Lake Skadar in Montenegro

Lake Skadar and Virpazar: A Montenegrin Meditation From A Lancastrian Traveller

"I am finding on our travels that which we already know: We live on a beautiful planet and people are part of that, how we all live, how we see each other."
July 25, 2023

Adventure is often stifled by the idea that there’s nowhere left to go, it’s all been done. After a single full day at Skadar Lake my zeal for adventure is revived entirely. There is so much unseen and massive opportunities lie everywhere. On the border between Montenegro and Albania, the lake has shores in both countries and incredible riches between.


The train station for Virpazar is out of town and down a single track with a shortcut to the centre over a lightly trodden path. A little shop and a few houses are here, and our accommodation a couple of rooms next to our neighbours, the bees. Our more conventional neighbours, inhabiting the house next door, are a beautiful Montenegrin couple in their seventies. Both their and our back doors open onto what might otherwise be considered a garden. It is in fact a magnificent city of bees. Over three stone tiers hives stand together as a coliseum around a level of yet more hives. In and around the tiers are other layers of tomato plants, beans, grape vines, small but already perfect miniature aubergine. The plain of grass is carpeted with bursts of flowers from huge and ostentatious globes of tightly bound pink and yellow petals, to single stem fragile purple funnels with openings just the width to allow a bee to squeeze in, the fabric stretching like cotton as they push themselves into the base.

Several trees offer some shade and climbing frames for lizards and crickets and add height to this perfect spot on earth. Sat in the shade of the houses, the beekeeper is at work stripping wax from frames ready for new construction, by man and bee. Open shirted and in the middle of the hives he is neither noticed nor distracted by the thousands of bee flights in and around him. Eight decades of continual presence in this space, with these bees, has made him one with the world he helped create. Every motion purposeful, yet in languid accord with this dense heat and soft hum of a city at work. The mother of this space brings us honey lemonade, and tasters of several of the honeys they collect, across the shores of the lake in three other locations. We see only this one and it is intoxicating enough. This is a world of perpetual movement that is so perfect it feels eternal and unchanged. Change is happening by the lake, a new, as yet unfinished, hotel building and the castle a luxurious wine tasting venue of glass and polished hardwoods with free lifts up the hill in an electric cart.

In the city of bees we see that natural order, of symbiosis, of change as process. Not as replacement or demolition and best guess rebuilding that serve distant purposes. Processes of slow and purposeful change that still have construction, but mindful of human, bee, plant, of the networks of lizards and birds. The perfection here is that recognition of things being eternal, at least as far as our consciousness can perceive it. Sustainable in the natural sense of the world, not as trees planted to offset fuel burned, earth mined, land scorched. Even a few hours here spent scribbling show deeper levels. Not some rustic perfection, a space we can all claim, but a symbiosis of existence we need to include in the ways we make other decisions, the ones that affect us all. The initial sight, of clouds of bees around each hive, is false. By watching, it is clear this is constant coming and going, no bee is clouding around a hive, they come and go in individual lines of flight and so vast are their numbers they only appear as a buzzing entity. The hives have landing pads where these tiny wanderers continually land and deposit, then leave again. Their industry involves the harvesting of the flowers evolved alongside them, their brushes bringing new plants, for new visitors, and the plants survival.

Virpazar and Beekeeping in Montenegro
Virpazar And A City Of Bees

The industry of the beekeeper is no less, awaking in the morning he is there. At night, still tasks to do. Between times, in hard heat, sat together the beekeepers in shade, sipping honeyed lemonade. Work as purpose, as love, as belonging. Up the road, over the tracks, the hubbub of more boat trips for sale, of us being ‘the mark’. Reminded of that world of a cultural grating of one against the other, idealised visions of dehumanising, division generating hustlers. Here, both worlds exist, they seem not incompatible. The beekeepers talk to us only possible through smart phones, translation apps, mediated by transatlantic machine voices. Still, we speak, we hear each other, their honeyed tones and soft music, my clunky tones. We communicate, technology and lines of possibility that bring different periods of growth together. Finding here came through internet searches, other people leaving verbal and visual trails, the hosts secured by booking holiday apps on their smartphones, us getting to them through ours. Lines of flight can be beats of bee wings or through technology. Idealistic possibilities maybe, but why not? Why imagine anything less than the ideal. The hum of the city of bees is entrancing but we did not come for the bees. This planet holds so much and despite the heat, there is still slow wandering that brings incredible sights and experiences. We take off across the tracks.

From here The Lake. It bears capitalisation, Skadar Lake is the largest lake in Southern Europe and it is vast. Surrounded by the mountains of Montenegro and Albania, it is immediately beautiful, it needs no processing of nuance. The first glimpse of this giant body of fresh water in the midst of these granite hard mountains is breath taking. Dawn boat trips are the privilege of those staying over here and they start as early as 5am. The benefits are to catch the hundreds of bird species taking flight in the first promises of sunlight. Emerging from reeds and the numerous types of tree, shrub, bush, grassland, lilies and every possible shade of green, this feathered universe transforms the water. Coots defy physics by running on the surface to escape the boat, hundreds of cormorants create clouds then when we turn a corner into a new creek, they splash their wings on water as liquid timpani.

Just two of us ahead on this boat and the captain, a bonus of being connected by the beekeeper’s local network. He leaves the tiller and rushes to the front to point to some white shapes beyond the lilies and reeds ahead, “pelicans!”, and before us four of the most outstanding birds you can imagine. Giant beaks, tilting to the side as they trawl the water’s surface for food. Majestic, slow in motion but their power and beauty is immediate. Despite these giant bills the pelicans are elegance in motion, the smooth sweeps of head and the languid perfection of their movements, the strangeness of the sacks beneath the bill, the nonchalant looks over shoulders at our chugging arrival. They enchant all visitors as emblems of this magical water. When they have enough of our prying they take flight, as if in slow motion and with the same casual elegance as they swam, they fed, they existed before our arrival. We were transfixed by the lake and returned in the late afternoon to get closer still, kayaking this time. After a few awkward simpatico finding strokes and banging into a boat or two, we found our way down the reed tunnel rivers to the main body of the lake. Eels floated by mouths agape, their watery movements as fluid as their world, our own movements growing more so as we felt our way through this sultry network of yellow and white lilies in fields of floating pads, of reed stalk and bush. Cicadas added their accompaniment of audible heat to add to the still air and honey smooth water we stroked paddles through and glided across.

Once in a while, we were accosted by the larger boats, their wake causing us to perfect the hard oar steer to move into the rush of wave and avoid it hitting us side on. This came to us like natural understanding, attuned to the water, part of it and immersed in it (though not literally, thankfully). Later, after a few hours of adventure into open water, creeping up on great crested grebes and herons, pygmy cormorants, egrets, stumbling across leaping fish escaping some larger predator below, we found ourselves, lost. Here, the worst of things becomes a handy aid. The party boats, thankfully few in number, played out their eurobeats to a dozen or so revellers in lazy sways of dance on the top deck. Glad to be at a distance, we were happy their noisy interruption showed the way back through the lily pad maze and into the homeward bound river to Virpizar central.

Skadar Lake
Alex, Peter And Skadar Lake

Virpazar on first arrival is tiny, at dawn almost silent. In the afternoon and evening it becomes host to the temporary boat trip stands, and a few tourist stalls, a small supermarket and a good few restaurants. After a 8km walk into the hills, to visit the beach on the lake near Godinje, a return to Virpazar feels like entering Gotham city. Such is the silent beauty of those magical mountains, any electrified energy feels alien, a shock to the system. Then home, via the shortcut path and over the train tracks, now so familiar and welcoming after just two nights here. We learned on a factfinding mission to the train station (which involved strolling over and onto the platform to read the sign that says buy your tickets on the train, stroking the barely raised head of the sleepy dog, and talking for half an hour with the only other people there, a Swedish couple travelling to the capital, Podgorica) that many stay further afield. Up hills and in camping spots, family homes and many diverse eco homes and guest houses, we saw many of these beautiful people at the tiny beach. The swim in the lake had a reverential quality to it, most came by car or lived in the surrounding hills and walked there like us. Not as far as us, the climbs need later afternoon or early morning in the summer heat, the alternative is to fry on the hillside and find the beauty of mountain paths more torturous than beguiling. We took the later afternoon option and had reward in a cool return home at dusk, with bats and swifts as company above and yellowing sunsets across the mountains to soften our eyes and let us forget the climbs. The swim in the lake was special, the almost still water allowing mist to swim a distance and lie back and float, soaking in the tranquillity amidst this perfect late afternoon of wide water, magnificent white mountains and ethereal stillness.

This is a wonderful world to be in and there is space for many to be in it. It seems the abundance can welcome many, to be in the mountains, to walk the hills, swim the lake, sit by bees. It is not visiting that causes problems in these places, but expectation, entitlement. I am learning our visits are to be ones that come with a sense of accord to what is already here, to fit with that, not to bring our own demands of other worlds, other designs of perfection that do not flow. This will involve processes of difference, of eco camping as well as farming, of guest houses as well as bee keeping. Travelling by bus, by train, might save the demand for asphalt car parking slots. It might even rejuvenate the train station, not a coffee franchise, but maybe whatever comes with a sense of presence, of destination.

Sadar Lake, Montenegro

I am finding on our travels that which we already know. We live on a beautiful planet and people are part of that, how we all live, how we see each other. There is symbiosis in the city of bees and those that live here, plant, insect and human. We can be part of that and it looks to me like letting the pulse of those that know the land be the ones that decide what happens there. Yes, I am just on holiday, but travelling gives that space to see things differently and appreciate what we have. Buses and trains are a great way to get closer to the places, the plants, the animals, insects, birds and the people in the life of mountains, lakes and towns. A guidebook I have been reading here is called ‘Unknown paths and lonely places in the border area between Montenegro and Albania’. It talks of yet another world we can barely see, one up there in those giant mountains around us. All of possible because of ancient pathways that link tiny enclaves of people. Amongst the practical guidance of navigation and dwellings, it tells a deeper tale. Of how we can look to the past and the present as rich guides to how we live successfully on this planet. We can love it and explore it without having to destroy it.