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Day 11: Virpazar

Our aim for today was to go on an excursion to Virpazar, a small town situated on the shore of Lake Skadar. Lake Skadar is the biggest lake in the Balkans, with the northern part being in Montenegro and the southern part being in Albania. It's one of the largest bird reserves in Europe, with all kinds of rare species including pelicans. It looked beautiful in pictures so we thought it would make a great day trip.

Before we could set out on our trip, however, we had to resolve the issue of how we were going to get to Belgrade tomorrow. You may remember that originally I had wanted to travel from Bar to Belgrade by train but that, following the Balkan floods earlier in the year, all day-time train services had been suspended. We didn't really want to cancel accommodation and travel at night, so the only remaining option was to travel by bus. Unfortunately when I searched online I couldn't find a bus which went directly from Bar to Belgrade during the day (only at night) so the best solution I could find was for us was a bus leaving from Podgorica at 09.45. Somewhat to my amazement I had found the details for this bus on a website which purported to have an online reservation system, so I had attempted to book the tickets in advance. I was somewhat disconcerted when, instead of the e-ticket I had anticipated, I ended up with an email telling me I needed to phone a representative of the bus company in Podgorica to discuss how I was going to pick up the tickets.

Although I feel like my Serbian has improved quite a lot over the past year, I wasn't too keen to start calling random people in Podgorica, trying to explain who I was and that I wanted my tickets. I also wasn't too keen on the prospect of how much such a phone call was likely to cost me. Montenegro isn't in the EU and so calls would be £1.50/minute to make from our mobiles.

The solution seemed to be to ask our landlady if she could make the call for me, so I went to knock on her door this morning and explained the problem. She immediately wanted to help, but her first advice was to tell me I shouldn't be getting a bus from Podgorica because I could catch one from Bar instead. I explained to her that there wasn't a day time bus from Bar but she didn't believe me and phoned the bus station to find out. They confirmed that I was right :) Then she tried to phone the person in Podgorica who had my tickets, but there seemed to be something wrong with the number and she couldn't get through. Oh dear. She phoned the bus station in Podgorica to confirm the bus existed (luckily it did - phew!) and gave them a good telling off because she didn't think they answered the phone quickly enough. Then she phoned her husband and told him that when he had finished work he could go to Podgorica and collect my tickets! That wasn't quite what I had had in mind and I felt a bit sorry for her poor husband, but she assured me it would be fine. She then wanted to know how we were going to get to Podgorica; I explained that we were going to catch a train, but she didn't think that would be a good idea because apparently in Montenegro trains sometimes just don't turn up. Buses, however, apparently always do turn up and then I discovered the secret of how everyone in this country knows when the buses are despite the fact that the timetables aren't published online, as she opened a copy of the local newspaper, turned to one of the back pages and displayed a list of all this week's bus departures from Bar. Aha, now it makes more sense! We established that there was a bus at 07.35 tomorrow which would get us to Podgorica with plenty of time for our connection, and she promised that her long-suffering husband would drive us to the bus stop with our baggage.

With tomorrow's travel plans resolved, all that remained was to sort out todays. My intention was for us to catch a train to Virpazar from a little local station in Šušanj where we are staying. On Google maps it looked like the station was only a kilometre away from our apartment. Unfortunately Google maps are not very detailed for Montenegro (and things often seem to be marked in the wrong place). Unfortunately also, no one in Šušanj seems to consider their train station important enough to merit a helpful sign indicating its general direction. We walked uphill, downhill and round half the suburb, but in the end we had to admit defeat: we really couldn't find it.

We had missed the train I wanted and there wasn't another train to Virpazar until around 2pm, so we decided that we might as well walk into the main centre of Bar and get some lunch. We took a slightly different route this time and we were able to get a better photo of this beautiful church.


We found a nice restaurant to have lunch at next to the main train station in Bar. We looked at the menu and decided to order pizza and pasta, but when the waiter came to take our order it transpired that they were out of both pizza and pasta. How unfortunate! We had another look at the menu and decided to order Ćevapi instead. These are a Balkan speciality (although the Wiki page I just linked to asserts that "Cevapcici are Bosnian brand and comes originally and only from Bosnia, just as it is Pizza Italian brand"!!) and so it was a fairly safe bet that these would be in stock. They were, but whereas I had expected to get five pieces of meat it turned out that we both got ten, with chips and flatbread to eat them with. They were absolutely delicious but I got full halfway through mine and Tim pocketed the remainder to feed to some of the local population of stray dogs and cats.

We bought our train tickets to Virpazar for the bargain price of €1, and within about 20 minutes we had arrived. The guidebook had said that the town was on the lake, so we had expected to get off the train and - well - see the lake, but we couldn't. Hmm. As we started walking out of the station in the direction of the rest of the town, we were approached by various taxi drivers as per usual. We were doing our usual trick of ignoring them, but then one of the drivers pulled up alongside Tim and said he would take us to the lake "gratis". With the benefit of hindsight this sounds a bit too good to be true, but we got in and he drove us to the main town which was actually only a few hundred metres away. He then deposited us outside the Hotel Pelican, which seems to be the main hotel in the town, and informed us that if we went inside we would find information about the lake. We walked into a somewhat dark and dingy room which had a few leaflets on a table. There was a staff member but she seemed occupied with showing some Japanese tourists around, so we managed to walk straight through the building, out a door on the opposite side of it, and escape :) Having now got back to Bar and done some more research into Virpazar, it seems that this man owns the hotel and is a known menace, spending his days trying to capture tourists and make them book expensive boat tours. Definitely avoid if you are ever in Virpazar!

We had at least now located the town, although we still couldn't see the lake, so we decided to have a stroll around. We found a river which feeds into the lake, and the scenery was really beautiful.


A few people approached us trying to sell boat trips, but it was far too expensive: €20 plus €4 for a fee to enter the national park. Tim noticed the tourist information office and went to ask whether it was possible to walk around some of the lake; they confirmed that it was and recommended that we walk to the village of Godinje. We had seen a sign pointing towards Godinje and it was only about 5km, so we decided to give it a try.

As the road started to climb slowly uphill, we got our first glimpse of Lake Skadar.


As we gained more height it became clear why it isn't possible to walk on a path alongside the lake; it's so extremely marshy that it's hard to tell where the ground ends and the lake begins. I guess that's what makes it such a popular habitat for birds.


The road was quite relentlessly uphill...


...but it did mean that we had a fantastic view of the mountains.


We continued walking for quite some time until we were far enough round the lake to look back at the road and rail bridge which we had passed over in the bus on Monday evening.


We were quite tired by this point and we were glad when we saw the village of Godinje appearing on the horizon. We decided to walk down into the village and find a cafe or a shop to buy some water. We'd only been intending to go for a short stroll in Virpazar and so hadn't brought any with us.


Imagine our dismay when we eventually got to the village and found that there was nowhere at all to buy water! Places to buy wine - yes. Places to buy rakija - yes. But places to buy water - absolutely not. It really is just a hamlet where locals have set out stalls in their gardens, hoping that someone will come past and buy their homemade wine.

That wasn't very useful for us and it felt like a very long walk back to Virpazar! We stopped at the first cafe we found on the way back and gulped down vast quantities of water before heading back to the train station for our return journey. We had had some wonderful views of the lake on the return walk though, even if we were a little too thirsty to appreciate them at the time.


When we got back to our apartment in Bar, we found that the landlady's husband had very obediently fetched our bus tickets to Belgrade for us :) I had another long conversation with her in Serbian when I went to pay her for them. She told me that she had been to London once and taken a train to Hastings to go to the seaside. She had been amazed by how silent the train was with no one talking to each other and said that we must have found the train in Montenegro a bit different! She ended up giving me a present of a fridge magnet with a picture of Montengro on as a reminder of our stay here :)

And so tomorrow we are off to Belgrade. It will be another long journey but I think that it will be an interesting one and we are both excited to see the Serbian capital.

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