The deep south of Montenegro, at the border with Albania, during the rule of two Communist leaders, Josip Broz Tito and Enver Hoxha, was one of the strongest European borders. Because of this, the area remained almost intact and beyond human influence, much to nature’s delight. Almost four decades after the deaths of the two Communist leaders, I wanted to see for myself what was left of the medieval centre of this region, Lake Šas, which is a lesser-known location on tourist maps, unlike the nearby Lake Skadar.
The sign post that says ‘Lake Šas’ – IBA (Important Bird Area) lets me know I’m on the right track. After passing vast green expanses at both sides of the road, I get to a mild elevation which leads me to my destination – Lake Šas. It’s a smaller lake of the Dinaric Alps, about 5 square kilometres in surface, 23 km from Ulcinj, in the background of two Adriatic pearls – the sandy, 13 km long Velika plaža (Long Beach) and the river island of Ada Bojana, famous for its beauty, at the delta of the Bojana River where it meets the Adriatic Sea.
Two structures stand on the brim of the lake. One is abandoned, constructed during the Yugoslav era for tourism purposes – for Italian hunters visiting the lake for bird hunting. The other structure is the “Šas” restaurant, and we met its owner as he was approaching in a čun (a riverboat), the traditional means of transport around these parts, under the restaurant terrace. Due to abundant rains, the water level is almost at an all-time high.
“It’s all joined together now. The Bojana, Lake Šas and the sea are one”, he says as he’s stepping out of the čun. “I’m Alim. Nice to meet you!”
After serving in the Yugoslav army, Alim Đeković continued his career as a travelling salesman for Kosovo and Albania. He returned to his homestead in the vicinity of Lake Šas in 2002, after working as a manager, and here he invested all his capital and started to build his dream. First, he opened an authentic restaurant built in a rock at the rim of the lake, then constructed four suites in the same stone style. He also has a raft which can hold 50 passengers for the purpose of lake tours, and recreational grounds on the grassy plateau in front of the restaurant, as well as a campsite which tourists can use free of charge.
“If you pay attention, you can see that there’s no garbage anywhere on the lake surface. Come springtime, I start my boat and go collect every bag and bottle... I gather up to ten garbage bags! I need it to be clean if there’s going to be tourism!”, he explains.
He proudly states that everything is done in cooperation with the locals. Food on offer at the restaurant is based on what he buys from the local population. In cooperation with the Green Home NGO, an Information Centre was opened within Alim’s complex in order to complete the offer of the locality which is, de facto, the tourism centre of this region. Authentic artisanal souvenirs adorn the shelves of the Information Centre.
“This is a place where tourists enjoy the beauty of nature and cultural sites, find out historical facts, get to know the people and their tradition. Along with a truly unforgettable experience and a special sentiment, they can also take home various local products of the Lake Šas and the region – olives, olive oil and olive-oil-based soaps, honey, wine, juices, jams, dry figs, cow’s-milk and goat cheese, as well as numerous artisanal handicrafts.”
Several products exhibited in the Information Centre are internationally famous. The best example would be the Status wine. I grab the Status wine bottle, not even suspecting the awards it holds:
- Great Gold medal for Status wine at the prestigious royal wine evaluation, the Royal Wine Challenge, Belgrade 2009
- Great Gold medal for Status Barique wine, the Royal Wine Challenge, Prague 2010
- Bronze medal for Status Barique wine at the most prestigious world wine evaluation event, Decanter, London 2014
I had more than enough reasons to go and meet the owner of the celebrated wine as soon as possible. Alim recommended I visit the northern rim of Lake Šas, and so I made my way there. The Briska Mountain (Briska Gora) towers above the area and the Milović winery, owned by Branimir Milović, is located behind it, surrounded by vineyards and a mandarin plantation. I encountered Branimir preparing “housing” with the help of his three-year-old son Marko, for a pair of German shepherds, Bob and Lara.
“We made a dog house using some leftover woodwork. We brought Bob a companion, Lara. No-one should be alone”, says 45-year-old Branimir, smiling. He decided not to leave his native home, but rather to build a life on his family estate.
With a glass of the winning Status, Branimir begins his story. He proudly states that this region is traditionally well-known for quality wine that was served in diplomatic circles and in Tito’s villas on the Brijuni islands in the 60s. Favourable climate conditions, many hours of sunshine and a fertile land outlined by the Bojana River, Lake Šas and the Adriatic Sea, significantly affect the quality of the local wine. So do family heritage and the host’s love for vineyards, which translate into the winery’s top-quality wines through modern technology.
Branimir inherited the family business from his grandfather and father. The first vineyard was planted in 1968. “I kept over 1,000 vines planted in 1968 and 1975”. He also grew new vine patches, so now the Milović vineyards consist of around 18,000 vines of mostly native wine varieties of “vranac” and some “kratošija”. Annual production ranges from 15,000 to 20,000 bottles.
Our conversation is interrupted by Milena, his daughter, alarming us that Lara, Bob’s companion, left the dog house! “I have small children. I’m a little late to the game, but I’m keeping up with everything!”, Branimir adds.
The guests of the winery will tour the vineyard in the company of this enthused vinedresser, and afterwards try wines in an authentic-style wine cellar with traditional hors d’oeuvres – prosciutto, cheese, olives and bread. They also offer organised lunches with a wide array of traditional culinary specialties: dishes over hot ashes, fish specialties, game, polenta and raštan – authentic Montenegrin stew. The Milović family offer accommodation as well, and the complex also holds a tennis court and a roof terrace pool overlooking the estate and the surrounding area.
Alongside the vineyard, Branimir also planted 2,000 mandarin trees and 240 olive trees, and he is also planning to construct an olive oil mill. Branimir still has much more to tell, but I still had one more place to be where I would encounter Information Centre products.
I’m on my way to Ulcinj in order to meet with Eleonora Redžepagić, an example of how women of the Šas area are just as successful as men. Eleonora owns the company “Ela magic” which manufactures organic soaps based on olive oil. She was the first to produce cold process soaps, and among the first in Montenegro to use plants as soap additive. A bright middle-aged woman with lively eyes, Eleonora meets me in front of her house which is also the natural soap “factory”. For the occasion, she neatly arranged her products in a palette of small baskets. Her industrious hands started presenting her work in the form of a shell, flower, butterfly... showcasing her skill, knowledge and creativity. I was interested to know how she got the idea and recipe in the first place.
“Based on my own recipe, which I spent years perfecting, I learned how to make soaps using olive oil, without boiling, adding goat’s milk, honey and herbs like lavender, marigold, rosemary, peppermint, sage, nettle, cinnamon and St John’s wort. I also make soaps with essential oils: lavender, peppermint, sage and rosemary. The pH value of these soaps is the closest to that of the human skin. They are in no way harmful to the environment and so healthy they’re almost edible!”.
Using cold process production, in order to maintain the health benefits of olive oil, Eleonora’s soaps are a successful collection of all of nature’s specificities and the advantages of this region.
When asked on the secret to her soaps, she answers, smiling: “The secret is that I’m dedicated to the quality of each ingredient of the soap, so the production process can start only when I’ve carefully selected the olive oil, goat’s milk and Šas honey, and then the herbs I grow myself, pick by hand in nature or get at a pharmacy. I take great care during the entire production process to achieve the highest possible quality of the soaps, and afterwards to make them accessible in different shapes and weights, and, finally, to place them in interesting paper packages carrying a barcode. With the work being so exhaustive, especially at the peak of the tourist season, all family members pitch in. The husband, mother-in-law and the children.”
Eleonora, economic technician by profession, says the sales are not an issue for her, since she manages to sell everything she produces. Tourists are the best customers, and embassy officials are also one of her regular customers. Numerous certificates adorning the walls of the room demonstrate how authentic ingredients of the region, when combined with dedication and product quality, provide a mark of uniqueness to Eleonora’s natural olive oil soaps.
After visiting Eleonora, I couldn’t resist going back to Lake Šas one more time. Just like Lucky Luke, I made my way into the setting sun, reflected on the lake surface. I climbed the “Fraskanjel”, a former watchtower and enjoyed the amazing view, until recently only available to frontier soldiers. I opened the bottle of the “golden” Status and toasted to the welcome this region has given me. The full meaning of Alim’s words sunk in, about how every visitor here leaves with a truly unforgettable experience and a special sentiment.