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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Discovering the rural charms of Montenegro

Mary Novakovich goes in search of the picturesque, rural side of the former Yugoslavian country.
Kayaking in Lake Skadar in Montenegro. The lake is the largest in the Balkans and is one of the country’s many attractions off the beaten track and far away from busy Adriatic resorts such as Budva and Herceg Novi. Adam Batterbee
Kayaking in Lake Skadar in Montenegro. The lake is the largest in the Balkans and is one of the country’s many attractions off the beaten track and far away from busy Adriatic resorts such as Budva and Herceg Novi. Adam Batterbee

“You vant to go on boat treep?” We’re walking through the Montenegrin village of Virpazar on the north-western side of Lake Skadar, intent on finding a place for lunch. The tall villager (and they’re mostly tall in this tiny country of giants) amiably shrugged when I tell him in Serbian that we aren’t interested in taking one of the little boats that chug through the largest lake in the Balkans. I’d done that the last time I was in Montenegro four years ago, and I’m here to try something ­different.

Above Virpazar, overlooking the Crmnica Valley and a corner of Lake Skadar, is Villa Miela, a large stone house of indeterminate age restored by the British couple Ben and Emma Heywood. It’s my base for the week, and it’s a world away from the busy Adriatic resorts of Budva and Herceg Novi, where Russians have been filling every space with glitzy hotels, casinos and nightclubs.

There’s no glitz at Villa Miela. Instead, there are exposed stone walls of the konoba, the cellar used in the old days to house livestock and store preserves. Now it has comfy sofas, a large dining table, a well-equipped kitchen and French doors leading to a sprawling stone terrace. And glorious views. Glitz can stay in Budva. I want to grill some cevapcici (meat rissoles) on the barbecue, listen to the birdsong and bask in those views.

There would be plenty of time for that, as it turns out. The Heywoods run Undiscovered Montenegro, activity holidays based around Lake Skadar, one of the country’s five national parks. Each day, depending on the weather, you can go hiking, kayaking, cycling, exploring the nearby towns, villages and beaches, meeting local food producers or just relax on the terrace or in the little plunge pool.

In the evenings, one of the Heywoods can take you to dinner at the homes of the people that they’ve got to know since they bought Villa Miela in 2008. As they’ve both learnt the language, they translate the lively conversations for those who don’t speak Montenegrin (or its nearly identical neighbour, Serbian). Or you can stroll into Virpazar in about 25 minutes (or use one of the bicycles kept at the villa) for a cheap meal at Konoba Badanj or Restoran Crmnica. A third – and my favourite – option is to go shopping at Virpazar’s little supermarket and fire up the barbecue.

As the spring weather is yet to settle when I’m there – and official weather forecasts offer little more than speculation – we have to wait and see which activity will be in store each day. Luckily, the first full day dawns with a bit of sun after a wet night. Emma guides us on our first walk from the villa towards the ancient village of Godinje, past one of the many natural springs that gush through pipes poking out of the mountainsides. (There’s a natural spring at the villa, too, which provides our drinking water.) As this spring was called Marija – my original name – I have to have a taste of the cold, clear water.

We climb through narrow, rocky, wooded tracks, occasionally spotting a legless lizard, those slithery creatures that look like snakes but aren’t. The recent rain has brought out snails the size of onions, which we try our best not to squash. When we reach the hilltop, the stony ground is covered with wild herbs and spring flowers, filling the air with delicate scents.

Another wooded and green mossy path, this one looking like something out of The Lord of the Rings, eventually opens up to vistas of Lake Skadar, which looks moody and beautiful in the overcast sky. The upper part of Godinje comes into view, and it isn’t until we draw closer that we can see the destruction caused by an earthquake in 1979. A few residents remain in the high village rather than join their neighbours in the newer part below. There’s one house, however, whose occupants left everything behind as they fled that day, 35 years ago, with coffee cups, tables, papers and chairs covered in dust.

Any sense of gloom is quickly dispelled on the tiny terrace of Mijo Lekovic’s minuscule cafe, during lunch of homemade fish soup, marinated carp and tangy cheeses. His pomegranate cordial is refreshing and more than a little addictive. If I were here in the summer, I could have had a post-prandial dip in the little beach near Godinje. No matter. The sun has finally come out properly, and it makes the lake sparkle as we walk the 90 minutes back to the villa.

Ben is preparing a welcome dinner at the villa that night for us and another couple who arrived that afternoon. Over plates of grilled meats and salads, we have the chance to chat about the various options for the week. We have high hopes for kayaking the following day, but we have to see how the weather is ­doing.

Sure enough, we awake to rain and a chill in the air. No kayaking, then, but a day spent in Ben’s Land Rover exploring the area. We drive to the village of Rijeka Crnojevica, which is named for the river that twists dramatically as it flows into Lake Skadar. It’s an odd little place, pretty enough with an ancient stone bridge, but also a mishmash of newly spruced-up restaurants by the river and sad empty buildings behind. Here, too, boatmen hawk their river trips. A swanky new riverside cafe has the cheek to charge €2 (Dh10) for an espresso, when the going rate in Virpazar for a proper Turkish coffee is €1 (Dh5). There’s an air of cynicism that Virpazar lacks, but this is redeemed somewhat by a lovely lunch of baked trout at the friendly Restoran Mostina tucked in beside the old bridge.

The return of the sun means that we can fit in an afternoon hike, and Ben knows just the place. A narrow, rocky path leads past waterfalls and over miniature humped bridges to Poseljani. Here, only two families tend their vegetable plots and flocks of sheep in this hillside hamlet overlooking the deep green waters of an absurdly picturesque bay. At the top, with superb views of Lake Skadar, is a restaurant that looks on the verge of opening. Its unknown owner has even squeezed in a small swimming pool beside it, waiting to be filled. Already Ben is plotting how he can arrange future trips to this magical spot – either on foot or, even better, by kayak.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever get the chance to try kayaking when a sunny day finally arrives. Ben takes us to Murici, a lakeside village about 45 minutes’ drive south of the villa. On its pebbly beach, we grapple with paddles, as Ben, a qualified kayaking instructor, gives us a lesson in how to stay afloat and, just as importantly, go in a straight line.

Soon we’re off, our paddles breaking the smooth surface of the water while cormorants perch on rocks ahead. We pass an island whose occupants consist of countless herons, a handful of goats and a solitary hermit. I’m discovering upper-body muscles that I didn’t know I had as we paddle past the 15th-century Moracnik Island monastery.

Lunch is a picnic in front of an old fisherman’s cottage that sits on a tiny finger of land jutting out from the shore. Just when we thought we’d never see a soul, we hear the sound of a small motorboat echoing around the empty lake. A fisherman, cigarette dangling from his lips, is making his leisurely way over to us. He’d spotted us some distance away and, as he obviously isn’t in a hurry, was in the mood for a chat.

He’s pleased to meet the Englishman that he’d heard about who is bringing a different breed of tourists to the lake, and who has troubled to learn the notoriously complicated language. We exchange pleasantries as we haul our kayaks onto the shore, before he leaves us to our lunch, the sound of the motor fading away and the stillness returning.

There’s no sign of the monks when we stop at their island on the journey back to Murici. But we do see wild tortoises that trail along the uneven path we climb to get the best views. The nuns at the next island monastery at Beska are more forthcoming, inviting us in for much-needed glasses of pomegranate juice before we paddled back to the beach at Murici.

I’m thinking of the tourists on the boat trips from Rijeka Crnojevica and Virpazar, who get only the merest taste of this vast lake, and how much they’re missing. The next time that someone asks me if I want to go on a boat trip, I’ll say yes – as long as I can bring my own paddle.

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