Lake Skadar: eerie land of macabre fairies, ruins and skeletal hills

Lake Skadar is as dramatic as landscapes get in Europe. Whichever side you apprach it from in Montenegro your first sight of it will be an explosion of a green watery expanse, dotted with white cones of karst covered in thick Mediterranean bush. As you train your eye on its beauty, you will notice birds soaring above its waters and maybe a ruin of a castle or a monastery on one of the hills. Then you will sense the eerie calm and a sense of romantic doom that the lake exudes. 

The evidence of long gone importance is all around: abandoned monsateries on the islands, a former Ottoman prison that is now overtaken by birds and the main castle of Crnojevićs. Even before the destruction of medieval castles by the Ottomans the lake’s mystery ignited imagination. One of the most famous medieval legends in these regions is about construction of the city Skadar (or Shkodra in contemporary Albania). It tells a story of three brothers who tried to construct the city, but whenever they laid the foundations, they were sunk by the murky waters of Bojana. Theri troubles persisted until a local fairy proposed a macabre solution: wife of one of the brothers had to be built into the city walls. The youngest brother sacrificed his own young wife, who accepted her fate but only asked for two slots to be left so she could feed her infant children. 

Although the two main towns on the Montenergin side, Virpazar and Rijeka Crnojevića, are filled with realtively gentle hawkers circling a new tourist to sell a boat tour, they are also melancholy shades of their former selves. Virpazar, the larger of the two, was founded by the Ottomans, but its main claim to fame is that it was the place the fight against the Italian WWII occupation strated in Montenegro in 1941. Rijeka Crnojevića has an even grander history. It was the site of a medieveal royal palace after Crnojević dynasty was defeated by the Ottomans, and the place where the first book in cyrillic script was printed in 1494. It housed a popular montenegrin saint and had a large bridge built over its eponymous river. In early 20th century it was known for its mother of pearl craftsmen and then had a canning factory, whose lonely chimney rises pitifully over the industrial ruins. All of these closed, leaving the population jobless and reduced to selling tours to visitors, while roaming a half deserted shell of a town. An Albanian friend told me that Shkoder was also forgotten and imporverished until recently, which meant that it preserved its medieval features. 

The best way to enjoy the lake is by taking a boat, but driving around the narrow, dramatic roads has its charms. The food all around is excellent and make sure you try smoked carp, a local specialty. Plantaže vineyards are also close, and there you can see the largest single vineyard in Europe and taste very decent (and decently priced) Vranac, a local grape variety. 

If you want a break from the chaos of the coast or are just a melancholic at heart, Lake Skadar’s eerie beauty will not disappoint. 

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