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A Lake of Two Cities: Skadar and Shkodër

Zulekha is an Indian native. She's an extreme traveler, writer and has been to over 80 countries. She has lived in Oman, India and Dubai.

Lake Skadar - Montenegro

Lake Skadar - Montenegro

Kayaking State of Mind.

“Are you sure we’ll make it to the island?”, Sarah screamed as she rowed rigourously.

We had been kayaking non-stop for more than three hours, making our way across the gigantic Lake Skadar, Southern Europe’s largest lake and a pristine national park.

My friend, Sarah, had never once kayaked in her life before this day! She rowed slowly and arduously at first, as I watched her from the stern of the double-seated kayak. But we were now three hours in and our shafts had synchronized. The ripples in the water had become bigger, but we were still enjoying the rhythmic movement of our oars. Occasionally, we splashed some refreshingly cool water over the deck of the kayaks and onto our feet. Passersby on motorboats waved at us and give us a “thumbs up” for making it this far. We were heading to the first of three islands. Although we felt the tension build in our arms and backs, the sun on our backs, the gentle breeze and the chill in the air were comforting.

Water lilies on Lake Skadar

Water lilies on Lake Skadar

Shkodër in Albania. Skadar in Montenegro.

Virpazar, a sleepy Montenegrin town is the starting point of kayak and boat trips on the lake. The lake spans over 200 square miles, straddling between the border of Montenegro and Albania.

On the other side of this massive lake is a small Albanian town called Shkodër, which is an unknown world of history, charm and buzzing nightlife. We had stayed at a wonderful Airbnb home right off the main street at the start of this Albania-Montenegro road trip. On our first night in Shkodër, we had dined with locals and spent the night away on a rooftop bar surrounded by church bell towers and masjid minarets from the 18th century. Albania is a wondrous city of contrasts and conquests, despite its ill-repute as a den of mafia, gangsters and criminals since the early ‘90s. But things have changed and we were pleasantly surprised. I will separately post about my 24-hour experience in Albania, should you want to consider this country as your next off-beat travel destination, little known for its pristine beaches, great hospitality and delectable cuisine.

Town of Shkodër - Albania

Town of Shkodër - Albania

Lead Mosque - Shkodër, Albania

Lead Mosque - Shkodër, Albania

Via-Ferrata in Kotor, Montenegro.

From Albania, we had made our way to Montenegro and spent 3 days in the fortified city of Kotor. I had embarked on a via-Ferrata adventure up a 200m cliff in Kotor with my 60-year-old guide Budi from Montagna Travel, who is also on the national rescue team for mountain climbers.

A via-Ferrata is a military invention of the First World War. Soldiers used this network of iron cables to carry weapons, munitions and supplies across the Italian Dolomites. In recent years, these iron roads have been installed across many mountain ranges in the world for an adventurous day out.

Budi and I had started out at 7 am to go up the cliff in Kotor in time for a remarkable morning view of Kotor Bay and its charming medieval town. Till about two months ago, I would’ve struggled with this kind of Grade B-C level climb. A knee injury had slowed me down over the past two years. Even though I managed some treks, it wasn’t as easy or as fun. A proper diagnosis and a few physiotherapy sessions later, here I was, pushing my limits a little more, testing my knee strength and more importantly, tackling my fear of heights. Still not sure what worked in the end…better fitness levels or just the fact that I wanted to keep pace with Budi and his A level mountain goat skills! Either way, we made it to the top and I’m ever so grateful for it.

Via Ferrata – Kotor, Montenegro

Via Ferrata – Kotor, Montenegro

Now in Virpazar.

Later that day after the via-Ferrata, Sarah and I drove down for an hour from Kotor to make it to Virpazar in time for this kayaking adventure.

Budi had referred his friend – a mum and daughter duo – who operate kayaking trips on the lake. Milica Dabanovic of Boat Milica pulled out her map and showed us possible stops as we kayaked. We skipped the first stop, a stretch of beach, that she had circled on the map. We needed to traverse the wilderness of the lake, go around the bend to make it to the other side of the first island. The lake has a huge diversity of rare and endangered flora species including a type of water chestnut, the Dalmatian crocus and numerous protected orchids, not all of which can be seen in a day unless you hire a motorboat.

Sarah and I were determined to make it to at least one of these gorgeous sites. Our upcoming stop was known for the most stunning views of white and yellow water lilies popping out of the marshes. We were pressed for time. We were told that the lake “shuts” to kayaks and boats right before sunset. And we needed to be back by 7 pm. It was nearly 5 o’clock.

We rowed at a hurried pace. We sang out loud. We squabbled over what could be the best way to get to the island and back to Virpazar by sunset. So, when my dear friend asked me if I was sure we’d make it to the island and back in time, I was not sure. But I said yes anyway.

That View!

Within minutes, the marshes unfolded in front of us. It was the most stunning display of wild water lilies I had ever seen. The sky was turning golden and the serenity of the waters on this side of the lake caught us off guard. After a hectic ride up to this point, the sound of silence was calming. We let the kayak glide on its own for a few minutes. Soaking it all in. Giggling in excitement and with a sense of victory. Wondering how we nearly missed this little piece of untouched, unknown heaven had we not pushed through.

Pain and Pleasure.

On our way back, the sun started to disappear behind the hills. We rowed vigourously for the next 2 hours, making it back to the shore just in time before dark.

That night, Sarah couldn’t sleep because of how badly her shoulders and arms hurt. We laughed about it the following morning, knowing too well that we’d recover from the pain, but not from the exhilarating experience we had had.

What was meant to be a chilled evening spent kayaking on a lake, had become a whirlwind of effort, emotions and jubilation. Not to mention, a lasting memory of a stunning lake of two cities in Montenegro and Albania that does not usually feature on the must-visit lists for most global travelers, when. it. absolutely. should.

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