What is the name of the largest inland lake in Southern Europe? Correct – Lake Skadar (1). What, never heard of it? Lake Skadar, also known as Lake Skutari or Lake Shkodra, in Montenegrin Skadarsko Jezero, is not only the largest lake on the Balkan Peninsula, it is – depending on your point of view – also larger than Lake Garda, and thus also the largest inland lake in Southern Europe. SeaHelp presents the dreamy, natural lake, which is located in the border area between Montenegro and Albania, and is still an insider tip for boaters and nature lovers.
Montenegro has for yacht owners not only the fantastically beautiful Bay of Kotor to offer (see SeaHelp trip tip “Montenegro with the yacht” with many nautical highlights) or – for hikers who want to swap the boat shoes once against the hiking boots – the Tara Gorge, the longest and deepest canyon in Europe, there is still another excursion destination, which is often still a real insider tip for foreign visitors: Lake Skadar, an enchanting spot, sparsely populated and natural, welcoming the visitor as if from a fairy tale with a sea of countless water lilies.
The Lake Skadar, also called Lake Skutari or Lake Shkodra (Montenegrin Скадарско језеро, Skadarsko Jezero) is the largest lake in the Balkan Peninsula and, depending on how you look at it, the largest lake in southern Europe, next to Lake Garda, which covers 370 square kilometers. The picturesque lake, located in the border area between Montenegro and Albania, is politically divided into two parts: the Montenegrin share of the lake’s surface is slightly larger than the Albanian share. To the southwest, it is separated from the Adriatic Sea, which is only 20 kilometers away, by the Rumija Mountains, which rise up to 1,600 meters, while the northeast side is bordered by a vast, partially marshy plain.
After the snow melts, Lake Skadar can grow to 540 square kilometers
At its longest point, Lake Skadar is 48 kilometers long and up to 14 kilometers wide. Theoretically, it is “only” 368 square kilometers in size (of which 219 km² are in Montenegro and 149 km² in Albania). But since the water level of the lake fluctuates up to five meters depending on the season, its surface also varies greatly. It can quickly increase to 540 square kilometers, which often happens during high water after snowmelt. Then Lake Skadar is even larger than Lake Constance, which has an average surface area of 536 square kilometers.
The main tributary is the Morača (2) on the Montenegrin side, and the outflow to the Adriatic Sea is the Buna (3), which marks the border between Albania and Montenegro for almost its entire length of 44 kilometers. With an average width of 150 meters and a depth of three meters, the Buna is actually considered navigable, even though hardly any ships sail there today.
However, the continuous navigability of the Buna (also called Bojana) is a joint future project of the neighboring states Montenegro and Albania. As a first step, the new river crossing in Skadar (Albania) has already been constructed as a swing bridge(4), thus successfully eliminating a first bottleneck. In addition, the river is to receive a lock in the next few years in order to better regulate the currently strongly fluctuating water levels (up to four meters difference).
Currently, navigation on the Buna, coming from the Adriatic Sea, to Lake Skadar is only possible with small boats. Skippers should enter the eastern estuary of the river, keep to the eastern bank and clear in at an Albanian police station after about two kilometers of river travel.
Along the southwestern, Montenegrin shore of Lake Skadar are several small picturesque islands such as Beška (5), Moračnik (6), Starčevo (7) or Grmožur (8), on which there are several small churches and castle ruins. Approximately in the middle of the northeast bank is a narrow arm that extends about 15 kilometers into the country. The east and north banks are mostly flat and difficult to access. Various towns are found on the steeper southwestern shore: Virpazar (9) to the north, south of it Godinje (10), Bobovište (11) and Ckla (12), across the border Zogaj (13) and Shiroka (14).
The lake is home to more than 20 endemic animal and plant species
The lake basin itself is considered a sensitive ecosystem, home to more than 20 endemic animal and plant species. Lake Skadar is particularly important as a resting and breeding place for migratory birds from northern Europe. They spend the winter at the lake or use it as a resting place during their migration in spring. Accordingly, the Montenegrin part of Lake Skadar was declared a national park as early as 1983 and was included in the international Ramsar list of wetlands worthy of protection in 1996. In 2005 Albania followed, since then the Albanian part is also under protection as a nature reserve.
A good starting point for exploring the lake is first Virpazar (9), a small community right on the shore of the lake. Many tours of the area start here, and there are restaurants, cafes, and stores. If you want, board one of the excursion boats and chug across the lake for a few hours.
From Virpazar excursion boats start for trips of several hours on the lake
Either depart at seven in the morning for a two-hour excursion, or opt for a seven-hour guided trip, which then includes a wine tour with tasting. Excursions can also be booked from here to the monastery islands of Beska (5), Gorica (15) and Moracnik (6), especially recommended for travelers interested in culture and history.
Virpazar (9) is also a border port for shipping traffic on Skadar Lake between Montenegro and Albania (port office: tel. 020-711126). From Virpazar toward the northwestern village of Rijeka Crnojevića (16), after about 20 kilometers, you reach a viewpoint (17) from which you have a magnificent view of a beautiful, naturally winding river bend.
For those who want to pilot a motorboat themselves, charter from the Eco Resort in Plavnica
However, those who want to take off individually for a boat trip on small, modern and zippy motorboats on Skadar Lake should go to Plavnica on the opposite, northern shore of Virpazar(9). There you’ll find the Eco Resort with a four-star hotel (18), a boat harbor and charter facilities for smaller boats (plavnica.me, tel. 081-443700, inland boat license required).
The comfortable Eco Resort complex includes a marina with 80 berths, slipway and boat service. If you wish, you can stay at the resort or in one of the guesthouses or hotels on the lake.
The cheapest way is to fly via Belgrade to Podgorica (19) on the north shore of the lake, from there it is only about 13 km by cab or rental car to the Eco Resort in Plavnica. Those who want to arrive with their own car plus boat on the trailer: this is also possible, it should be noted that the route then also leads through the non-EU countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.