Golem Grad, Better Known as Snake Island
The only island in landlocked Macedonia is uninhabited… at least by humans. Located in the south of Lake Prespa, near the Albanian border, Golem Grad is frequently referred to as “Snake Island.”
Our excursion to Snake Island did not get off to a promising start. The boats which take tourists there are rickety old things, and even the slightest of waves render the journey impossible. We had planned on leaving from the village of Stenje, but the boatman shivered as he looked out over the water. I would have described the waves on this slightly breezy morning as “gently lapping,” but he said it was too dangerous to even consider. He suggested we try Konjsko, the next town over. “The boat ride from there is a lot shorter, and they might risk it.”
Sounded like a plan, but there was one serious problem. The only road to Konjsko is an unpaved, potholed mess, for which our tiny rental car was sadly insufficient. So we parked at the bottom of the hill, and began to walk. The seven-kilometer hike was steep and unpleasant. Trees blocked our view of the lake, and we were pestered the whole way by a cloud of flies smacking into our faces, and trying to crawl into our ears.
We needed two hours to reach Konjsko, by which time our moods had soured. And there was no guarantee that a boat would leave from here, so we were prepared for defeat. But as soon as we entered town, a jolly-looking guy yelled to us from his porch. Naturally enough, he knew why we were in Konjsko and, after introducing himself as Nane, he offered to take us out. His son-in-law Nikola was recruited to act as translator, and our assembled party climbed into the boat. Next stop: Snake Island.
As we puttered across the lake, Nane explained that they’ve been trying to rebrand Golem Grad as “Pelican Island.” We must have looked skeptical, because he was insistent. “Really, there are almost no snakes anymore. I promise!”
Nane wasn’t lying. In the not-so-distant past, Golem Grad was swarming with snakes, many of them poisonous. But they began to disappear five years ago for reasons unknown, and very few remain today. We saw a grand total of two harmless water snakes while on the island, and at least fifty times that many pelicans. Two thousand times that many cormorants.
We had expected to see snakes on Snake Island, but we hadn’t expected to see so many ancient ruins. Golem Grad is deserted now, but that clearly hasn’t always been the case. Nane has spent years assisting archaeological teams with excavations, and was able to provide a detailed tour of the island.
There are Roman-era residences, and medieval Orthodox churches such as the 14th-century St. Demetrius, which is unique for the frescoes on its exterior. Nane’s favorite building is an old Roman cistern along the cliffs, dating from the 4th century. A thousand years later, it had been converted into a Christian basilica. Almost more impressive than the ruins is the gorgeous foliage of Golem Grad, which is surprisingly varied for such a small place.
After getting back into the boat, Nane and Nikola took us on a loop around the island, so that we could see the fetid kingdom of the cormorants. The trees in which these seabirds nest are white, covered in their excrement. If that weren’t gross enough, the cormorants are also known for chucking up the fish parts they can’t digest; anyone walking underneath their nests is in danger of getting hit by a flying fish head.
Once we arrived back in Konjsko, Nane invited us to sit down with him and his family for a fresh salad grown in his garden, and home-brewed rakija. We stayed on his porch for a couple hours, enjoying the view and company, before Nikola offered to drive us back to our car, sparing us the return hike.
Snake Island certainly isn’t easy to reach, but that helps keep it quiet, solitary and untouched, which is part of its charm. Our adventure on the island, along with the unexpected and enjoyable afternoon hanging out with Nane, made this one of the best days we had in Macedonia.