Day 17 – Stairway to Heaven

Today we were up early as we were going on an excursion!

When we were planning this trip we used a website called Montenegro Pulse a lot. When it was time to book a boat tour of Lake Skadar, we turned to the website which recommended a bunch of different options. We booked a 3 hour one that stops at Kom Monastery through the website. We received an email confirming our booking, saying the tour starts at the town of Virpazar at 1030hrs “or later”. It takes an hour to drive from Ulcinj to Virpazar so we hired a taxi to pick us up at 0930hrs, then drive us back at 1430hrs.

The drive there was vaguely nightmarish. Our driver, whose name we never found out spoke almost zero English so we drove the hour in almost total silence. He dropped us off at the lakeside town a Virpazar, a tiny but bustling village of bars, trinket shops and boat rental stalls. We found our boat rental stand, where a woman showed us a map and explained where we would be going and what we would be seeing, as the boat captain/driver, her dad, spoke very little English and therefore would not be able to explain much. We were then led down to the dock and into the cun (pronounces “choon”), a slightly narrow, long, open roofed aluminium boat with seats along the sides and an elevated prow. The captain (as he will he know as henceforth) pointed to a cooler and said “juice. Water.” And we were off, surprised that we were he only three tourists on the boat. Our own private excursion.

Lake Skadar is ecologically important, home to all sorts of bird life (rare Dalmatian pelicans!), wildlife (foxes!) and marine life (carp!). It also features an old fort, monasteries, and the Montenegrin Alcatraz. We started out on the lake, lined with reeds, rushes and grasses, tons of lily pads and little black ducks with white faces.

Because we were the only ones in the boat, we weren’t beholden to anyone else, so every time I would raise my camera to take a shot, the captain would kill the engine and slow down to allow me time.

There are veritable “fields” of lily pads everywhere, and narrow passageways of clear water that the boats could navigate through. The captain started pointing out “heron!” and then to a page in an ornithological book about the lake that he had with him, then to a heron perched on the lily pads or wooden flotsam.

We passed lines of fishermen, sitting on the banks, some under ramshackle wooden shelters they had set up for themselves. The most popular catch from the lake is carp and eel.

We passed more herons, ducks, little brown mini-heron looking birds, through the lily pad passageways to a tree lined shore. We passed along the shore, spotted with moored boats and what looked like summer cottages.

At one point the captain stopped the boat, pointed to his bird book, then to a bush and exclaimed “kingfisher!” He even backed up the boat so I could get a shot of the little red and blue fella before he flew away.

Then we noticed a cow getting out of the water on a shady island. Then more cows. These cows just seem to hang out on the island and swim and eat the grass.

We rounded a corner and headed towards more open water and another blanket of lily pads.

We pulled up beside a dense bit of greenery in the water. The captain cut the engine and told us “water chestnuts”. He then leaned over and plucked a few green pods from the water, split them open reveal pink edges and a white “nut” in the centre, and handed them to us to eat.

The water chestnut was sweet, like a sugar snap pea with a nutty after taste. They were quite good!

We headed again for open waters, passing more birds, islands and other boats, until we spotted it- Kom Monastery, perched high on a hill on an isolated island.

We moored the boat at a tiny stone dock and hiked the questionable stone stairs up to the monastery gates.

The monastery is Serbian Orthodox, built in the 15th century and never sacked by the Turks or the communists (like many religious establishments were during Tito’s reign) – everything is original.

We went into the small chapel (no photos allowed) decorated the typical orthodox style – painted frescoes on the walls and a wooden iconostasis. We exited the small stone building and looked around the grounds – bee hives, olive trees, orange trees and pomegranate trees were all about. The captain pointed to two small mountains in the distance and said “Sophia Loren” and grabbed his own boob. We understood.

We were led into some sort of outdoor banquet hall where we were treated with wine, homemade ginger cookies and homemade rakia by a few contemporarily dresses monk. The rakia smelled fruity and burned the whole way down.

Eventually we said our “thank yous” and “goodbyes” to the monks and piled back in the boat, our three hours almost up.

On the boat ride back, the captain pulled up to some lily pads, picked three lilies from the water and made us each a necklace out of them.

When we docked we thanked the captain and his family profusely – they had truly given us a magical day.

We met back up with our anonymous cab driver and had one of the diciest drives ever back to Ulcinj. The sped, ran stop signs (which I’ve learned is pretty normal here), tailgates a poor Audi for kilometres and ended up getting pulled over and ticketed by police. I was thankful to get my two feet back on solid ground.

We finished the night off our typical way here – dinner, Turkish coffee, bed.