Michele Lulurgas’ epic 20-year trek
through the ferries of the Adriatic highlights what in many ways can be seen as the sad decline of the area’s ferry operations as an oligopoly of large operators, hewn both out of once-proudly independent concerns such as ANEK and Minoan, alongside newcomers Attica, rose to the top.
It is true that many of the famous ferry names of the Adriatic’s original car ferry era are mostly gone: concerns such as HML, Fragline, Adriatica and Marlines and an indepedent Strintzis, all have long since ceased to operate on the Greece-Italy trade that once they dominated. Yet looking at the Southern ports of Bari and Brindisi in the Summer of 2008, no less than 31 conventional ships were to be found, from 15 different operators and only two of those ships came from one of the ‘Big Three’.
Those glory days of the late 1980s/early 1990s when the vintage ferry enthusiast wouldn’t know which way to turn as he faced choices of the Countess M (ex-Leopard) or the Corinthia (ex-Duke of Argyll), the Lydia (ex-Koningin Fabiola) or the Queen M (ex-Rangatira) will never return. Yet there remains enough within the current fleets to appeal. Perhaps the biggest difference now is that the journey will involve heading to Albania or Croatia or Montenegro. This should not deter since, as destinations, these countries offer as much if not more than Greece with spectacular scenery, relatively favourable exchange rates and varying degrees of ‘unspoilt’ and ‘undiscovered’.
Here we assess the 2008 Southern Adriatic operators and ponder the future in a market where short-lived operators have long been a fact of life.
The Apollon (ex-Senlac) at Corfu
Poor old European Seaways – just as they were getting a foot in the door with a second straight season running the Apollon from Brindisi to Igoumentisa, Agoudimos and Endeavor have a huge fall out and almost double their previous Brindisi-Greece capacity.
If you are going to operate a veteran ship in these waters, the Apollon has a strong pedigree – but she’ll never pass muster as a real overnight ship and seems one of the more mechanically troubled of the ex-Sealinks.
Over the Winter Mr Arkoumanis has deployed his ship in the Albanian trade and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her stay there next Summer. If the Veronica Line fails to reappear for 2009, what chance the Apollon filling the third Brindisi-Vlore slot?
The Ionian Spirit (ex-Roslagen/Viking 3) off Brindisi
The partnership with Endeavor on the Bari-Patras route lasted from 2005 to 2007 but never seemed entirely happy and for 2008 it came to an end. Agoudimos pulled out all the stops, increasing their Greece-Italy fleet from two ships to four. Yet Shippax statistics show that for double the sailings, they took around half the passengers compared to 2007. Ouch.
Might Agoudimos follow the lead of famiy rivals GA Ferries a couple of years ago and withdraw completely from the Greece-Italy market? One feels that the net result could be the end of the Albanian veteran the Kapetan Alexandros A (ex-Doric Ferry). A freed-up Ionian Spirit would make a decent enough replacement.
Ionian Queen at Brindisi
Who would have thought that the backpacker market out of Brindisi wasn’t dead after all? Indeed, who could have guessed that there was a market for parties of American tourists who needed to sail from Southern Italy to Greece? Working in co-operation with the former HML Italian agencies, Endeavor appear to have inherited the Brindisi Inter-Rail/Eurail concessions. Aware of the ongoing strength of the brand they also include the HML logo on the cover of their brochures.
All round, it seems to have been a storming year for Endeavor who will add the new Princess T to their fleet next year. At present, there has been no indication that one of the existing trio will drop out.
The Rigel at Durres
Ventouris’ three-ship strategy from Bari to Albania seems to have been calculated to kill off one or more of the competition. That hasn’t really happened and the benefit of adding the Rigel in capacity terms seems questionable. As a ship however she set high standards and raises the question as to why any discerning traveller would sail with any operator other than Ventouris or Adriatica on the Durres route. But they do.
To Igoumenitsa, the Siren and the Polaris, their vehicle decks crammed with freight and camper vans, plod ever onwards.
The Cesme at Ancona
The sole remaining Italy-Turkey ferry operator. Demand still seems strong enough for the not insubstantial fares they charge; but it has to be a declining market, so will they be back for more in 2009?
Red Star Ferries/Skenderbeg Lines
Red Star I at Vlore
Who are Red Star Ferries? Who are Skenderbeg Lines? I don’t know, but the former has taken the latter’s slots in Brindisi and they share a website. Skenderbeg’s venerable Europa I was supposed to sail from Otranto to Vlore this year but never set sail after the authorities intervened. She has remained laid up in Brindisi ever since. More happily, the Red Star I has established herself as market leader on Brindisi-Vlore.
Veronica Line (ex-Free Enterprise V) at Brindisi
The company are called ‘Medglory Shipping’, but the ship is the Veronica Line.
They did operate from Otranto but it wasn’t to their liking so they started from Brindisi instead.
The ship was detained repeatedly in Brindisi and later retreated to lay up in Naples.
On the face of it, the omens for a 2009 return aren’t good.
Sveti Stefan II
For a while Montenegro Lines followed the herd and sailed curiously to Albania as well as their home nation. That has now stopped and the ‘Svetis’ both sail to Bar again, from both Ancona and Bari. A nice pair of interesting ships they are too, although the crews can be mildly eccetric.
The Azzurra (image courtesy Ann Haynes)
Who sails with them? Why do they do it? Nobody knows, yet Azzurra have survived for eight seasons now so they must be doing something right. The Azzurra herself is a real classic from the 1960s Golden Generation of Scandinavian car ferries, albeit one now thoroughly refurbished.
Venezia at Durres
The Venezia and Grecia continue on the Bari-Durres and Trieste-Durres routes. For enthusiasts, the fact that this class of four Livorno-built ships is now approaching classic status is a bit of a shock. The Ilion ships’ sisters, the Express Pegasus and the former Egitto Express (now the Riviera Del Conero and a regular visitor to Durres herself) have proven interesting in their own right so perhaps I owe this overlooked pair a sail. Former Adriatica fleetmate the Santa Maria I (ex-Sansovino) also made an appearance on Bari-Durres in 2008 for newcomers G Lines before retiring early to Piraeus with engine problems.
Flaminia off Bari
We shall continue to call them ‘Adriatica’ – no matter that they say Tirrenia on the hulls, as long as the winged lion remains on the funnels they retain a glimmer of former glories. And, truth be told, the old company doesn’t scrub up too badly on the Albanian run. The Flaminia and Domiziana offer a good quality operation – albeit with something of the old school of service, the retrofitted surroundings are nice and modern, on the Flaminia at least.
The Duchess M
So it’s come to this: one route, one ship. The Duchess M had a plentiful supply of German and French tourists amongst the full load when I sailed on her this August. No one seems to have told them that Marlines aren’t quite the top ferry operator they once were, or that the Duchess M is no Crown M. It was worthwhile to see what they had done to an ex-English Channel stalwart (answer: a lot, not much of it good) and worth it to say I had sailed with this famous old company. Had I only done it twenty years earlier….
The Liburnija and Marko Polo continue to maintain sailings to Dubrovnik out of Bari for Jadrolinija and a more perfectly preserved and maintained pair of classic ferries you couldn’t wish to find. Catch the sweet little Liburnija on a quiet sailing and she really captures the imagination. The ‘MP’ is more businesslike but together they offer a memorable way for the enthusiast to sail into or out of Croatia, one rivalled only by the Ancona up the coast between Split and Ancona.
Where next for the Blue Horizon?
Last but by no means least, the only one of the ‘establishment’ operators to sail out of Southern Italy. The new Superfast I and II will be in operation together by the end of 2009 – which leaves a lingering question mark about what will happen to the existing ships. The Blue Horizon will stay until the arrival of the ‘II’ but already, with the return of the Blue Star 1 to the fold, at least two ships seem surplus to requirements. On the face of it these are the Superfast XII and possibly the Diagoras; SNCM may be a potential purchaser, looking around as they are for a new ‘Navire Mixte’ although the ‘XII’ might be too much of a passenger ship for their taste (never mind the price tag) whilst the Diagoras is probably too old. Perhaps a further reshuffle could free up Blue Star 1 or 2.