Monday, September 26, 2011
Lake Ohrid is paradise. Straddling the border between Albania and Macedonia in the Balkans, the ancient body of water lies at the base of green mountains and stone fortresses. Its perimeter is dotted with towns and villages that are home to some of the most important churches in Macedonian Orthodox history. The most famous of these cities is aptly called Ohrid, and I was excited to enter the 77th country on my 90 under 30 Travel Project there.
If Ohrid is paradise, traveling there from Tirana is exactly the opposite. The bus company that sold me my ticket failed to mention that instead of taking the direct, two-hour route to Ohrid, the bus was going to drive all the way in the opposite direction first.
Yes, to get to Ohrid I traveled way out to the city of Durresi on the coast and then traversed the entire country of Albania before reaching the border with Macedonia. By the time I got to Struga, the closest town to Ohrid, I had been on the bus for five-and-a-half hours. While the Albanian countryside was scenic, it wasn’t five-and-a-half-hours scenic.
After sharing a taxi to the town with some fellow Americans that I met on the bus, I staggered up a tiny cobblestone street to my accommodation in Ohrid, Vila Mal Sveti Kliment.
I had been upgraded to the penthouse apartment, which consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom, and a large living room with a kitchen. The furniture was beautiful, and the decor was unique to the region.
But the best part about the apartment was the view. The panoramic windows looked out onto the lake, offering stunning vistas of orange tile rooftops and royal blue water.
My lodging was located on a quiet street right at the junction between the modern part of the city and the historic hillside where most of the sightseeing highlights were located. After settling into my room, I took a walk in the town.
I started my stroll in the modern area, where there was a large pedestrianized shopping street. Stores sold everything from clothing to ice cream, and the place was bustling. Further away from the lake, I stumbled upon a 900-year-old plane tree with a massive trunk, as well as a fruit and vegetable market laden with fresh produce, peppers in particular.
In fact, I didn’t even need to go to the market to find fresh fruit in Ohrid. There was fresh produce all over. Every street I walked down had trees dripping with golden pears, ripe apples, big blackberries, and fat figs. Bright red peppers hung from window sills, and the whole city had an aura of abundance.
As did the lake. After visiting the market, I walked along Lake Ohrid. As I did, I passed fishermen with their reels and saw tiny minnows swarming around the ships in the harbor. The high season had just ended, but there were still a few boats from Ohrid to Sveti Naum, a nearby city with a famous 17th century church.
With only a day and a half by the lake, I didn’t have time for Sveti Naum. But it wasn’t a problem. The historic part of Ohrid was bursting with religious buildings. Everything from 11th century Catholic cathedrals to icon-filled Orthodox churches and beautiful historic mosques graced the city.
On my second day in town, I explored some of these temples to the deities. I started at the tiny church with the big name, Sveta Bogorodica Bolnicka. Originally used in the 14th century to quarantine visitors to Ohrid that might have carried the plague, the pint-sized place of piety was still a working church. The historic frescoes were stunning, and the wood carving in the space above the altar was beautiful.
Speaking of frescoes, I soon moved onto the Sveta Sofija cathedral, which had works of art dating back to the 11th century. The church had been converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period, and hundreds of years of whitewashing the walls meant that the Christian art underneath was remarkably intact. It was breathtaking.
From there I walked along a boardwalk and beside several beachside restaurants to reach the end of the town. High on a hill overlooking the lake sat the 13th century church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo. Its umbrella-like dome was reminiscent of the Armenian style, and while its interior was a bit bare, its stunning architecture and beautiful views over the lake more than compensated for it.
A set of stairs led up another hill from there, and as I climbed them, the way became a walking trail. Soon I found myself in the middle of an enchanted pine forest. Continuing, I came across a fortress. Built long ago to protect Ohrid from enemy invaders, the walls of Car Samoil’s Castle now act as a great vista point.
Retracing my steps a bit, I meandered over to the majestic modern church of Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon. While that particular church was built in recent times, it sat right next to a 4th century one with beautiful Roman mosaics and a baptismal font.
Another Roman creation in the area was an amphitheater. Uncovered in 1984, the classical semi-circle was repurposed for concerts and shows in the city.
Not far from there was the stunning city gate, which was just a few steps away from the famous 13th century church of Sveti Kliment. This particular church was so rich in historic art and iconography that I could have stayed for hours taking it all in. It was one of the most stunning interiors I have ever seen.
After I had made a pilgrimage to all of the famous churches in Ohrid, I spent time meandering up and down the cobblestone streets, passing in and out of an art gallery, a restaurant or two, and a paper making studio with what the proprietor said was one of two official copies of the original Gutenberg printing press (the other being in Bled, Slovenia, another place with a stunning lake that reminded me a lot of Ohrid).
At the end of my stay on Lake Ohrid, the owner of my accommodation was kind enough to give me a ride to the bus station, which was several kilometers outside of the old town. I bought my ticket to travel to Skopje, and let myself be lured out of paradise by the call of the capital of Macedonia.