Lake Skadar - Wild Beauty
Did you know that the National park Skadar Lake is the largest lake in southern Europe and one of the most captivating tourist attractions in the Balkan Peninsula? It doesn't matter if you have already been here or just planning to visit, Lake Skadar's story is full of interesting facts and beautiful cultural and historical monuments - let us tell you.
The diverse flora and fauna are at the core of its visual atmosphere and extraordinary sights. The tranquil reeds sway gently in the breeze, the rivers flow with grace, and the minuscule insects dance on the surface of Lake Skadar.
The lake is filled with landscapes of extraordinary beauty and surrounded by ancient monasteries, charming fishing villages, and historic churches, all of which embody Montenegro’s rich cultural heritage. As a karst lake, Skadar is home to numerous islands that hold the secrets of the country’s lengthy past. The lake’s shoreline is adorned with coves, capes, and lush reed beds, creating an enchanting and authentic atmosphere in the National Park.
Legend has it that a fairy’s unrequited love for a sailor caused her to cry so much that she flooded the valley and created Skadar Lake. Alternatively, the lake was created by a young woman who forgot to turn off a tap while waiting for her husband to return from war.
While science may offer a different explanation, there’s no denying the magic of this captivating destination. So why not come and experience it for yourself?
Lake Skadar: A natural wonder and protected National Park
Prior to 1858, Lake Skadar was a relatively small and unremarkable body of water, known to locals as Veliko Blato, or “The Big Mud“. However, that year, the Drim River carried a significant amount of sediment, sand, and trees from the Albanian mountains into the mouth of the Bojana River. This event led to a shift in the riverbed and the creation of the largest lake in the Balkans. The lake was named after the Albanian town that was built on its shores.
To protect the abundant wildlife and surrounding area of Lake Skadar, the Montenegrin part of the lake was declared a National Park in 1983. Covering 40,000 hectares, with 25,400 hectares of water surface, this protected natural resource is of incredible importance.
Lake Skadar has been recognized as a World List of Water Habitats of International Importance since 1996 and was nominated for UNESCO status in 2011. Additionally, the National Park has been designated an IPA, or Internationally Important Plant Area.
Thriving flora and fauna in Lake Skadar's unique ecosystem
Lake Skadar’s ecosystem is unique – built from swamps, forests and rocks and favoured by the diverse flora and fauna. The lake is home to 281 species of birds, including the iconic Dalmatian pelican, which is a distinctive symbol of the National Park Skadar Lake.
In addition to its rich birdlife, the lake also supports 49 species of fish, as well as a variety of amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. The lush vegetation that adorns the shores of the lake consists mainly of endemic species.
Lake Skadar spans two countries, with two-thirds of its territory in Montenegro and one-third in Albania. During winter, the lake can expand to cover up to 530 square kilometers due to increased rainfall, with the help of its largest tributary, the Morača River. In the summer, the surface area of the lake decreases to around 350 square kilometers.
Diverse and outstanding flora
Lake Skadar represents a home to a variety of flora, from healing and fragrant herbs like thyme, rosemary, and saffron to rare and indigenous flowers like the Dalmatian green grass, wild yellow tulip, moon carrot, and laurel. The area is also home to honey-bearing plants such as the pomegranate and rosehip, which contribute to the local beekeeping culture.
In the flooded areas of the lake, numerous species of willows thrive, while in the northern part, the Skadar Lake‘s oak stands tall as a protected and endangered species. The lake is often covered with thousands of beautiful white and yellow water lilies and edged by the rocky Montenegrin coast.
Beyond the floral wonders, the diverse habitats of Lake Skadar, ranging from overgrown swamp vegetation to ancient chestnut forests and rocky islands, provide a unique and inviting home to a myriad of wildlife species.
A paradise for passionate bird watchers
Lake Skadar’s avian population is truly remarkable, with over 280 species calling it home. It plays a crucial role in the migratory routes of birds, with more than half of Europe‘s species stopping over in the area during their winter travels. As a designated Important Birds and Biodiversity Area (IBA), Lake Skadar is a true paradise for avid birdwatchers.
Wild and marshy areas of the lake are filled with mixed colonies of pelicans, cormorants, pigeons, herons, kingfishers, ducks, and various other species. Additionally, Lake Skadar is one of the few remaining great oases for little cormorants.
ELEGANCE IN FLIGHT - THE DALMATIAN PELICAN
The most impressive bird on the lake is the Dalmatian pelican. Pančevo oko – an ornithological reservoir, is the perfect place for this elegant flyer to make his nest – on the floating moss called arbunos, with the help of reeds and branches of willows.
These majestic birds can reach lengths of 170 to 190 cm, with wingspans exceeding 3 meters. They typically weigh between 11 and 15 kg and have a striking appearance with long, curly feathers on their heads and black feathers at the tips of their wings. Dalmatian pelicans announce their presence with hissing and rattling sounds and are known to consume fish up to 50 cm in length.
Their graceful posture during flight resembles that of a heron, exuding elegance as they soar through the air. Although they only migrate short distances, Dalmatian pelicans nest in large colonies once a year, laying 2 to 3 white eggs.
Authentic animal species
Lake Skadar is also home to numerous fish species. There are as many as 48 different species of fish in the lake’s basin. For years people from these areas have based their specialities on carp, bleak and eel.
The fact that 38% of the entire freshwater fauna is endemic is also interesting, as it exceeds world-famous lakes such as Lake Malawi and Lake Titicaca.
This area is home to many animal species. You may come across a lizard, a snake, an otter, weasels and foxes, wild boars and even the occasional wolf. You can also find numerous species of amphibians. The most important are the green and wood toads, Skadar’s green toads and smooth newts.
Unfortunately, the increasing human factor makes the fauna of Lake Skadar exposed to water pollution, exploitation of sand and gravel, and excessive growth of algae.
Virpazar – a town on three bridges
Virpazar is a quaint fishing village that you should not overlook, even if just for a brief visit. Located on the shores of Lake Skadar and nestled around the square and the river, this village now serves as the main entrance to Lake Skadar National Park. Interconnected by bridges on the rivers Oraovštica and Virštica, Virpazar was once referred to as the “town on three bridges.“
Records show that Virpazar dates back to the 13th century when a settlement was constructed around the river. People would come in small riverboats to visit the local market. The very name Virpazar tells you about the place around the spring (vir) where local markets (pazar) were held.
Although it may seem insignificant now, Virpazar was once of strategic importance to the occupying Turks, who even constructed a large fortress on the hill above the town. After their defeat, Virpazar became an important trading hub with a bustling port. In the early 1900s, it was connected to Bar by the first Montenegrin narrow-gauge railway. It also served as the site of one of the country’s first powerful uprisings against the Axis invaders in World War II, with two reminders of its bloodstained history still standing in and above the village.
Due to its geographical location, Virpazar is the administrative, economic and cultural center of the Crmnica region. It has a primary school, a health center, a post office, a police station, a railway station, and much more.
One of the three main bridges in Virpazar is called Virski most. Built during the reign of Prince Nikola I Petrović in 1905, it represents a cultural and historical monument. The bridge is 46 meters long, 5 meters wide, and has three arches.
It was damaged over the years and finally reconstructed in 2016. The state of Montenegro and the municipality of Bar paid particular attention to this reconstruction assignment. They wanted every stone returned to its original position to protect the authenticity of the bridge.
The place where the first gun was fired
As you explore the small village of Virpazar, one thing will catch your attention instantly. The striking bronze statue at the top of a lookout tower looms above the bridge.
This sculpture pays tribute to fallen fighters, partisans, who died in the attack. Before the statue, on the natural rock that rises above Virpazar, there was a small chapel. The monument in bronze represents a warrior with unfurled flags and weapons.
It was Virpazar, where on the 13th of July 1941, the Montenegrin partisan uprising started, the most energetic uprising that happened in enslaved Europe during II World War. More than 30.000 soldiers from all over Montenegro participated. Partisans achieved the liberation of most of the territory of Montenegro in just 12 days.
Besac fortress is a cultural and historical site of exceptional importance and one of the most beautiful viewpoints on Lake Skadar. The fortress is located not far from Virpazar, on a small hill. Thanks to its position, it dominates and stands out on the vast Crmnica field.
Besac was built during the Ottoman Empire after the fall of Donja Zeta in 1478. In the wars from the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, the Besac Fortress fell into the hands of Montenegrins. Between the two world wars, a gendarmerie station was located in Besac, and during World War II, the Italians used it as a prison, after which it was permanently abandoned.
An earthquake in 1979 caused significant damage to this fortress, and in 2013, extensive conservation measures were implemented.
Even though Virpazar looks like a fairytale place to all visitors, watching it from the Besac fortress is a unique experience.