SKADAR LAKE: VRANJINA MONASTERY AND PELICAN SPOTTING

Skadar Lake1 Moraca deltaSkadar Lake2 Boat MilicaSkadar Lake has become one of my favorite places in Montenegro. Although I have been living in Podgorica for so many years, I have never known that this area is so beautiful, both from the natural and cultural point of view. A few years ago I started to discover the Lake – and now I am getting more and more curious to see everything it has to offer!

So this week we invited our friends from the Netherlands for another wonderful boat cruise with Skadar Lake Boat Milica: apart from visiting the Vranjina Monastery, we spent several hours in the Morača Delta (photo 1), watching pelicans and other birds in the ornithological reserve “Manastirska Tapija”.

Skadar Lake3 Vrainjina MonasteryLeaving from Virpazar, we approached the Vranjina Monastery that is located on the south-eastern side of the Vranjina Island, high above the Morača Delta. The position of the St. Nicolas’ church on the top of the hill is magnificent. The monastery was founded in 1233 and is thus the oldest monastery on Skadar Lake. Due to its strategic location, it suffered from Turkish attacks and in 1843 it was turned into a Turkish fortress with barracks. King Nikola rebuilt it in 1886, but after World War II it was burned and abandoned – until 1998, when the restoration of the church began.

Skadar Lake4 Vrainjina monastery2Skipper Andrija left us at the pier (photo 2) and Jelena accompanied us to the monastery that is inhabited by one monk only. The walk uphill offered us spectacular views of the Lake and the Morača Delta lined by huge green willows. After ten minutes we arrived at the church (photo 3) where Father Petar welcomed us. He is a famous beekeeper whose honey is well-known for its medicinal properties. We could enter the church – a simple building, without any frescoes – and admire the Russian iconostas (photo 4). The other old monastery buildings were in ruins, but are obviously being reconstructed.

Skadar Lake4 reedAfter this visit, it was time for pelican spotting. With the traditional wooden boat, we quietly found our way through the reed and water lilies of Manastirska Tapija (photo 5), a place where Dalmatian pelicans can often be found. And indeed – we soon spotted the first one (photo 6), sitting on a dead branch in company of a pygmy cormorant. What a magnificent and elegant bird! For more than an hour, we slowly moved through the reed in search of other pelicans; we saw at least four of them.

Skadar Lake5 pelicanA whitebeard top bird (Chlidonias hybrida) was hiding in the reed, preparing a nest (photo 7). Further away, Great Crested Rebes (Podiceps Cristatus) performed their wedding dance. A big pelican, cruising the Lake with its two meters wide wings, landed on the water surface like an aeroplane (photo 8). We also spotted white and yellow herons and we saw large swarms of terns coming out of the willow woods. It was a great experience to see all these beautiful birds in their natural habitat. Skadar Lake is a bird paradise indeed!

Skadar Lake6 birdOn our way back, we met several poachers in their fishing boats. They turned their back on us and hurried in the opposite direction… What a shame! Does the National Park take any serious action to tackle fish poaching? How can it be prevented, how can fish resources and wildlife in and around Skadar Lake be protected?

The last interesting target of our boat ride was the island of Grmožur, also called “Montenegrin Alcatraz” (photo 9). It was built by the Turks as a fortress, but during the reign of King Nikola it became a prison for political opponents, people who did not know how to swim, so that they could not escape from the island. What a pity that it was left to the ravages of time!

Skadar Lake7 pelicanI had not been here for 5-6 years and I was shocked when I saw that the stone buildings were completely dilapidated, not only by weather influences and flooding, but also because stones are taken away by some unscrupulous local inhabitants. As this old prison is getting more and more interesting as a tourist attraction, I would suggest to the National Park to take appropriate protection measures!

At the end of this wonderful boat ride, we took a souvenir from the lake – a water nut or kasaronja, as the locals call it (Trapa Longicarpa). This fruit was once used for making bread and it tastes like a chestnut, but we will not eat it: on the contrary, it will remind us of an unforgettable boat cruise with Skadar Lake Boat Milica.

Skadar Lake8 Grmožur

 

SKADAR LAKE: A BOAT CRUISE TO THE KOM MONASTERY

Skadar Lake1 Kom monasterySkadar Lake2 LesendroSkadar Lake does not only offer magnificent natural beauties and opportunities for outdoor tourism; it also hides around fifteen medieval monasteries, most of them located at inaccessible places. One of them is the Kom Monastery, built in the beginning of the 14th century on the crest of Odrin Hill (photo 1). Most of the time it can be visited by boat only and there is only one inhabitant: a Serbian-Orthodox monk.

Skadar Lake3 birdsLast weekend we made a wonderful boat cruise with our friends from Skadar Lake – Boat Milica (email: skadarlakeboatmilica@gmail.com; phone: 068 702 376) to this monastery. It was a perfect day and we looked forward to the excursion that would last around four hours.

Leaving from Virpazar, we passed under the Vranjina bridge and it was interesting to see the ruins of the old Lesendro fortress from the water side (photo 2). Lesendro was built by Prince-Bishop Petar II Petrović Njegoš to protect Montenegro from invading Turkish armies. But in vain, in 1843 Lesendro was conquered by the Turkish Oman Pasha.

Skadar Lake reed3aOur hosts Andrija and Jelena showed us the surroundings: the island of Vranjina; far away the Prokletija mountains, still covered with snow; then the old fortress of Žabljak Crnojevića and several islands, populated by sheep and goats only. Can you imagine that the goats are transported to the island by traditional fishing boats?

We saw many birds (photo 3) on our way to the monastery: grey and white herons, cormorants and sea gulls, and even a big eagle circling high above us. The landscape was typical for this part of Skadar Lake, clear water surfaces with scattered reed beds (photo 4), but we were told that the water level is much lower during the summer months.

Skadar Lake4 Kom monasteryAfter a wonderful ride in the comfortable wooden boat, we reached the Kom Monastery. A family just returned – by boat – from a baptizing ceremony, accompanied by the pope, and we were cordially welcomed by the only monk who lives here. There were chickens around and I saw a lot of bee hives, one of them even in the form of a church. A stone bell tower took the central place of the monastery complex.

But the most beautiful part was the medieval church, dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God. We entered the small church, where the monk said a prayer for us. He showed us the graves of four members of the Crnojević family, among others, of Stefan Crnojević and his wife Mara Kastrioti, the sister of Skenderbeg. The fresco paintings from the 16th century were impressive, too (photo 5).

Skadar Lake5We got a refreshment on the panorama terrace – the view on the surroundings was spectacular (photo 6). I can imagine that this is a fantastic place to live in (when you don’t mind to be alone).

After the break, we continued our trip through the Karatuna River that leads to Dodoši and further on to Žabljak Crnojevića. In the old times, this was the natural border between Montenegro and Turkey. What a beautiful and clean river! We met fishermen in their traditional „čun“ (photo 7), the river banks were covered with yellow spurge and many birds were hiding among the willows.

Skadar Lake6 KarutanaFinally we were rewarded with a picturesque view of Dodoši, a traditional fishing village(photo 8). During the summer, this is a place where you can hire kayaks, swim in the transparent river or just relax in one of the pubs and restaurants.

But it was time to return to Virpazar, where the boat trip ended. I was really impressed by this beautiful route through the less known northern part of Skadar Lake and I will certainly recommend this particular boat cruise to all guests we are expecting this summer!

Skadar Lake7 Dodoši

A GARBAGE ISLAND ON THE ZETA RIVER

Zeta garbage island1Zeta garbage island2After the heavy rainfall and the high water levels in January, it was no surprise to find a lot of garbage on the banks of the Zeta River these days. We know that we have to clean up our property in Rogami each year and make it ready for the warmer season, when we can sit under the trees and admire the emerald green river flowing slowly to the place where it confluences into the Morača River. The river bank… that is the place where we relax and enjoy listening to the birds and observing the frogs, and sometimes we even see water snakes and fish swimming under the water surface.

Zeta garbage island3But this winter it became clear that the Zeta River is getting more and more polluted. A big trunk was stuck under an overhanging tree and a large garbage island had been formed in the river (photo 1). What could we do? Wait until August, the month when the water level is low and a possible cleaning action would be organized? Just stay away from the dirty river in the most beautiful season? No, we had to find a solution…

Our friend Mladen, who has spent his whole life on the Zeta River, offered to help us. He made a kind of improvised “bridge” and his first step was to cut the overhanging tree (photo 2). But when he tried to start the “cleaning action”, a terrible smell stunned him. And you know where it came from? A dead sheep was stuck in the garbage and made it impossible to continue …

Zeta garbage island4Fortunately, after a few rainy days the smell – and the sheep – disappeared. So we waited for a bright windy day and began to work. Mladen put the “bridge” between the shore and the cut tree trunk and, armed with a long metal hook, he started to clean up the mess (photo 3). It is really unbelievable that people throw so much litter into the river: plastic bags full of garbage, plastic and glass bottles, old shoes, textile, empty spray bottles, cans (photo 4)… and let’s not forget – a dead cat!

Zeta garbage island5Mladen was jumping between the floating trunks and only he knows how he succeeded in keeping his balance (photo 5 and 6). Paul succeeded in dragging a lot of litter out of the water, while branches and trunks were pushed by Mladen towards the middle of the river, from where they floated downstream (photo 7). It was a hell of a job! But most garbage was removed, the “island” disappeared and I am sure that we will be able to enjoy our favorite place on the river bank this spring (photo 8)!

Zeta garbage island5aBut … in this way, we have only resolved our own problem. I know that the Zeta River is one of the most polluted rivers in Montenegro. The people who live along the river often use it as waste disposal. Other sources of pollution are sewage, industry, chicken and pig farms. NGO Green Home and NGO Green River Zeta organize annual cleaning actions in August, supported by the Municipality of Danilovgrad. But is this enough? Of course, education of the population is extremely important. I believe that also fines, collected by a kind of ecological police, would be effective.

Zeta garbage island6About twentyfive or thirty years ago, my children enjoyed swimming and playing in the clean Zeta River. Since then, many things have changed…

By the way, Article 19 of the Montenegrin Constitution says: “Everyone shall have the right to a healthy environment”. But who is responsible for the implementation of this article?

Zeta7

 

ISTANBUL: THE GALATA BRIDGE

Istanbul1 Galata BridgeIstanbul2A city trip to Istanbul is a special experience. And now I am not only talking about the famous cultural and historical monuments that each tourist should visit: Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the magnificent Topkapi Museum. Of course, it was great to see the splendor and wealth of the Ottoman Empire. But the most important goal of our trip was to experience every-day life, to meet ordinary people, to see where the locals hang out.

From our cozy hotel in the Sultanahmet district, we started to explore the surroundings. And our first impression was: What a fascinating city! Everything seemed to be contradictory: the chaotic urban traffic vs. the perfectly organized Atatürk Airport; young girls with covered faces dressed in black chadors vs. modern European-like women; magnificent palaces and mosques vs. old and shabby residential buildings; small shops in Grand Bazaar vs. fashionable boutiques in Istiklal street …

Istanbul3 Galata BridgeWe walked through the crowded streets, found little food shops selling Turkish pastries and spices, observed locals going about their normal routine. We listened to the calls to prayer coming from every mosque, five times a day. We admired the marvelous historical buildings, bought some souvenirs in the Grand Bazaar and took the commuter ferry to Kadikoy in Turkish Asia. But there was one place we liked most: the Galata Bridge (photo 1).

Galata Bridge appeared to be the place where the locals spend their time. This I where they eat their fish sandwich, smoke nargile pipes and play tavla. This is where they catch the ferry boats and spend a day out with their families. It is a bustling place full of traffic and people going about their business. No one will notice you; you can simply blend in and observe daily Turkish life.

Istanbul4 Under the Galata BridgeFor us, hanging out around the bridge – we did it each afternoon – was a great opportunity to experience life in Istanbul. Shop owners were drinking their traditional tea from tulip-shaped glasses, laughing and joking. Women in black, covered from head to toe, were hurrying to the other side of the Golden Horn (photo 2), in the direction of the Galata Tower, Istiklal Street and Taksim Square. Young people sat on the stairs in front of the New Mosque, listening to a guitar band playing Turkish music…

Istanbul5 Galata bridge fish sandwichOf course, we have passed the bridge several times. It was always full of fishing men, lined up against the railings and angling for a lucky catch. They were quite friendly and, obviously, they are used to tourists. From time to time, they threw some fish in the air and birds swooped to catch it before it hit the ground. As a matter of fact, they didn’t catch a lot of fish – most of it seemed to be mackerel. But they sold it immediately to passers-by and for many of them this was obviously a way to earn some additional money.

Along the lower part of the bridge we found many restaurants and pubs. In one of them, we enjoyed Turkish coffee and apple tea, smoked a nargile pipe and spent an hour or so, totally relaxed, on a terrace in the sun (photo 3).

Istanbul6 Galata Bridge picklesBut there was another attraction, located near the bridge. Eminönü fish sandwich boats are famous throughout the country (photo 4) – nowadays, only three boats are licensed to sell fish sandwiches. They have got a life-long concession, for which they have paid the total amount of around € 240,000! Fish sandwich is the only piece on the menu: it is stuffed with a fish, green salad and onion and dressed with lemon juice. In front of all three boats here are low stools and tiny tables. We saw many people here, coming from their work or from one of the ferries (photo 5). They were drinking water or lemonade (alcoholic drinks are not served at all) and accompanied their fish sandwich with pickles. Plastic glasses filled with pickle juice and pickles were sold separately just in front of the boats (photo 6). And those who didn’t like fish bought some corn or chestnuts from the street vendors!

Altogether, Istanbul was an unforgettable experience. And we would certainly like to go back to this fascinating city, where East meets West, and Asia greets Europe!

Istanbul7
 

 

THE HIDDEN SECRET OF GRADINA MARTINIĆI

Gradina Martinici1Gradina Martinici2When you travel from Podgorica to Danilovgrad, either by the new highway or the old road, you can’t miss the internationally recognized “tourist signposts” showing you where to go when you want to visit the archeological site of Gradina Martinići. And when you read relevant information on the website of the Municipality of Danilovgrad or the National Tourism Organization, you will learn that this is one of the most significant ancient sites in Montenegro and one of the most precious segments of local history.

Unfortunately, when you follow the signposts, you will finally arrive – nowhere. After another local signpost (Градинa), the road comes to an end and you will see three gravel roads leading to a large hill with a flat top and obviously ending in private property. I am sure that many tourists, who wanted to visit this site, have desisted from further adventures and returned to the main road, continuing their trip to other more famous tourist attractions.

Gradina Martinici3But of course, we did not give up! The car was left at the crossroads and we decided to take the road in the middle that led to a beautiful stone house. And we were lucky! The owner of the property, Ilija Janjević, was willing to show us the remnants of Gradina Martinići, the early medieval settlement of Lontodokla. Passing under a few high and threatening vertical rocks, we climbed a narrow path through the forest and then farther through dense shrubbery and fields of wild anemones. Soon we reached the top of the plateau. Everything was overgrown with grass and bushes, but the remnants of the early-Christian basilica could clearly be recognized (photo 1).

Gradina Martinici4A fragment of an old pillar decorated with spirals and other ornaments was just lying there in the grass (photo 2). We started roaming through the bushes, getting aware of the enormous size of this ancient city that was built by the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th century. The walls – now only ruins – were, once, more than one meter thick and 6-7 meters high. The remnants of one of the three gates still showed the decorated threshold and upper part of the gate frame (photo 3). Exploring the plateau, we also discovered remnants of an old guard post (photo 4). The view of the surrounding mountains was spectacular.

Ilija spared no efforts to show us everything and finally invited us to his home (photo 5). We sat down on the big terrace with a beautiful view of the Piperi mountains, enjoying a glass of home-made quince juice. As always, typical Montenegrin hospitality!

Gradina Martinici6There was a lot to tell about Gradina. Ilija showed us a book written by archeologist Vojislav Korač (2001) that contained many pictures of archeological objects found at the site. I found it very interesting to hear that archeological research was done here by a Belgrade institute in the eighties of the last century, when Montenegro still belonged to Yugoslavia. Ilija had also participated in this research and showed us interesting pictures.

There seem to be different opinions about the history, role and function of Gradina Martinići. Probably, it has been one of the three big cities in Doclea, called Lontodokla, which was destroyed in the 10th century. But the rest remains a mystery. Who were the inhabitants? When was it established? And why was it destroyed?

Gradina Martinici5In the eighties of the last century, many archeological objects were taken to the Museum of Danilovgrad, such as a beautiful closure slab of the basilica (photo 6). Other fragments just disappeared and in some cases the stones of the centuries-old walls were used for building houses and walls in the surrounding villages.

But Gradina Martinići still exists, lonely and forgotten, almost invisible (photo 7). Nobody seems to be interested to clear up some of its mysteries and to create a more complete picture about this ancient site. Will it have the same destiny as some other “witnesses of the past” that can be found in the Bjelopavlići plain? Hopefully not!

Gradina Martinici7

ALONG THE ZETA RIVER: TURKISH BRIDGES AND A BRONZE AGE TOMBSTONE

1 Bronze Age tomb Frutak Kujava1 Zeta DanilovgradThere is not much traffic on the old road from Danilovgrad to Nikšić, along the Zeta River. It is mostly used by local inhabitants of the villages in the fertile Bjelopavlići valley. And of course, by a few curious tourists, who want to explore this beautiful region with Turkish bridges and small water power plants on the emerald green river.

Recently, a very important discovery was made in this area: a tombstone from the early Bronze Age was found on the border between the villages of Kujava and Frutak (photo 1). And this was a good reason for us to hit the road in search of this archeological excavation.

2 Bulin mostIt was a beautiful sunny day and many people were working on the land. The river was meandering through the plain (photo 2) and soon we passed the power plant of Slap Zete and stopped to take a look at a small stone bridge on the left side of the road (photo 3). Local inhabitants told us that it is called Bulin most (Bula’s bridge – a bula is a Muslim woman) and that it is part of an old Turkish cobblestone footpath that still exists. With two different arches, a big one and a smaller one, the bridge is quite atypical! According to a legend, it was built by the wife of Adžija, architect of the Adžijin bridge that is located 2 kilometers farther.

3 Adzin mostIn a region without proper signposts, as there are many in the continental part of Montenegro, the only way to know where you can find interesting places is talking to the local people. They are eager to tell you as much as possible about their homeland and its history. And so we got detailed instructions how to find the archeological excavation we were looking for.

But at first we had the opportunity to admire another Turkish bridge, Adžijin most (Adžija’s bridge), an architectural masterpiece (photo 4) of elegance. According to the legend, nothing can separate a couple that has kissed under this bridge!

4 Most Dobro PoljeWe had been told to pass the reconstructed suspension bridge in Dobro Polje, behind the old water mill on the left side. At first we hesitated – was this really a bridge for motorized traffic? There were no traffic signs and our small Peugeot could hardly get through the narrow concrete entrance. Indeed, the bridge looked very strong, with new wooden planks. Its length was almost 70 meters, high above the river… But when we saw other small cars passing the bridge, we decided to go (photo 5).

The road led us through a rural area with nice orchards, gardens and fields – and everybody was busy with preparations for the spring. Horses and mules were waiting for the next burden to carry (photo 6) and when we approached the foot of the mountains (with high above us the highway to Nikšić), the landscape changed and turned into forests. We asked a passer-by for the tombstone and got the answer: “Just continue, you can’t miss it!”And finally, a few kilometers after passing the church of Zagorak, we saw a tombstone in the middle of a white circle – a grave from the early Bronze Age that was discovered only three months ago (photo 7) .

5 BjelopavliciThe tomb that contained several skeletons was excavated by the Montenegrin archeologist Predrag Lutovac and his group. It is probably almost 4000 years old (1850-1800 BC). Closed with several big stone blocks from all sides, it was also protected by a circle of flat white stones. This circle around the tomb had a dual function: practical, to prevent erosion, and magical, to prevent the souls of the deceased from disturbing the living people. The skeletons were found in foetus position (photo 8), which is one of the characteristics of the Bronze Age. Other subjects like a bronze needle, a bracelet, ceramics and a bronze buckle were discovered, too. And what is even more interesting – several other tombstones are situated in the surroundings and are now waiting to be investigated! This is an extraordinary archeological treasure indeed (photo 8)!

Photo: Predrag Lutovac

Photo: Predrag Lutovac

Although it was possible to join the highway back to Podgorica (you can also visit the tomb from the highway when you follow the signpost to Zagorak), we took the same road back and passed the suspension bridge once more. Soon we arrived at the hydro-electric power plant Glava Zete, situated among green cypresses. In the old days, this was a popular place for family excursions, with a good restaurant. But we preferred to continue our trip to Bogetići, where we had – as always – an excellent rural hotpot in the traditional “Konoba” restaurant.

Back in Podgorica I looked back on a great day. Why? Well, I must admit that I am still excited when I discover something new in Montenegro, although I have been living here for such a long time! And discovering a 4000 years old archeological excavation is not exactly something you experience each day!

8 tomb Bronze Age Frutak Kujava

 

 

THE FORGOTTEN FORTRESS OF SPUŽ

Spuz1Spuz2Many times when I passed by the little town of Spuž, I have promised myself that I would, once, climb the Spuška Glavica crest and explore the old fortress on the top (photo 1). I know, Spuž is not exactly a place where you might expect important tourist attractions, but the position of the fortification and its turbulent history certainly make it quite interesting.

Spuž is situated on the Zeta river, at a 10 minutes drive from Podgorica, on the old road to Danilovgrad. It was mentioned for the first time in 1379, when King Tvrtko stayed “under Spuž in Zeta”.

Spuz3Although Spuž is dominated by the remnants of the Turkish fortress (photo 2) that was built on a conical hill (“glavica”) rising from the middle of the green Bjelopavlići valley, it was not so easy to find an access path uphill. There were no signposts and so we had to ask local people, who were – by the way – astonished that somebody wanted to climb the hill and see the ruins.

The first possibility was a kind of donkey trail that started from the parking lot behind the railway station. But this path appeared to be very steep and we were sure that there should be another way, as it seemed to be easier to approach the hill from the other side. So we followed the road in the direction of Martinići (turn left after passing the bridge). Local inhabitants had built fences and private gardens at the foot of the hill, but trespassing was allowed. If you want to see the fort, just ask somebody, people are very friendly and they will certainly show you the path!

Spuz4The trail was easy and it took us around 20 minutes to arrive at the top of the hill. Together with Scott from Montenegro Eco Adventures, we followed the narrow path that led us around an old water reservoir further uphill (photo 3). We were surrounded by karst rocks, big yellow spurge (Euphorbia) and other purple flowers. A beauty for the eye!

When we approached the walls, we had to take a sharp turn left and the path became rather narrow, but this was the only way to enter the main gate (photo 4). It was clear that this fortification once represented an architectural masterpiece, as it was perfectly adapted to the configuration of the steep and rocky hill. And thus the oval main gate (photo 5) was located on the southwestern side, which made it very difficult for the enemy to attack. The fortress could easily be defended, as “visitors” found themselves in an extremely vulnerable position: if they wanted to enter the fort, they had to pass the narrow path around the main tower.

Spuz5We admired the remnants of the old stone walls and even discovered stairs to some underground rooms. The first corridor was still intact (photo 6) and even disposed of natural light – there was an opening from above.

From the fortress – at an altitude of around 100 meters – we had amazing views of Spuž (photo 7), the valley and the surrounding hills. It is not surprising that the Ottomans built such an important stronghold here! It enabled them to control the fertile and strategically significant Bjelopavlići plain and the road between Podgorica and Nikšić.

Spuz6So let me tell you something more about the history of this interesting place: Spuž was conquered by the Turks in the second half of the 15th century. They started to fortify it at the end of the 17th century and the fortress was finished by Hodaverdi Pasha in 1704. At that time the fort had 24 towers, some of which can still be seen today (photo 8). Soon Spuž became an infamous Turkish stronghold, from which numerous punitive expeditions to Montenegro have been undertaken during the next 150 years. The fortress has been a symbol of Turkish power for a long time, but everything broke down in 1878, when the Montenegrins conquered Spuž and the Ottomans disappeared.

Spuz7And then… what has happened since then? I don’t know, but it is clear that this once so powerful fortification has been left to the ravages of time. What a pity! Maybe it is too late for restoration, but it might be possible to put some signposts and to mark the path, to clean the environment and to put some information boards for tourists and visitors. Who would be responsible for such an initiative? Maybe the Municipality of Danilovgrad or the Ministry of Tourism could take into consideration this possibility, as it would also be an economic chance for the population of Spuž!

Spuž8

PODGORICA: MEMORIES OF HOTEL CRNA GORA

hilton hotel3hotel crna gora2Hotel Crna Gora has finally disappeared. The reconstruction works are in progress (photo 1) and it is hardly possible to recognize the old hotel – designed by Vujadin Popović and built in 1953 – that was once a symbol of post-war development and modern architecture. The new five-star Hilton Hotel will soon open its doors for foreign tourists and businessmen – but, unfortunately, not for all the citizens of Podgorica, who liked to gather there and have a cheap “Turkish” coffee or a “rakija” on the beautiful terrace. In the luxurious lounge bar of the new Hilton Hotel, most of them will not feel themselves “at home” any more…

hotel crna gora terraceHotel Crna Gora, and especially its stone terrace facing the park, was the landmark of Titograd, later Podgorica (photo 2). It was located in the very center of the town, between two beautiful parks. No wonder that the bohemians of Podgorica immortalized the hotel in their paintings and poems. By the way, did you know that Tito, Queen Elisabeth and Sofia Loren have stayed her?

I remember the Crna Gora Hotel from 1963, when I visited Titograd as a young girl, together with my parents. As real globetrotters, we were traveling the unknown Balkans by car and we were astonished by the relaxed atmosphere, the friendly people and the sunny climate of Yugoslavia. One evening, we had dinner in the garden behind the hotel. Live music was playing and I remember that everybody stared at us. Not many foreigners visited Titograd at that time!

Hotel-Crna-Gora,-snimio,-N-(2)The second time I stayed in the hotel was a few years later. After my tourism study, I had found a job in Budva and during my trip I had to make a stop in Titograd, from where I took the bus to the coast next morning. As a young woman alone I was a subject of curiosity, when I had my coffee on the terrace that morning – 99% of the guests were men (photo 3)!

In the following years, I have been a frequent guest of the Crna Gora Hotel. I enjoyed the first sunny days in spring, sitting on the terrace with my family or friends and admiring the beautiful purple flowers covering the stone pillars (was it Wisteria?). But I also attended business meetings there, worked as interpreter at workshops, conferences, seminars. Or participated in business lunches with foreign partners of Industriaimport, the large company where I worked in the seventies and eighties of the last century (photo 4). And I remember that the traditional cuisine of the hotel was famous all over Yugoslavia!

hotel-crna-gora demolishedIt’s all gone now. I know that the moment, when the famous restaurant and terrace were demolished sixty years after their construction, was difficult for all inhabitants of Podgorica. And thus also for me. Although the building company had promised that the old building would be “renovated” only, and not demolished – it did not survive (photo 5).

I have traveled a lot and I must admit that other countries do not show the tendency to build Hilton, Hyatt or Holiday Inn hotels in city centers. Famous old hotels are not demolished, they are renovated in the real sense of the word, keeping their name, image, traditions and authenticity. Examples? Hotel Krasnapolsky in Amsterdam, Kurhaus in The Hague, Hotel Moskva in Belgrade … and many, many others in the whole world. I know, the new owner had promised – when he placed the first cornerstone for the new hotel in 2011 – that the Crna Gora Hotel would remain “recognizable” and that its spirit would be preserved, but nowadays it is not easy to recognize anything of the old cozy hotel, let alone its “spirit” and atmosphere! But I must admit that no efforts are spared to give the Hilton Hotel a kind of “Montenegrin image”. Just look how the workers are placing big stone slabs on the wall and pillars of the former restaurant (photo 6)!

hilton hotel4I am sure that the new Hilton Hotel will be fabulous (photo 7 – normalcompany.me). It will have around 200 rooms and 23 apartments, restaurant, bar, modern multifunctional meeting rooms, congress facilities, a wellness center with an indoor swimming-pool, VIP spa center, fitness center…

But will it ever have the same emotional value for the inhabitants of Podgorica as the former Hotel Crna Gora, a cult place for many ordinary and extraordinary people and one of the few real cultural-historical monuments of Podgorica? The new owners are doing the best they can – and it is up to us, citizens of Podgorica, to accept the new Hilton Hotel as a new landmark of the capital city of Montenegro!

Hilton_hotel_Podgorica2]

SKADAR LAKE: BETWEEN GODINJE AND RADUS

Godinje1Godinje3Skadar Lake has so much to offer, especially the western and southern shores with their hidden hamlets, islets and monasteries. One of the most interesting villages in this area is, no doubt, Godinje, situated on the fourth kilometer of the road from Virpazar to Ostros. This rural settlement, with 60 inhabitants only, is situated on the hillside and has an interesting chain-like system of fortified houses, connected by passageways and tunnels in between them (photo 1). The architecture is really unique, also due to the arched wine cellars and spacious terraces looking out over the Lake.

Godinje2As I knew that, many years ago, plans had been made to preserve and renovate this authentic village with the aim to make it attractive for tourists, I was very curious to see how it looks like today. And so we made a hiking tour around Godinje and further through Nikači, starting from the parking lot beside the road.

Climbing the narrow and steep road to the village center, the first structure we saw was a large threshing floor. The village itself looked like a kind of fortress. Of course, this was easy to understand. In the old times, the villagers had to defend themselves from attacks by the Ottomans and that is the reason why they built their houses in this way (photo 2).

Nikac Sv. Nikola churchAccording to the legend, the history of Godinje dates back to the 10th century. Prince Jovan Vladimir liked this area (the word “goditi” means give pleasure”) and that is why the village got this name.

The summer residence of the Balšića Dynasty from the14th century is the oldest and most representative complex in Godinje. It was impressive to see the remnants of the main gate with spiral stone decorations and the family emblem (photo 3). The wall looked as if it could break down any minute and we asked a passer-by why such a historical monument is not maintained or even restored. He shrugged his shoulders and did not seem to be interested in such trivial issues. I really think that it is a shame to leave such an important historical corner to the ravages of time! And this also applies to many other houses in the village, which are obviously uninhabited, so that they will become dilapidated very rapidly. What a pity that the authorities have not taken any measures so far to maintain this settlement in its authentic form! Or even more: to revitalize it!

Radus pathWe were invited by the friendly villager to drink a glass of wine. Although we knew that the village has a rich tradition in cultivating the famous Vranac wine, we did not accept, as we still had a long way to go. And so we continued our hike through the village, uphill, looking for signposts or red-white marks, which were difficult to find. Due to the recent rainfall, the stone path was slippery and wet. It was nice to see the traditional architecture, with its cellars, water springs and the ruins of old mills. Leaving the village, we had to pass a turbulent brook. There was no bridge, just a few stones… and as I am not exactly an athlete, I could not avoid wetting my feet…

Radus path2Never mind! Finally the path joined the asphalt road behind the Sveti Nikola church in the hamlet of Nikači (photo 4). This church, built in 1715, is the only active church of the village, out of four that existed in Godinje. We climbed the stairs behind the exterior of the altar and entered a small terrace on a natural rock, enclosed by a stone wall. From here, the view on Godinje and the Lake was magnificent. We had the strange feeling that the back part of the church was much higher than the front part – but I could not find any information about that. Was it a consequence of the 1979 earthquake that had damaged many buildings in the village? The road back to the parking lot led us through a rural area with beautiful vineyards. Obviously, many inhabitants of this area have built new houses in the valley, where they produce grapes and excellent wine, but also grape brandy.

RadusBy car we continued our tour along the coastline until the signposts for the fishermen’s villages of Radus and Pristan, where we turned left. It is interesting to know that the western shore is so steep and mountainous that several villages, bays and peninsulas cannot be reached by car. And so we stopped near the church where a road sign showed the direction of Radus – a narrow footpath behind the graveyard (photo 5). What a beautiful path, even now, without green vegetation!

The trail was well-maintained and cleared, as it is the only way to reach the village by land. It leads through forests uphill to the steep karst slopes of the Strbina mountain. This was an ideal place for a rest (photo 6). Sitting on the barren rocks, we admired the view and then descended down again to the bay of Radus, in front of which – deep in the Lake – the so-called “eye” of Radus is located (photo 7). Although the average depth of Skadar Lake is around 6 meters, this “eye” is the deepest place in the Lake: even 60 meters (and maybe even deeper)! That means that this area is very rich with fish and, of course, birds. That is also the reason why an observation tower is located near the village. However, access to Radus by boat from the water is much easier and the picturesque hamlet (photo 8) is a favourite resting spot of boat excursions, there is even a small restaurant with a nice terrace during the season!

I am always eager to find something new in Montenegro – the walk to Radus is one of these things. It would be a good idea to promote this easy hike (first of all off-season, as I suppose that it is very hot during the summer months)!

Radus2

EXPLORING THE WESTERN SHORE OF SKADAR LAKE

Skadar Lake western shore1Grmozur7Have you ever made a trip along the western shore of Skadar Lake? I believe that it is one of its most fascinating sections. Indeed, the road between Virpazar and Murići, which turns further inland to Ostros and then descends to Ulcinj, is narrow, winding and often steep. There is no public transport, so you will need your own car. But you will be awarded with spectacular panoramas, picturesque monasteries and churches, solitary islands and authentic little villages (photo 1).

Karanikici6The first warm and sunny day in March was an ideal opportunity for us to explore this magnificent and still unknown part of Montenegro. Leaving Virpazar, we kept left and climbed steadily along the shore. After a while, we passed the historic settlement of Godinje (this authentic village will be the topic of my next blog post!) and the road became narrower and steeper, offering us magnificent views of the Lake and its little islets.

Grmožur, the stony island in the bay of Godinje that was once infamous as a prison during King Nikola’s reign, looked like a fairy tale castle (photo 2). The story goes that no one who was able to swim could be locked up here. And if somebody did succeed in escaping, his custodian was condemned to serve out the prisoner’s sentence. It is told that only two prisoners made it, using a prison door as a raft.

Djuravci5Several villages on the western and southern shores of Skadar Lake have a strong Albanian character; their inhabitants are Muslim or catholic. In the village of Šestan we found a beautiful old bell tower (photo 3) and a simple catholic church, built instead of the old ruined one. Just follow the signpost to Karanikići, downhill on the left side of the road: it is a wonderful place!

The Starčevo monastery, founded in 1377, is located on the island of Starčevo, lying just off the shore opposite to the village of Djuravci. From the road we had a great view of a small church in the shade of beautiful cypresses, surrounded by an old stone wall (photo 3).

Donji Murici4But the goal of our day trip was Donji Murići. The view from the road, high above the village, was unique. We could see the pebbly beach, the numerous olive groves, the calm blue waters of the Lake and the high mountains on the Albanian side. And close to the shore we discovered the island of Beška with its beautiful 14th century monastery.

We descended the steep road to the shore, as we had the intention to make a hiking tour around the village. A nice 7 km trek was described in the Skadar Lake map, issued by the National Park, but apart from the signpost for the start of the trail near the visitor center (now closed), there were no other red-white marks (or maybe we could not find them).

Donji Murici2Never mind! We found our own way, walking along the beach (photo 4) in front of the tourist settlement “Izletište”. In the season (May-September), this settlement offers accommodation in the form of wooden bungalows, a small camping area and a large restaurant. The view from the lake-side terrace is magnificent!

We continued our hike uphill over stone footpaths through the well-maintained olive groves (photo 5) and then turned left through the center of the sleepy village that is dominated by a white mosque. A friendly old man came our way and greeted us cordially. His donkey was stumbling under the heavy load of a few big logs (photo 6).

Climbing further to the rocky area above the village, we found a perfect picnic place. Sitting in the sun on a big rock with our sandwich, listening to the bleating of sheep and with a spectacular view of the Lake, we felt, once more, the magic of Montenegro…

Donji Murici3