Montenegro: Peace at last

Deep in rural Montenegro lies the largest freshwater lake in south-east Europe, where Rebecca Stephens finds the holidaymaker's holy grail: a beach of one's own

There is a beach in Europe that is clean and free from crowds, even in August. To add to its rarity, it is a place of the most sublime natural beauty as well as impressive warmth. It might sound improbable, but this beach is very real. It lies in Montenegro. Not the sophisticated Montenegro portrayed in Casino Royale, nor the Montenegro of the burgeoning coastal-property market, but one in its deeply rural hinterland. The beach is on the shore of Lake Skadar, the largest freshwater lake in south-east Europe.

It is a phenomenon, this lake: 370 square kilometres in area (25 times the size of Windermere), it swells by half its size again in heavy rains. Two thirds of its extent lies in Montenegro, the remainder in Albania. It's a haven for wildlife: herons, ducks and cormorants criss-cross its water, and somewhere in its hidden reaches nest pelicans.

The casual traveller can catch a glimpse of the lake with a stopover at the Pelikan Hotel in Virpazar, a small town at its head, just off the main road from the capital, Podgorica, to the Adriatic coast. The bearded proprietor, in artist's smock and hat, serves carp straight from the lake, as a soup, or garnished with plums. But for the true character of the lake, and the mix of people who make a living along its shores, travellers must hire a car, strap in and pray that they meet nobody head-on along the narrow road that runs high above the shore, in the direction of Albania, and the aforementioned beach.

The journalist and author Rebecca West travelled these Montenegrin roads 70 years ago, and wrote in her book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, of "twisted, pointless wrecks of automobiles littering the landscape, driven by lads who have an air of enacting a heroic fantasy".

Little has changed, and it was with relief that we pulled into a roadside café barely 15 minutes from Virpazar. A large, smiling woman in black, gold tooth gleaming, greeted us, cooing over our baby. Her daughter-in-law was from London, she told us, and had learnt some Serbian and often visited. Then suddenly, tears welling, her mood changed. It's hard being Serbian here, she said, reminding us how relatively recent was the conflict in the former Yugoslav states, and how, in 2006, a narrow majority had voted that Montenegro secede from its neighbour, Serbia.

The turbulence stretches back centuries. From the café, we took a short detour up a steep dead-end road to the village of Godinje, once a border town with the Ottoman Empire, and home to nobles, now consumed by weeds, deserted since an earthquake in 1979. We drove on for an hour or so to a dot on the map: Murici, a village that turns out to comprise a mosque and a scattering of small-holdings strewn out along a switchback running down to the lake's shore. Here we were only 15 kilometres from the Albanian border, and the village is, but for the geopolitical boundary in which it lies, Albanian. At the water's edge, a young man standing beside his narrow wooden boat, curved elegantly like a bow, introduced himself as Omer.

We asked whether we could take a ride, and Omer walked off, only to return with a café-table umbrella, which he erected in the middle of the boat to protect us from the sun. On the water, translucent green and utterly still, the lake revealed itself at its most serene. Casting eyes back to the shore, there was Murici beach, a golden strip with a backdrop of hills, the leaves of chestnut and olive turning umber in the sun. Looking the other way, across the full body of the lake, through the haze we could just make out Shkoder, a town on the far Albanian shore. Close to were the craggy shapes of three low-lying islands, each home to a medieval Orthodox monastery – Moracnik, Beska and Starceva Gorica.

Omer pulled his boat on to the gravelly shore of one of the three – home to Beska – and we stepped into the sizzling sun. The stone monastery – tiny, domed and weathered by centuries of harsh winters and beating sun – stood harmonious among the pomegranates and scuttling lizards. It was shut.

A few paces away was the home to 21st-century religious life: a new five-bedroom house, from which walked a willowy nun dressed in black. Her name was Tanja, from Bosnia. The monasteries had been abandoned for centuries, she said, only reinhabited in the last five years or so – this a marked revival in the Orthodox Church since the collapse of communism and the conflict.

But for now, it was Murici beach – our beach – and close by, cattle paddling in the lake, and tables scattered in the shadow of a tree, with a kitchen serving fresh fish, lamb, veal and goat's cheese. "And pudding?" enquired our daughter. "If you pick your own," answered the proprietor, pointing at a fig tree.

A few others had discovered this gentle spot, but not many – a small party of Czechs, a French family, a couple from England. A room in a wooden chalet for a family of four (with a communal lavatory and basin) was €20 (£16.50) for the night: Montenegro has adopted the euro, despite being outside the EU.

The next leg of our journey was from the southern to northern tip of Montenegro by car – a distance of only 100 kilometres as the crow flies, but six hours or so on twisty roads – to Zabljak (the country's only skiing resort), in the surprisingly dramatic mountain region of Durmitor.

The landscape stole one's breath: vast, one moment like Patagonia, the next like the grassy steppes of Mongolia.

Hidden there in the hills was the Tara Gorge, second only to the Grand Canyon in size, and yet refreshingly tricky to find, down single-track forest roads, not a sign in sight.

Visitors who enjoy their creature comforts might struggle with the accommodation; Zabljak is a town possibly more attractive under a blanket of snow. We rented a simple flat, which had everything we needed, except that running water was available only between 7am and 10am, and for a few hours in the evening – not unusual here. Compensation lay in the natural world beyond the door.

From Zabljak there are walks that could occupy the keenest hiker for months, the routes marked with splashes of paint on rocks or trees. The children ran wild, smelt pine needles, spotted grouse and even the claw marks of a bear, and swam in the mountain lakes of this gloriously rural corner of Europe.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The writer and her family flew from Gatwick to Dubrovnik with British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com). Dubrovnik is also served by Flybe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com), Croatia Airlines (0870 4100 310; www.croatiaairlines.com) and Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com). The Montenegrin border is 20 minutes from Dubrovnik. Alternatively, Montenegro Airlines (00 382 8 405 501; www.montenegro-airlines. cg.yu) launches flights from Gatwick to Tivat tomorrow.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint. travel).



Getting around

You can get a customised itinerary from Hayley Wright of Black Mountain Adventure Travel (00 382 67 268 971; www.montenegroholiday.com), based in Herceg Novi.



Staying there

Hotel Pelikan, Virpazar (00 382 81 71 11 07; www.pelikanzec.com). Doubles start at €58 (£48), including breakfast.



More information

www.montenegro.travel; 00 382 81 235 155

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