A Softer, Quieter Coast

After more than a week of swimming in the salty, rocky Adriatic, Lake Skadar was especially cool and soft.  The beach was muck-bottomed, the surface was calm, the air smelled of trees and earth. The only ripples I heard were my own. It felt as though all the roughness of the world had been smoothed and melted into silt and lakewater.
Those who think of Montenegrin water will surely think of the Mediterranean, but there is another place where boats set out in the mornings and fish jump for flies. Lake Skadar is a quieter, but no less majestic, second coast.  In the more trafficked end, boats cut lines into the lilypads and algae.
Filled by the mountain river Morača, Skadar retains something alpine, even as it lies so close to the sea.  The surface is punctuated with islands and little watercraft.  Beyond the water, in the blue-hued distance, are the peaks of Albania.
The lake is actually shared between the two countries (it's called Shkodër on the other side), with a zig-zag border that cuts down the middle.  Skadar is the largest lake in southern Europe, with a fluctuating surface area of about 170 square miles.  It feels even bigger, maybe because of how exaggerated the mountain shoreline is, or because of how it's positioned: the lake is elongated from east to west, so the sun travels from one end to the other, appearing and disappearing over the water's edge.
At the little pebbly beach in Murici, cows and donkeys nosed through piles of burnt trash and small camper vans stood in the shade.  The place felt like the end of the earth, with nothing but lakewater to look at and sheer mountains behind.  Murici, the town, is a tiny place with a little mosque and steep streets.  In the mornings, a grocery van came to town - old women in headscarves crowded around to buy flour or dish soap.
We slept here, near the beach, in a bungalow that smelled of new pine lumber and bugspray.  There was an open air restaurant, where the people in the campground could eat fried fish or greasy ćevapi.
At "Jezero" restaurant, on the more populated side of Skadar, we feasted on pickled trout and baked eel.  Tour boats docked and puttered around the pier below the restaurant's terrace.  Groups of people were led down to the boats, then motored far out into the distance, where we lost sight of them among the islands.  Groups came back to shore very tan.  The boat touts worked the parking lot relentlessly, waving brochures and spinning tales of private beaches and secret coves.  The meal was too large for us, we retreated to the car full of fish and feeling sleepy.
The western reaches of Skadar dissolve into a marshy, weedy wetland full of waterlilies and eel traps.  There are a few villages here, where shallow fishing boats are pulled up to firm land and women sell live carp on the roadsides.  It's a destitute part of the country, far removed from the development of the coast.  The people are different too, with harder-set mouths and more clothes.
Here, the cultural landscape is tinged by nearby Albania more than by Serbia or Croatia.  The signs are in Shqip, the people are Muslim.
In Murici, we watched a round, older woman wash clothes on the beach, boiling the cloth over a woodfire and then beating the wet clumps on the pebbles.  Further along the pebbled shore, some children swam and a few tourists shared a bottle of wine.  We swam in the evening and listened to the laughing conversation of a Czech rally-racing team.  During our morning dip, we saw that a white-haired German couple had slept right out on the beach.  It was uncrowded and calm there; we all kept our distance from one another, sharing the view and the quiet.
It's difficult to tell, in some places, where the earth begins and the water ends - green fields blend into algae and weeds.  In other parts of coast, the white rock of the mountains slices directly into the surface.  The drive around the lake's edge is a wonder. The road is narrow and crooked, the drops are frightening, there are few guardrails.  One is rewarded with a changing, deserted vista that is wilder and more dramatic than almost anywhere else in the Balkans.
The whole Montenegrin coast of Skadar, and much of the Albanian side as well, has been protected as a national park.  It's a paradise for birds - we watched herons fishing in the evening and pygmy cormorants sunning themselves in the morning light.  Some of the last pelicans in Europe live here, though we didn't see any.
The speck out in the bay is the remaining heap of rocks from tiny Grmožur fortress.
Watching the light fade over the lake's waters, our thoughts were drawn to the blaring music and eternal swimsuits of the coast.  This is a part of Montenegro that feels cut off from the rest, a place where peacefulness reigns.
Interestingly, it is more purely an amalgamation of mountains and water - what this country is famous for- than the famed resorts of Budva or Kotor.  Here, one can slip into the otherworldly more easily.  Swimming and staggering in the salty hotspots: abrasive.  Wading and succumbing in the fresh water: soothing, silent, a dip into the distant and unknown.
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