I have always been fascinated by Skadar Lake as it is one of the areas in Montenegro that is (still) for a great part untouched by mass tourism. The natural beauties are overwhelming and the fact that so many ruined stone houses, old fishing villages, fortresses and monasteries can be found all over the region also confirms its historical and cultural significance.
Skadar Lake and its surroundings have been the center of the Montenegrin state for a long time. Before the Ottomans occupied the region, it belonged to the Kingdom of Zeta. In the past, there were about twenty medieval monasteries and churches on the shores and islands of the Lake.
Nowadays there are around ten Orthodox monasteries to be visited: some of them in ruins, other ones reconstructed or under reconstruction. Their positions on tiny islands, steep hill slopes or in the middle of marshland make them rather inaccessible: most of them can only be reached by boat. During the last few years, we have visited 5 of them, always touched by their simple beauty, magnificent position and turbulent history.
Opposite to the village of Murići, on the western shore of the Lake, is the monastery of Beška, located on a small island. The beautiful environment of the monastery that is run by 13 nuns shows their great efforts; they do not only cultivate vegetables and fruit, but also medicinal herbs, like marigold, sage and lavender.
There are two churches on the island (photo 1). The bigger one, the Church of St. George, was built at the end of the 14th century by Đurađ II Balšić, Lord of Zeta. Totally dilapidated, it was renovated in 2002. Unfortunately, the old frescoes had been totally destroyed and washed away; they were replaced by new wall paintings. The smaller Church of the Holy Mother was built in 1440 as a legacy of his widow, Jelena Balšić, who is buried in this monastery.
The island of Starčevo is not far from Beška. We have tried several times to visit Starčevo monastery, but we never succeeded in passing the iron gate that is placed at the foot of the rocky stairs. As the monastery is surrounded by a high stone wall, I could only admire the natural beauty of this island, overgrown with pomegranates, figs and other Mediterranean vegetation. The reason why? There is only one monk, Father Gligorije, living on this island and it often happens that he is not “at home”.
What a pity! By the way, do you know why this monastery is called Starčevo? It is said that the founder was an old man (old man = starac in the local language), Father Makarije, who lived as a hermit on the island and built a church, devoted to the Assumption of the Mother of God, in 1377.
High above the Morača delta, on the eastern side of Vranjina Island, is the monastery of Vranjina 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.
Vranjina monastery is one of the most popular goals for boat tours on Skadar Lake. It is inhabited by one monk only. The walk uphill (10 minutes) to the monastery complex offers spectacular views of the Lake and the Morača Delta lined by huge green willows. The church itself is a simple building, without any frescoes, but the Russian iconostas is really beautiful.
According to legend, the monastery was founded by St. Sava or Ilarion, the first bishop of the Zeta state who is also buried in the monastery. It is said that King Nikola of Montenegro had the intention to send his two daughters, Ksenija and Vjera, to this monastery for the rest of their life, as they were not married.
The boat tour to Kosmač monastery takes several hours and that’s why it can be considered one of the hidden treasures of Skadar Lake. It is situated on Kosmač Island and dedicated to St. George the Martyr. The only inhabitant of this monastery is Father Serafim. The monastery complex and the church were recently reconstructed. Originally, the monastery dates back to the 14th century. It was destroyed several times by the Turks. The frescoes were painted by a Serbian painter in 2010, but due to flooding they lost their bright colors, so that they seem to be much older.
Wild laurel trees grow abundantly around the monastery. It is interesting to know that wedding garlands for royal weddings in medieval times were made of laurel. After the reconstruction of the monastery, the old folk customs were restored and couples get married again in Kosmač Monastery, with wreaths of laurel picked on St. George Day. Also baptisms are carried out in the water of the Lake in front of the church.
Kom Monastery was built between 1415 and 1427 on the crest of Ondrijska Gora. A stone bell tower takes the central place of the monastery complex, but the most beautiful part is the medieval church, dedicated to the Dormition of the Mother of God and containing the graves of four members of the Crnojević Dynasty.
Guests are cordially welcomed by the only monk who lives here. They can get a refreshment on the panorama terrace with spectacular views over the Lake.
When we visited the monastery a few years ago, the church had not been „restored“ with new materials and the impressive frescoes from the 15th and 16th century had not been repainted (yet). Maybe that is the reason why I liked this little church most of all…
During the dark days before Christmas it might be a good idea to start planning your 2019 holidays in Montenegro. If you would like to visit these monasteries, book a boat excursion with Boat Milica (website: lakeskadar.me) with departure from Virpazar. That was also the way how we discovered these beautiful sacral buildings, dating back to the Middle Ages. Warmly recommended!