We were about to turn around when we saw the old man. He called out and walked towards us.
“Bendovac?” he asked, referring to the mountain to our right.
“We’re not sure,” we said, explaining we didn’t think we had enough time to go up there and make it back down to get our car. The sign said we had 30 minutes to go of the one hour and 45 minute walk that had already taken us nearly three hours.
“It’s just 10 minutes,” the man said, waving his stick in the direction of the track.
Conscious of time and the dropping sun we asked about the closing time of the park and the beam across the road out.
“No, after 8 or 9 o’clock, bar go up.”
Ten minutes later we were standing on the rocky summit of Mt Bendovac, looking over Biogradska Gora, the largest untouched forest in Europe.
We had been walking through the forest for the last five hours, but it wasn’t until this moment we realised what we had been exploring: a small pocket of a huge mountain range that stretches so far in the distance we mistake mountains for clouds.
Biogradska Gora National Park
Montenegro has four national parks and Biogradska Gora is the smallest and oldest. This area in north-east Montenegro has been protected since 1878 and became a national park in 1952. Within it lies 1600 hectares of virgin forest. We find a tree marked as 350 years old, but there are some here as old as 500 years.
This chance to see what the world might have looked like if us humans hadn’t come along and done our thing is what brings most visitors to the town of Kolašin, about 16km from the road entrance to Biogradska Lake. When I tell Lidjia, the owner of the guesthouse I’m staying in, that I plan to go to Biogradska Lake the next day, she waves at the cars in the car park and says all her guests are going to Biogradska.
I meet two of those over breakfast, Brits Lindsey and Pete, who offer me a ride.
Biogradska Lake is the starting point for most walks in the park. There’s a small visitor centre, which just like the tourist office in Kolašin, is out of maps of the park after a busy summer season. Some wooden bungalows and a restaurant are camouflaged in the surrounding trees, but overall there isn’t much infrastructure here.
When we arrive the lake is covered in cloud, but it lifts quickly to give us a view of the smooth green water and the dense vegetation around it.
We walk clockwise around the lake, taking our time and stretching the one-hour walk to two. At times there are small boardwalks or stone paths, but most of the time we are walking on the forest floor cushioned by beech nuts that have been softened by the rain. There is the occasional shelter and picnic table or signs about the forest. Lindsay and Pete have a keen eye for things I probably wouldn’t notice on my own – fungi, plants, wildlife and insects. Pete spots a little grey creature with a thick bushy tail clinging to a branch on the ground. We name it Bruno and later identify him as a dormouse.
There are many walks through the park ranging from just a few hours to several days. One of the most accessible and rewarding is Mt Bendovac.
The walk to the summit starts at Biogradska Lake and weaves uphill, sometimes following a gravel road, other times weaving a faint trail through the forest. After half an hour we come to a lookout tower, which we climb for a view over the valley. Strangely, the tower isn’t marked on the map or mentioned in the directions for our walk.
Walking through the forest is a strange experience. Sometimes I am so aware of its primeval nature, such as when we spot a little frog or a stream with the clearest water I think I’ve ever seen. On one climb we have beech trees on our left, spruce trees on our right and a clear line where the latter begins. But then I walk by a tree with a name carved in to it, or see a tissue on the ground marking a hiker’s toilet stop. People just can’t resist leaving their mark and it’s disappointing.
Both the woman at the visitor centre in Kolašin and our information booklet said the walk up would take one hour and 45 minutes. But after two hours we come to a sign saying we have another 45 minutes to go. We haven’t walked that slow and now will be racing the clock and the sun to reach Bendovac and get back down. We decide to walk into Dolovi Lalevića, have a snack and head back.
We reach the plateau to see the old man man walking along the road towards us. He is from Belgrade and staying with a friend who has a cottage at the end of the valley. The sign we just passed said we had another half an hour, but the man assures us it’s only 10 minutes and we have plenty of time.
“We have cheese and blueberries. If you want drink or coffee, you go over there,” he says, pointing to his friend’s cottage along the road. We walk on and he starts calling the small herd of cows behind us.
“I can’t believe we almost missed this,” I say, sitting on a rock at 1774m on the top of Mt Bendovac, eating celebratory Eurovafel and looking out over the mountains and Biogradska Lake. At first our attention is on the mountains in front of us, but then the clouds move to reveal higher peaks in the distance.
I pick some blueberries from the side of the path on the way down and fill up my drink bottle at a tap with the coldest and freshest water I’ve ever tasted.
At one point on our descent we have the sun slicing through the trees in front of us and the moon shining behind us. Through the trees the mountains look blue and could be mistaken for water.
We lose the sun just as we reach the car park and finish our already amazing day with a view of the moon over Biogradska Lake.
If you go
There are so many options for exploring Biogradska National Park, but here’s what I did.
I stayed at Kolašin at Lidija Rakocevic for €17 a night. There is basic accommodation at Biogradska Lake if you are interested in stayed there. I considered it (it’s about €20 a night), but decided it would be easier to base myself in Kolašin rather than hike in with my luggage and supplies. There are also camping spots at the lake.
I got a ride to the park with people who were staying at the same place as me. There are usually a lot of people going in the same direction so if you don’t have a car, try asking at your guesthouse or hotel to see if anyone is going there. The drive is about 25-minutes.
Alternatively you can catch a bus to the turnoff to Biogradska Lake. The staff at the tourist information office can write down the instructions in Montenegrin, which you can give to the bus driver. From the turnoff you will have to walk up the road for about an hour to get to Biogradska Lake.
Entrance to Biogradska Gora National Park is €3 per person and collected at a booth at the entrance near the turnoff.
The walk around Biogradska Lake is well marked, level and easy. It took us two hours, although we stopped for a lot for photos and to talk to a dormouse.
The walk to Mt Bendovac was five hours and I think we did it at an average pace, although we hurried down because of the time of day.