I’ve looked at the island from the first day we arrived here, set like a dark stone in a band of glittering blue water. It seems to float within reasonable reach, catching the eye with ease when you walk along the shore, but it’s remained steadfastly remote all that time. The island of Golem Grad is anchored to another country, over the invisible line in the lake that forms the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the consequent difficulty in getting to it has lent it a magnetic and dreamlike cast.
Islands can alter us; unmoor us from the mainland of our minds. A span of shimmering spring water separates me from the bold, uninhabited rock, and as we stream away from shore I start to feel that the crossing is where any island begins. The water skimming past is a prelude, like a door swinging wide onto an unseen room. The air riffles through my hair; cool on my skin. A few pelicans glide away from us, sheering the lake into rivulets of silver. The island nears, looms large over the water, distinct in its mood to the rest of the basin.
Stepping ashore, I see a venomous horned viper slither between rocks, its zigzagged tail disappearing like the last of a rope being hauled up into a boat. It’s the first sign, in a place known as the island of snakes, that we’ve entered a different order of experience. White blossom loosens its perfume into the air, so that it hovers over the island like the dust of winter rugs shaken out in a spring clean. The scent is so dense that it seems the very air is forged from the fragrance, sweet and impossible to ignore, like the pressing attentions of a youthful affair. Alpine swifts swirl and scream overhead, circling always above us, as if each bird were a balloon that had been tethered to the island. Nightingale song swells from deep in the trees, an excited flight of sound, a musical scale to be climbed into air. The island quivers with a ceaseless, creaturely murmur; it’s the sound of an arriving season, and all the pulse and hum of wild profusion.
There is a dazzling warmth about us, the island being the beneficiary of a micro-climate peculiar to its shores. Such heat and humidity leads to a startlingly lush surface: the ancient junipers clad in an extravagant wardrobe of lichens and mosses; the forest floor an emerald weave. Euphorbia spokes from the coast like a protective green moat and birds nest across the island in the dense shroud of trees. Golem Grad is small, though, measuring merely two square kilometres in total. Yet it supports an astonishing wealth of wildlife for such a miniature realm; its tally of certain species unfathomable at first glance: 1,700 Hermann’s tortoises; 1,200 pairs of nesting cormorants; 120 horned vipers; and more than 10,000 dice snakes. Wherever you walk you are in the presence of a snake, somewhere close by, a slithering or sunning shape that’s laid claim to the island.
The wild has made this island its world, but like most places in the region it’s also traced by an antique human history, recording more than two millennia of tenure. Centuries worth of ruins break the surface of a sea of moss. Relict churches and monasteries cling on in the absence of parishioners, and the walls of a Roman villa and cistern dating from the 5th century hold fast to this solitary citadel of stone. The rocky white coast is festooned by a blaze of purple and yellow blooms, where a cross was chiselled above the water line long ago. All the sunlight of a wakening spring bathes the water and stones, until the refracted, glimmering light touches even the shade.
Sea-dazzle sparkles off the spray of the boat. The air is thick with the dark forms of cormorants launching from the canopy of the trees as the boatman picks up speed. We slide through the still and graceful lake, moving out of the sway of the island, and I wonder how it would have felt to have lived there over the centuries, like the Roman owners of the villa or the monks kneeling at prayer, peering out at the mainland as though that were an island. As if the place apart was over there, the strange, unvisited shore in the distance. As the boat crosses the blue beneath a tracery of whirling birds, I sense that each of us harbours an island inside, whether real or in the mind, and we leave this one behind with the brimming light, to its saints and swifts and snakes.
With many thanks to Oliver Avramoski and Dejan Dimidjijevski from the Galicica National Park, of which Golem Grad is a part, for their gracious hospitality in showing us around, and their willingness to share their intimate knowledge of this remarkable island.