Skadar Lake National Park is the largest lake in the Balkans, home to a vast number of bird species including the Dalmatian pelican.

Bordered to the east by Albania, Skadar Lake is enclosed on three sides by Montenegrin mountains. One of the largest lakes in Europe – some 43km long, sometimes as much as 14km wide and with an average depth of 7m – roughly twothirds of its waters are in Montenegro and one-third in Albania. Of the lake’s 168km coastline, 110.5km lies in Montenegro and 57.5km in Albania. No-one really knows if the lake was always here. Records from a millennium ago refer only to rivers. Strange stuff, karst.

Skadar Lake became a national park in 1983, covering 400km², and in 1996 was added to the RAMSAR list of Wetlands of International Importance. The surface area of the lake ranges from 370km² in summer to 540km² in the winter. It is host to 40 different kinds of fish and is one of the biggest bird preserves in Europe.

The lake varies in size considerably over the course of the year. In the rainy season it is full and blue and in the summer it appears silver, shimmering in the sun while the mountains of Albania appear to hover in the distance above its surface. It is fed not only by its various rivers but also by 50 active springs in the karst floor (known as oke – ‘eyes’) which provide a continuous source of pristine water, something of a clean swimming pool effect. The most famous, Radus, is very deep indeed – some claim as much as 90m – and certainly below sea level. It is located not too far offshore from the village of Seoca on the south shore. Around such places the canny fishermen know their catch will be plentiful. The dominant species found close to the underwater springs is bleak.

Rijeka Crnojevica Skadar lake national park Montenegro by Lenar Musin, ShutterstockView of Rijeka Crnojevica in Skadar Lake National Park © Lenar Musin, Shutterstock

Little islets are sprinkled near Skadar’s western shores, many supporting diminutive solitary monasteries. Not far from Radus is Grmožur, the onomatopoeic defence built in 1843 by the Turks on a stony island in the bay of Godinje and later converted to an Alcatraz by King Nikola I. History has it that no-one who was able to swim could be banished here and that included custodians. If someone did succeed in escaping, his gaoler was then condemned to serve out the balance of his sentence in his place. Two made it, we are told, cheekily using the great prison door as a raft.

At the lake’s northwestern extremity is the nostalgic village of Rijeka Crnojevića, once the glamorous summer refuge of the court of King Nikola. What a difference a century makes …

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