The boat chugs out of Virpazar harbour along a reed-fringed channel backed by stands of willow. Dense thickets line each side, blocking any view. The water is dark, cloudy, murky. Lake Skadar, we’re told, is the largest lake in the Balkans, but as yet there is no actual lake to see. Ripples from the boat lap against the corridor of reeds and the sun beats down on the metal roof canopy.
Then, suddenly, the boat breaks free from its channel and the vast lake unfurls beyond, encircled by scrub-covered mountains. Over 40km long and up to 14km wide, Skadar is a shimmering inland pool that separate mountains from plain and coast. Bear right and we’d eventually cross a water border into Albania, with whom Montenegro shares the lake. What’s to stop us, we wonder? A line of buoys and Albanian patrol vessels, apparently, on the look-out for smugglers.
Rustling reeds and tangled waterlilies
But the boat steers left, deeper into Lake Skadar National Park, and sets a course for the road and rail bridge that crosses an arm of the lake between the small villages of Vranjina and Virpazar. Chugging underneath, we leave the open expanse of water behind and enter a maze of marsh channels between rustling reed beds and tangled waterlilies.
This is where the boatman and tour guide earn their stripes. You’d be lost in an instant if you hadn’t grown up navigating these waters – our guide is a student, back for the summer, helping out in the family business. They slow the boat at times to push through knotted waterways with no apparent exit, slapping back giant waterlily leaves and gliding under reed fronds that drape against the boat sides. Dragonflies and waterboatmen dart from stem to leaf, and nearby squelches and plops signal the presence of fish and wildlife, all so far unseen. The heat is palpable and the white and yellow waterlily flowers shimmer in the haze.
Pulling out into a clearer area, we’re offered the chance to swim from the boat. We peer over the side, and the famed blue waters of Skadar are still not much in evidence. It’s only five or six metres deep for the most part and there’s plenty of gnarled vegetation to be seen just under the surface. Carp and eel too in abundance, we’re informed. Do you know what, we’ll give the swim a miss, thanks anyway.
Dainty doughnuts and life by the lake
Instead, we eat dainty honey doughnuts made by the guide’s family and hear about life by the lake. It’s the usual story of changing times and trades, the flight of the young and abandoned hamlets; but also of new hope, as fishing is supplanted by eco-tourism, wildlife trips and adventure tours.
We might be in a powered metal skiff rather than a wooden boat but certain traditions still prevail. The guide scoops her hands in the water and pulls up a handful of lilies which, with a few twists and knots, she fashions into a lily-leaf hat and necklace. The hat would shade a fisherman’s face and, if he came home empty handed, at least he had a gift. I am given the hat to wear, and perch on the front of the boat as it makes its way slowly through the lilies, water from the plaited leaves trickling down my neck.
As well as carp and eel, there are forty other species of fish found in Skadar – all the local restaurants pride themselves on their lake-caught fish. But it’s the migrating wetland birds that make Skadar truly special, and on a longer boat tour – and at different times of the year – you might see pelicans, cormorants and terns. Nesting sites are pointed out – perched on the water-bound lilypads – and the boat’s puttering engine occasionally rouses a nearby bird to languid flight. Closer to the lake edges, among the willows, otters come out to hunt at dawn and dusk, though sightings are rare.
Heading back towards Virpazar we pass the remains of a fort near the bridge, one of several dotted around the lake, along with a smattering of island monasteries. There’s a fortress overlooking Virpazar too, and defensive stone walls that talk of a time when Skadar’s strategic routes and waterways changed hands in battle, from medieval times right up until World War II.
And suddenly again, the lake is left behind as the boat returns up the river channel towards the village. A couple of adventurous kayakers paddle past, and then more tour boats, as we glide into the harbour by the old stone bridge. Our guide presses more doughnuts upon us and bids us farewell, readying her boat for the next passengers, while we cross the bridge in search of a restaurant with a water view.
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