Day 15-17: Lake Ohrid, Macedonia

by - August 15, 2011

Day One: Swimming and Eating

“not one in a million Englishmen have been to Ohrid”

We had been very surprised when we had found out at Istanbul bus station that there was a direct bus, run by the Yadran bus company, to Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.  We were expecting that we would have to get a bus to Skopje, the capital, then get an onwards bus.  It turned out that the bus we caught did in fact go to Skopje first before going back the way it had came to the town of Struga.  The journey lasted 15 hours and Struga is still 16km away from the advertised destination, meaning that we had to catch a taxi to Villa Bella in Ohrid (the town which the lake is named after) where we would be staying for three nights.

View over Lake Ohrid from the balcony
Lake Ohrid is the cultural heart of Macedonia and is the main (and probably only) actual tourist destination.  It lies in the south of the country and is partly shared by Albania, where we will be travelling later on.  We arrived at the apartment and did the now well practiced post-nightbus ritual of having a sleep and a shower.  I was able to finish off my last book, a novel set in Turkey, and onto the book I had been looking forward to - Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”.  This dramatic sounding book is the thousand page epic log of a British journalist travelling through Yugoslavia in the 1930s.  While the book was written in an age of real genuine expeditions to foreign countries, conducted by the few with time and money to go on them, West visited pretty much everywhere we will be going (except Albania) and as a journalist, historian and traveller seems like the perfect travel companion.  Even if the book ironically weighs a very travel unfriendly kilo and a half.  The reviews describe it as one of the most poetic books of the last century, travel based or not, so I hope it isn’t pretentious of me to start off my blogs with a quote to either support or juxtapose with my account of my own experiences.

I think I have started with a juxtaposition, as on arrival at the waterfront in Ohrid it became clear that plenty of Englishmen had now visited.  While Ohrid is the stomping ground of Europeans generally (direct flights fly from Holland in summer), the waiters at our first restaurant were fluent in English and there were enough latin script signs for my new ability to read cyrillic script to be slightly pointless.  The extended time that we had at the lake meant that I was able to turn down the pressure to see lots of sights a bit and we therefore spent the rest of the day doing a lot of eating and swimming.

Day Two: Ohrid Old Town

“The old town of Ohrid on its hill is struck as thickly with churches as a pomander with cloves”

Ohrid town from the castle
We woke up to find that I had committed one of the most basic travelling errors there are.  A brief look at a time zone map before I had arrived had suggested to me that my whole trip would be in the same time zone, but when my very confused phone tried to set off the morning alarm, it turned out that we have lost an hour.  This means that we spent all of yesterday an hour out of sync with the rest of the country, which is a first for me.  Having got ourselves sorted time-wise we set out on the Lonely Planet designed DIY walking tour of the old town.  The first sight was the Sveta Bogorodica Perivlepta chapel, which we were given half price tickets for (as it was a Sunday) and where a lovely woman showed us around and explained the frescoes.  She seemed to be suggesting that the frescoes were fairly revolutionary but as somebody who isn’t very clued up about styles of frescoes this went over my head a bit.  Amusingly she seemed to think that Ellie was a local guide and after showing me round asked where I had brought her from - apparently she looks ‘very Balkan’.

Sveti Kilment church, Macedonia
After this first Byzantine church we followed the walking tour to the old Roman theatre which bad been partly converted to allow gladiators to fight there.  It was difficult to work out what was new as the arena is now used for concerts.  Overlooking the entire town is the fortress, the walls of which are in remarkably good condition.  The entry free is 30 MKD (about 40p) and the views from the top over the lake and the town.  The fortress has been occupied by Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans, representing the strategic value of the town.  This is the highest point of the town and with the temperature rising to the mid 30s it was nice to make our way downhill to the next site, the church of Sveti Kliment.  As we got closer to the church it seemed that this one looked a lot cleaner and more modern than the others in town.  When we read the signs outside we found out that this church had been reconstructed from the original Byzantine plans, allowing a unique insight into what the towns other churches would have looked like back in the day.

Sveti Jovan church, Macedonia
The next stop was the church of Sveti Jovan, the most photographed place in Macedonia and one of the most picturesque places that I have ever visited.  A wedding was taking place outside so it was fairly bus, but in a good way as we could see the church 'in action’. On our way back to town we looked into a little chapel built around a natural 'holy water’ spring and then walked along the beach we had swam at the day before.  It was now getting pretty hot so we went for a rest at the apartment.  In the evening we went for a meal at a restaurant near the Sveti Sofia Cathedral where I sampled the very Balkan 'grilled cheese’ - essentially a pot of hot cheese with bits of meat in.  The town was pretty busy so we walked along the front, past the bars and stalls and fairground rides.  There can’t be many funfairs which have stalls selling religious icons next to lurid t-shirts, but I guess that’s Macedonia for you.

Day Three: Sveti Naum

“Here in Sveti Naum, magic can be worked”

Sveti Naum chuch, Ohrid
With one last full day at Ohrid, we decided to go onto the lake itself on a boat trip to a church at the other end. The church of Sveti Naum is dedicated to Saint (Sveti means Saint) Naum, one of the first Christian missionaries in the region.  His body is buried there and legend has it that if you put your ear against his tomb you can still hear his heart beating. The boat journey to the church was pleasant and when we arrived we could clearly see some of the Albanian towns on the other side. Curiosity got the better of me and we headed straight to the church and to the tomb. A crowd of people had gathered around and were taking it in turns to kneel before the tomb with their heads resting against it.  I was pretty skeptical when it got to me but I waited for a minute or so and believe it or not I could hear a hear rhythmic thudding.  Whether this was just my own heart, beating faster under the pressure of lying on a tomb in front of a crowd full of people, or a cheap trick by the monks or an actual miracle I don’t know - but I definitely heard something.  Ellie decided I had been too long and only briefly knelt beside the tomb, but she heard something too.

A little spooked out we went to the beach that is adjacent to the church.  The whole site was a mental asylum 70 years ago when Rebecca West visited, but now it is a crowded tourist attraction with bars and shops - the asylum itself is now an expensive hotel and restaurant. The beach is popular as one of the few sandy shores on the lake. Another feature are the natural springs that are nearby and the incredibly clear river that runs into the lake from the mountains. I read in several places that the water from the river is so pure that it doesn’t mix with the lake and outfalls at the other end, having passed through 20km of the lake itself, in its same pure form.  Again, I was skeptical about this, but when we were swimming you could feel it was true - there were numerous cold patches that clearly hadn’t mixed with the rest of the water.

We were given 6 hours at the church and beach before we had to head back to Ohrid.  The journey back was extremely pleasant as we watched the sun setting over the Albanian mountains, reflected in the completely still lake.  It was getting dark when we got back so we cleaned ourselves up and went straight out for a dinner at the front.  In the morning we would be getting the bus to nearby Bitola, sadly leaving Lake Ohrid behind.

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