up with her in her current guise.
After arriving in Brindisi we took a taxi to get to the terminal, but saw no sign of our ship. That began a rather tedious evening of waiting, watching, strolling around; Marine Traffic showed her as approaching but that was all. The outside temperature was down from the 38C of Piraeus to the tolerable 34C here in Brindisi, but we were all very pleased to see ST. DAMIAN arrive and berth. Of course she was behind the usual security fencing and well beyond easy sighting but at least she was there.
It was now dark and then suddenly someone had been told that we should start to queue and wait at the only security office to be seen in the fencing. We and lots of other passengers walked across the big car park and began our wait. It was all fairly orderly but vast numbers of people gradually joined the queue and it stretched as far as the eye could see. Many of us resorted to sitting on our baggage on the ground, and wonder about the workings and mindset of the local immigration officials here at the port of Brindisi. Passengers and traffic from the ship had left long ago; we knew the ship had to be prepared for the next passengers, but there was just no sign of anyone to keep us informed.
After over an hour of queuing a port official suddenly came out of the security office and began to check the passports of the first people in the queue. They were then told they could join the ship, way over in the distance. He was alone for some time and finally it was our turn to have our passports checked and be waved across to the ship. He was joined by another uniformed official so the queue was dealt with a little faster.
I see that my first photo of the ship as we walked across to her was taken at 11.15 p.m. and we had probably been in the first thirty passengers in the queue; I felt so sorry for those people still waiting far back in the lines.
We all had to show our passports again at the gangway, and again at the top of the gangway and I think again inside the ship at Reception before we could get keys to the cabin.
What a relief to get on board, leave bags and then be able to look around this little ship. I noted that my first impressions were that she is old but small (6,728 gross tons) and lovely.
One of my friends told me that:
"The St DAMIAN is one of nine sister ships, six of them for Viking Line and they were the ships which really transformed Viking Line into a force in the early 1970s. The other three were built for Mexican service where they enjoyed quite long lives as well. They really are quite smart little ferries and were memorialised in the 1980s by the book, 'The Papenburg Sisters' which, although it is somewhat biased towards the two which served UK-based operators for long periods, is an excellent overview of a famous class of ferry.
The ROSLAGEN is the ex-VIKING 3 of 1972 and was sold by Viking Line as early as 1976 when she went for more service on the northern Vasa-Umea route. By 1988 after a brief return to Viking Line and a trip to the English Channel she was sold to Eckero Line, became the ROSLAGEN and enjoyed almost 20 years which included various refits which largely made the ship look like she does today on board.
Agoudimos Lines took her on in late 2007 and, as the IONIAN SPIRIT she eventually inherited the Brindisi-Vlore route from the KAPETAN ALEXANDROS A (RIP). When Agoudimos went bust she languished in Brindisi for years. ( I remember that we last saw her in Brindisi in darkness on 22nd July 2016, as IONIAN SPIRIT.) So desperate are ferry companies for tonnage nowadays that even the most unlikely ships are being reactivated and put back into service so after four years of layup and at 44 years of age her current owners European Ferries bought her at auction and she was eventually resuscitated as the St DAMIAN, inheriting a Corsica Ferries yellow hull livery from the company's first ship the ex-CORSICA SERENA SECONDA (now MOBY NIKI).
The main changes on board since her Eckero days are the installation of reclining seats in parts of the open-plan central section which was previously general seating/spill over seating for the cafeteria, the slightly sad conversion of the forward smorgasbord restaurant into an additional bar and the conversion of the lower passenger deck with some cabins being put back in where the Duty Free shop had been extended. The rest of the shop is now home to large reclining seat lounges."
This is the ship we have finally embarked on and she was due to sail at 11.30 p.m. from Brindisi overnight to Vlore in Albania. That departure time has obviously been and gone, so we shall have to wait and see what happens next. What happens next included walking around the ship and taking a few photographs and noticing that in our cabin we could hear a conversation going on in the next cabin because there was a gap in the top of the cabin partition/wall separating us.
There seemed to be several parties of students on board, some sharing a cabin nearby, and there was much activity for some time. It didn't worry us. I think the air-conditioning or ventilation system on board didn't work in our cabin and we got round that little problem by propping the door open with a big thick blanket all night. I think we all got to sleep about 2.15 a.m., mostly from exhaustion. My friends were particularly happy to be on board this interesting little ship.
Ships seen in Brindisi: St. Damian, Red Star 1
To be continued....