Skadar Lake National Park is a region of hidden stories and incredible beauty. Fortresses that speak of years of wars and conquests, villages upon villages telling tales of communities from another time, and untamed nature that protected civilizations are all found here. I felt like I had to create my own local guide and show that there is much more to Skadar Lake than busy Virpazar and short boat tours.
Skadar Lake is impressive. It is Montenegro’s largest national park and bird reserve. Also, Skadar Lake is the largest lake in the Balkan peninsula. The park is home to many bird, fish and plant species. Skadar Lake is partially a cryptodepression as the bottom of the lake sits at a lower elevation than sea level depending on the area. This occurs at the 50 places known as “oka” (directly translates to eyes), underwater springs. You’ll know you’re above one when you suddenly feel a sudden drop in water temperature as you swim. Raduš is the area where the deepest oka is found.
The region around the lake is most famous for the high quality wine produced by numerous traditional family-owned wineries.
With some two-thirds of Skadar Lake in Montenegro and the remaining one-third in Albania, it is easy to see the size of the lake is immense. Still the banks of the lake on the Montenegro side make an ideal location for basing much of a Montenegro itinerary. It has the perfect position for exploring the hidden gems in the North and the well-known landmarks in the South.
In this blog post, I am answering the internet’s top questions about Skadar Lake from my local perspective to help you have the best experience exploring this amazing feat of nature.
History of Skadar Lake
The first traces of civilization in the area date back to the 4th century BCE when Illyrian tribes lived here. Their legacy that is still alive to this date is the Medun Fortress. Medun was occupied by Romans later on and it has not been explored enough.
Roman rule brought infrastructure and further developments from the 2nd century AD. However, the most important era for Skadar Lake was under the rule of Slovenian tribes when major lake towns were built.
Duklja (Doclea), close to the city of Podgorica, and Žabljak (Crnojevića), located in the park, are the two most important towns as they were the capitals of the Roman Doclea province and Zeta state, respectively.
Fertility of the land in the Skadar Lake area is famous countrywide. It’s no surprise that there were a number of villages formed around the lake. Homes were made of rock and wood, and the architecture could even be considered luxurious for that time. Moreover, the lush nature and rocky terrain around the lake provided natural fortification against invasions of Ottoman forces.
Due to the fertile soil, a government debate to dry the lake had been pushed for almost 80 years in order to stimulate agriculture. Thankfully, this plan never passed and the wetland ecology remained intact. Instead, in 1983 the lake was officially declared one of Montenegro’s national parks. Then, in 1996 it was declared a RAMSAR wetland of international importance.
Places to see in Skadar Lake National Park
Skadar Lake holds out so many spectacular things to see and do. Here’s a list of some of the key things I recommend you check out…
Long before Cetinje was deemed the royal capital of Montenegro, there was a fortress-town that the Vojislavljević dynasty built on the Morača river delta. The name was given after Ivan Crnojević and his dynasty that defended the fortress before it fell under the rule of the Ottoman empire.
This is when Montenegrins moved further northwest, first to Obod and then to Cetinje which later became the royal capital.
Žabljak Crnojevića was a trade center and it also carried historical and cultural importance. Because of this, Montenegrin rulers fought to take the fortress back from the Ottomans.
This is one of the most photographed locations in Montenegro. Pavlova Strana is where Rijeka Crnojevića (River of Crnojević) flows into Skadar Lake, while meandering around the hills forming a horseshoe bend.
Obod and Rijeka Crnojevića
Obod and Rijeka Crnojevića are lake towns, with Rijeka Crnojevića being the capital of the Crnojević dynasty. It is also known as THE river town in Montenegro. Obod is located on the banks of the Rijeka Crnojevića river.
The first-ever printing company in Southeast Europe, which was also the first state-owned printing company in the world, was established here in 1494.
It is believed that the Crnojević dynasty initially brought the printing machine to Žabljak Crnojevića where Oktoih Prvoglasnik (also known as The First Voice), an Orthodox religious book, was printed in 1493. Taking place only 40 years after the printing machine was invented, it was an important step in improving the literacy of the Montenegrin people.
Oktoih was also the first-ever book printed among the Southern Slavs. You can find more about this story here.
Islands and Beaches
There are a number of fortified islands on Skadar Lake and they all have a story to tell. The most famous ones include Grmožur, Lesendro, Vranjina, Beška, and Starčevo.
Grmožur Fortress / Prison
Also known as the Montenegrin Alcatraz, Grmožur became an infamous prison after 1878 under King Nikola’s rule. My friend’s grandfather was imprisoned here and managed to escape. He and three other prisoners knocked out one of the guards and used the wooden gate as a raft to swim to shore.
This was the only time someone escaped Grmožur as the wooden gate was replaced with a steel one after this jailbreak.
Even though lake islands with their lush vegetation are natural habitats for reptiles, Grmožur earned the title of Island of Snakes thanks to…believe it or not, an old foreign film. Rumor has it that they filmed it on this island, and in it, Grmožur is presented as a dangerous island of snakes. In reality, this island is no more dangerous than any other on the lake.
Ironically, ornithologists and birders know it as the Island of Birds because of all the nesting taking place here.
There’s a famous saying that translates to “You’re burning for that, just like Njegoš burned for Lesendro.” It describes the time when the Montenegrin hero and ruler Njegoš lost Lesendro to Ottoman invaders and fought fiercely to take it back, without any success. Ultimately, he decided to stop his siege on the fortress because he didn’t want to destroy the place that was so meaningful to him.
It was a strategically important island that is now connected to the main road. This is accessible by foot when going along the railroad tracks which is dangerous, so it’s best to visit it during a boat tour.
The sandy beach overseeing the Beška island gives off an Adriatic sea vibe. There’s a beach restaurant so you can plan to spend the whole day relaxing and soaking up the sun here.
On the way to Godinje village, there is a small beach which is considered to be the pearl of Skadar Lake as it’s hidden in the bay. Pješačac is a popular stop during boating tours and it is only accessible via water. (ht)
Accommodation in Skadar Lake region
When looking for places to stay, consider the rest of your itinerary and think of what makes the most sense for you. Know that private accommodation is predominant as hotels are not very common in the Skadar Lake region.
Five areas generally stand out: the town of Virpazar, the villages of Zabes, Bobija and Bridje, and isolated glamping sites close to Virpazar.
Virpazar is the lake village town that has grown in popularity due to its accessibility to some of the most important landmarks on the lake. You don’t need a car to explore this part of Skadar Lake. You can get there by the train that operates from Podgorica to Bar, or vice-versa.
The stop is named Virpazar. The ticket is approximately 1-2 euros per person and it’s an excellent day trip from Podgorica when you’re stuck in the capital and wondering what to do. For train timetables, check the Montenegrin railway site.
Isolated Glamping near Virpazar
You should know that Virpazar is often overcrowded during summer months. That’s probably an understatement – it gets HECTIC. Representatives of many boating companies will aggressively try selling you their services. Parking here is difficult as well during the travel season.
My local tip would be to look for accommodation outside of Virpazar, but nearby. Here are some glamping options near Skadar Lake.
Local partners there often organize paddling and hiking tours for our guests.
Just 2 km away from the busy hotspot in Virpazar, you can stumble upon serene unspoiled nature in the village of Zabes. There you can find several lodging options.
The partners we work with here want to develop their businesses in a sustainable way and not spoil the quietness of their village with over-tourism.
Bobija and Bridje Villages
On the other side of Skadar Lake National Park, towards Lovcen National Park and Kotor bay, lay two villages not even many locals know about. Bridje and Bobija are on the south side of the road outside of Podgorica, on the way to Cetinje.
These isolated villages are really small and they perfectly encapsulate the serenity of the lake and its lush green nature. You can find Meanderbug lodging options for these villages here.
Activities in Skadar Lake National Park
Being the largest bird reserve in the country and one of the most important migrating points for birds in Europe, birdwatching is naturally an activity I have to list here. The pelican, the bird that is also the symbol of Skadar Lake National Park, is an eye-catcher for the birdwatching enthusiasts visiting Montenegro.
To find out more about birdwatching in Skadar Lake, and in Montenegro in general, please reach out to our friends from the NGO, Center for Protection and Research of Birds or CZIP.
The endemic species of Vranac is among many types of grapes that are grown in the Skadar Lake region, and also the name of signature Montenegrin red wine. In 1977, it was declared the indigenous grape of the country and officially registered with the World Intellectual Property Organization. Vranac wine has a very dark color and is actually called black wine in the local language due to its dark purple hue. Crmnica wine, famous in this region, is made of 70% vranac, and 30% of mixture between kratošija and lisičina grape species.
My personal recommendations in Skadar Lake area are Garnet and Vukićević wineries.
Garnet is located in Godinje village, at the end of the scenic road from Virpazar. This is where the land is so fertile that locals often say you could even grow banana trees here. Hosted by our knowledgeable partner Miško Leković, this wine tasting experience is unlike any other. Miško is happy to teach you about his wines, and wine in general and he uses this chance to promote his village which is the only registered historical village in the country.
When my Norwegian family was visiting, knowing they are wine lovers, I had to take them here!
You also get to indulge in some homemade rakija and liquors made from lemon (similar to limoncello), walnut and cherry.
Pro tip: hike Godinje BEFORE the wine tasting!
Private Boat Trip of the Lake
The best way to explore the vast water surface of the national park and its many islands is to arrange a boating tour. Boating tours go for 20-25 euros per hour and for the best experience I recommend going for 2-3 hours on the lake.
One of the best tours is from Virpazar to Rijeka Crnojevića, towards Lovćen National park. This is suitable only for smaller boats as they can navigate the narrow canals.
Another great tour is from Virpazar to Grmožur island, and then on to Lesendro island.
Other tours towards Albania are longer and include smaller islands with monasteries. Do check the weather conditions in case you want to go for this tour as waves can get quite tall.
Stillwater kayaking is a great couples or family activity. Kayaks are generally available for rent at Virpazar and at Rijeka Crnojevica. Both of these launch points will allow paddlers the opportunity to explore wetland areas nearby. Some canoe and kayak tours are available to explore the islands and top places to see in Skadar Lake National Park.
Farm To Fork Dinner
You can find this slow food experience with Montenegrin cuisine in Beri village, close to Podgorica. The hosts, Mikica and her husband, Dragan, serve the food village-style with lots of variety on the table. Delicious food is also accompanied by homemade wine.
I had a chance to revisit my childhood here with the familiar taste of nettle soup, one of the signature dishes of traditional Montenegrin cuisine and I highly recommend this farm to fork dinner for all foodies out there!
Hiking Skadar Lake
Hiking trails in the Skadar Lake area are ranked easy to medium level when it comes to difficulty, making them suitable for just about anyone. Here are some good hiking possibilities in the area:
Trail from Pinčići village to the Old town Bar
This 10km hiking trail starts in the village of Pinčići, although it’s not uncommon for travelers to start in the village of Gornji Murići as it’s not an area most people go to and it’s exceptionally scenic.
From Pinčići, the elevation goes up to 800 meters, followed by a gradual descent of 650 meters. The trail takes you to the cliff and viewpoint of Bijela Skala, part of Rumija massif, through the village of Tudjemili, and finishing in the Old Town of Bar. (ht)
There is an interesting story about Tudjemili where it’s rumored the great battle of Bar in the 11th century took place, with the Vojislavljević dynasty on one side, and Byzantine army on the other. The Montenegrin army was greatly outnumbered back then, but the leader, Stefan Vojislav, thought of a neat trick.
He supplied as many horns as possible to his army and told them to blow them as loud as possible all throughout the canyon. The sounds of this instrument flooded the canyons, echoing against the bare rock and causing the Byzantine forces to flee in terror under the impression that the Montenegrin army was much larger than it actually had been.
The hike to Poseljani village is scenic and takes you back in time. It starts just off the main road from Virpazar to Rijeka Crnojevića. The village still holds onto tradition and there are water mills still operating. The waterfalls nearby create small lagoons where you can go for a swim.
Godinje is a registered historical village in Montenegro. This is an ideal location for light hiking to explore ancient village architecture and mountainside setting. There are a number of springs, canals and a stream that provide some great photography opportunities.
With the elevation of about 1100 meters and the length of 45 minutes, the hike up to the peak of Vrsuta may not seem like a big deal. However, the view of Adriatic sea on one side, and Skadar Lake on the other, make this hike a great choice for travelers of any age.
Rijeka Crnojevića Trails
There are several marked hikes that launch from Rijeka Crnojevića. Most of these are easy hikes. However, the Obod hike is easy enough to a halfway point where a spectacular overlook offers a picnic spot. From here the hiking is more challenging with a steep, rocky decline, overgrowth of various thorns, and a possible river crossing. For family hiking, we recommend you hike to the table lookout point and then return on the same trail.
Near Rijeka Crnojevića, try a route from Drušići Village to enjoy an impressive overview where the river and Skadar Lake meetup.
Ways to Experience Skadar Lake National Park
Depending on your preferred travel style, you can plan to see the most popular sites or enjoy exploring the lesser-known areas.
Experience the Skadar Essentials
- If you’re visiting Bar or Ulcinj, there’s a big chance that you will pass by some of the well-known places on the lake. In fact, Virpazar is just off the highway that connects the cities of Podgorica and Bar. You can stop for wine tasting in Godinje, take a kayak out on the lake, enjoy a boating tour, or visit the island Fortress of Lesendro.
Žabljak Crnojevića is a fortress island in between Virpazar and the city of Podgorica and it’s worth checking out.
- If you’re visiting Kotor or Tivat, or any other place in the Boka Bay, you can visit Rijeka Crnojevića, take scenic photos in front of Pavlova Strana, and taste local cuisine through a farm to fork experience.
Find the Hidden Gems
There are many places around Skadar Lake that you won’t easily find much information about online. I was lucky enough to know local partners who took me there, otherwise I’d completely overlook these places.
- From Virpazar, there is a Panoramic Route 3 leading to Godinje and then further to Albania. If you pay close attention, you’ll see signs for fire roads that appear to be leading nowhere. On contrary, there are villages upon villages branching out from these fire roads, and continuing on to seemingly impassable trails. Some of these villages are ruins that speak of different times, whereas the other ones are still alive. They all carry family names that are common in Montenegro. After all, family name is crucial in Montenegrin culture.
- Villages of Bobija and Bridje are the actual hidden gems where you can escape for a relaxing holiday. It is possible to arrange boat outings from here if you are working with a local–you won’t find any aggressive sales tactics happening here. There are hiking trails going through the muddy parts of the lake which is certainly a unique way to experience the park.
Biodiversity of Skadar Lake National Park
Skadar Lake is one of Montenegro’s biodiversity hot-spots, so it comes as no surprise that many native and endemic species exist in the park.
There are over 600 species of plants found in the national park. The unique mixture of marshland, aquatic habitats, and jagged mountain sides allow for several different plant habitats and exotic plants.
One very interesting species is Utricularia vulgaris, also known as the common bladderwort. This plant grows and floats in the lake without a root, contains sunshine-yellow flowers, and happens to be carnivorous. Its leaves contain structures called trap bladders which have very sensitive hair-like extensions that can be set off by small insects or crustaceans swimming by. Once triggered, the bladders will open and swallow their prey whole and close immediately, forming a water-tight enclosure containing digestive enzymes that slowly digest their prey. While this plant should be terrifying for insects, it is harmless to humans. 😉
To top it off, this fascinating plant also has medicinal properties, acting as a diuretic and a remedy against urinary tract infections (however, it should only be taken under the supervision of a trained herbalist or health care professional.) Other medicinal species of plants found around Skadar Lake include St. John’s wort, thyme, laurel, and many more.
Based on the fourth national report from Montenegro to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montenegro contains 62% of all bird species found in Europe. This is 330 bird species out of 530. Skadar Lake National Park has over 270 types of bird, which means it hosts 51% of all European and 81% of all Montenegrin bird species.
Skadar Lake is also home to 34 native fish, including 7 endemic species. The lake also has 50 gastropod species, an estimated 38% of which are endemic to the Skadar Lake basin. There is also plentiful herpetofauna around the lake. Of the 40 species of reptile found in Montenegro, 88% of those can be found in Skadar Lake National Park.
Enjoy Your Skadar Lake Holiday!
This extensive guide should help you experience the best of Skadar Lake, the place of many Montenegrin stories, according to your travel preferences. I squeezed in as much information as I could fit here, but with Skadar Lake, there is always a new road you will find that leads into the unknown, uncovering a new story.
Feel free to comment below your thoughts, ask questions, or suggest a place I might have missed. The Meanderbug team would be happy to help you out!