To enter Virpazar, in Montenegro, you just turn off the main road, cross a railway line and you’re already there.
A man stopped me at the entrance to the village. He asked me if it was my first visit there, and I said yes. I don’t know why, because it was actually my second.
“Is there a tourist office in Virpazar?” I asked.
“This is the tourist office,” he said, while motioning to park my huge rented black Mazda sedan (I had wanted a small car) in front of a house. We entered the house, where he explained about a boat cruise on Lake Skadar that would include a view of a Turkish thingy and a Byzantine something. 25 euros for two hours. It seemed reasonable enough for me.
Which was how, within a few minutes of crossing the railway line off the main road, hardly having realized what had hit me, I was walking along the riverbank towards a boat together with a small group of bewildered looking tourists, who had no doubt just experienced the same marketing strategy that I had. It was practically a kidnapping.
I don’t regret it.
It was a pleasantly warm, sunny afternoon, and the boat cruise was relaxing and scenic.
Our guide explained that this year they were having problems with lack of rain, which would soon result in water levels so low that boat cruises would be impossible. Maybe this would explain the frantic poaching of tourists… He mentioned that “some” rain had fallen a few days earlier but it was far from enough to restore the water depth, a good two metres lower than the previous year at that time. Trust my luck, I thought, that in an arid year the gods of weather had chosen my week in Albania to reward the southern Balkans with “some” rain (it was a deluge) and ruin the latter part of my tour there.
We floated next to reeds, water lilies, under a bridge bearing the main road, next to picturesque hills with a backdrop of distant mountains. It was so peaceful and really beautiful. From another boat some distance from us someone had decided to have a dip in the water. Our guide invited us to do it ourselves if we so wished. Pity that I had no towel with me because I might well have been tempted. We all chose to stay on board.
I will only include a few pictures here. I’ve posted the rest on Facebook.
Back on terra firma, it was time to explore this village that, when I came here with my son Gianluca in February 2016, was a wind- and rain-swept desolation. Hardly recognizable from this warm, festive and bustling Sunday in May, 15 months later.
While having a thoroughly unimpressive lunch, I saw on Google maps that I could go back to my Airbnb in Ulcinj, close to the Albanian border in the south, via a mountain road skirting the western bank of Lake Skadar. I asked the waiter if this was possible. Sure, he said. It’s a scenic road and in good condition.
That was the route that I took. I was regaled with some more stunning views of the lake.
As I drove deeper into the mountains, my faithful GPS kept repeating in its gentle female voice, “Please. Make. A U-turn. Now. If possible.” I always ignore this exhortation and press on until she realizes that I’m determined in my ways and eventually she works out a new route going forward in my same direction.
Not this time.
“Please. Make. A U-turn. Now. If possible.” On and on. Roughly once a minute. The road was winding and narrow, the mountain slope on my left steep, and the time was pushing into late afternoon. There were an old woman and a boy selling some freshly produced olive oil at the side of the road. “Hello! Does this road lead to Ulcinj, please?” I asked. “Buy some olive oil. It’s very good,” was their helpful answer, in Montenegrin. I don’t understand the language, but the meaning was amply clear. I pressed on and after some 200 metres I saw a Mercedes coming down the opposite way.
I had already squeezed past other vehicles through this narrow road. This time it was different. Apparently it had broken down and some men standing next to it were gesticulating for me to back up. I looked at my side mirror on the passenger side and started to reverse slowly towards a slight widening of the road. I looked in front again and realized with a great shock that the Mercedes was bearing down on me at speed! They were trying to start the engine by pushing the car. I reversed at a good speed myself and I don’t know how I managed to pull to one side through thick vegetation without scratching the car and thereby avoid a collision with the madmen’s car.
I switched on Google maps on my phone and discovered to my dismay that I had achieved woefully little progress along this ‘alternative’ road to Ulcinj. This time I did follow my good old GPS’s persistent advice and made. A U-turn. Now. Although hardly possible on that narrow road. Remember, my car rental had provided me with a huge black Mazda sedan instead of the small car that I had requested.
The drive back to Ulcinj through the main road along the coast, as advocated by my faithful Garmin Nuvi, was thankfully uneventful. I had had enough adventures for one day!