Travels in Europe

Where it all began – by car through Southern Macedonia (1)

Ohrid and the Lake Ohrid

Spring has arrived in Macedonia. The trees are turning green and the sun is going strong. Perfect weather to go out and to discover the natural treasure of Macedonia. 

For a total of three days my boyfriend and I rented a car[1]. He, being our driver, was looking towards the trip with mixed feelings – how is the driving on the Balkans, especially on zigzaging mountain roads? We will find out.

We start the trip on the Mother Theresa Highway towards Tetovo (Northwest from Skopje) which later makes a turn towards the South heading to the highly praised city Ohrid. We decided to rent a small Chevrolet Spark which is not happy about the continous incline. It is difficult to say at what point the motorway ended, but at some point we have passed the last tolling station and to our left and right side workers are eagerly constructing roads through the mountain to expand the highway all down to the South.

Ohrid and Lake Ohrid

Traffic is not as bad as expected and we follow the course of the road three hours all the way down until the fortress of Ohrid appears on a hill and we – rightly – guess the lake Ohrid in the valley  in front of us. The lake Ohrid exists since millions of years already and belongs to the eldest lakes in the world. With an area of almost 350m² it is one of the biggest lakes of the Balkans. Several mountain springs supply it with fresh water and through the limestone mountain of the Galicica National Park water is exchanged between the Lake Ohrid and the Lake Prespa on the other side of the mountain range. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The Lake Ohrid belongs partly to Macedonia and partly to Albania and on both sides of the border thousands of tourists are attracted by its beauty in summer. You can find hotels at every corner and already on our way into the town every house offers rooms to rent.

Birth place of Macedonian Culture: Ohrid

We follow the signs “Center” into the old town, searching for parking. Finally, we ask a group of taxi drivers for help who not only happily guide us the way to a parking spot, but also engage in a Macedonian-English-German conversation with us. One of them gets a travel prospect from his car to show us the ideal tour around town, covering all history-charged sites. „This is Ohrid. This is where it all began!“ With all he means “Macedonia”. We start out with very tasty lunch in the shadow of a 900-years old plane tree (which isn’t too impressive afterall) and then start walking uphill to discover the old town. The weather is perfect, the thermostat shows 25 degrees, the sky is blue and a small wind refreshes us.

Small streets in Ohrid

Ohrid is the opposite to Skopje. Small, clean cobble stone streets meander through the hills, through the gaps between houses the Lake Ohrid sparkels in the sun and the people stop as we pass and greet us friendly. A tourist guide explains us that the Ohrid people have the sun in their heart and wishes us a good time in town. We pass several old churches (which look for us who we know nothing all pretty similar), take a short rest in the ancient theater and continue walking until we arrive at the peak of the hill at the old fortress of Ohrid. As students we pay only half of the entrance fee (about 1,60€ for the two of us).

Not much is left of the formerly powerful Samuil’s Fortress except for the old outer walls, but the entrance fee is worth it for the breathtaking view from the walls upon the city, the lake and the surrounding mountain. We stand, protected from the sun, at the observation platform and try to process all the different shades of “blue” being presented in front of us. After every blink the lake seems to be dipped in new colours. Our looks are fading away into the distance.

Down we proceed through a small conifer forest towards “Plaosnik”. Lovely lanterns line the path and pink-blossoming cherry trees among the pine trees give the forest a romantic look. Before the Ottomans destroyed it the church Sv. Pantolejmon (built in the 9th century) was located in Plaosnik. The important scholar Saint Kliment of Ohrid was buried – and then re-located for the protection of his remains from the Ottoman emperors – in this church. After several tumultuous centuries his remains were moved back to his old grave and the destroyed church was reconstructed on top of the old foundations.

A lot of construction and archeological digging is going on around Sv. Kliment
New meets old

This way a very interesting picture of a very pretty church is created. In the inside old mosaics and shards of frescoes are being displayed. Around the church the first Slavic university, founded by the Saint Kliment in the 9th century, is being reconstructed at the moment. Expect for the ticket seller at the entrance, a philosopher and several lizards we are by ourselves and sit down at a wall facing the lake to enjoy the silence and the beauty of the place. If I would be to build a university anywhere I would surely choose this spot as well without any doubt. The interesting connection between old and new quickly brings us to the judgement that this might be our most favourite spot in Ohrid.

Even though we have seen many pretty buildings, we have not been to the church yet which can be found on all postcards and travel guides about Macedonia and which has been announced to be the sight of Macedonia. We walk straight towards it on our way down: a small, almost unremarkable orthodox church which might not even be worth mentioning if it would not be located at such a picturesque location that it is almost cheesy.

Surrounded by a small garden the Sv. Jovan Kaneo Church which was built in the 14th century stands on a cliffy ledge and sits enthroned above the Lake Ohrid. While we do maybe not appreciate the sight as it would be expected, the travellers of a Japanese group drown each other’s cheers. Still, sitting on a warm wall above the church, we enjoy a very peaceful and calm moment, watching lizards  in the sun and dandelions in the wind.

After a three hours walk through old bricks we now decide to stroll along the banks of the lake, pass the pretty bar “potpes” and wander back to the harbour of Ohrid and then out car.

The waterside of the Lake Ohrid is fantastic. During this time of the year the water is just warm enough to dip the fingertips or toes in and instead of swimming we sit down on the warm pebble beach, admire the crystal clear lake and let the pebbles jump at the glassy water.

Along the waterside towards Sv. Naum

Even if Ohrid is not very touristy in March (the endless souvenir shops in the city center allow guesses how busy the town is in summer) we decide to stay somewhere nearby for the night to make sure to have a relaxed and quiet night.

From Ohrid a pretty, narrow street leads to the tip of the lake where the monastery Sv. Naum lies near the Albanian border. On our way we pass several small villages. In one of these mountain settlements, Elsani, we start looking for “Ristos Guesthouse”, recommended in our travel guide. As we fight our way up gravel paths, old people at the wayside look at us sceptically and with a fierce expression in their faces. After a few reckless turning maneuveurs – we already saw our Spark crash down the mountains – we finally arrive in front of the guesthouse only to stand outside closed doors: off-season. One of the sceptically-looking women turns out to be a kind and very helpful person who called several neighbours before I could possibly say anything. With a lot of head-shaking, hand-waggling and some stuttered Macedonian I can prevent that the owner of the guesthouse is called in from Ohrid. A few metre from the scene a donkey stands under a tree and chews peacefully on his hay.

In the last sun of the day we turn around and drive one village further – not before we have called the guesthouse though – to Lagadin where we manage to find the Robinson Sunset House after a short search.

Home away from Home: Guests  in the Robinson Sunset House[2]

making Rakija at sunset

We are welcomed by four men and one woman who gather in front of the guesthouse’s gates around an oven. They are busy producing Rakija. We quickly find ourselves with a glass of the freshly destilled fruit brandy, being said to be the binding link of all Balkan countries. Neither of us is particularly knowledgable about alcohol, but that this drink is of high quality – and very strong – that is easy to taste. Just in time I point out to my boyfriend that  one is not expected to down a shot of Rakija in one bit, but to instead enjoy sip for sip. While we drink the last drops, one of the men builds a fireplace from two bricks and some embers from the Rakija-oven to barbecue home-made sausages on a skewer. All this happens in front of the marvellous scenery with the sun setting above Ohrid Lake and we must think how beautiful life is just before the owner of the guesthouse guides us to our room.

The guesthouse is family-led and the owners built the entire property by themselves, planted flowers and designed the rooms and garden with a lot of lovely details. Our room is an example of beautiful carpenter’s art. Before we go sleep in a comfy bed under massive wooden beams we enjoy the sight of the dark lake and the even darker sky above it, sprinkled with shiny stars.

We wake up the next morning earlier than expected. Balkan-Beats sound from the yard and echo a little bit in the mountain, the morning sun moves slowly up behind the mountain peaks of the Galicica mountain range. The air is fresh and clear, early birds are tweeting and the Rakija is being destilled a second time to make it even finer. We politely refuse a drink for breakfast and say goodbye, until the next time. We have two National Parks on our agenda for today!

New day, new adventures

After a short detour to Ohrid to fill our tank – we do not want to strand in the National Park with an empty tank – we pass the lakeroad the 5th time, this time South towards the monastery Sv. Naum again. We cannot get enough of the beautiful scenery. The sun throws its light on the reed and makes it look like pure gold. The peaks at the other side of the lake are still covered by morning fog. We make a quick stop by the site of the Bay of Bones leading towards  Michov Grad.

Michov Grad

The museum of Michov Grad is a reconstruction of a pre-historian pile settlement probably from the late Bronze Age. A diver found finds and pile pieces a while ago which are now included in the reconstruction of the settlement. Down to the museum a small path leads through blossoming trees and the lovely site fits just perfectly into the small villages nearby. At half past eight we reach the spot we were looking forward to since waking up: A signpost leading the way to Otesevo, a village on the other side of the Galicica mountain, guides us our way into the National Park.

The first part of our trip was focused on old architecture and the foundations of Macedonian culture, but now we begin our adventorous trip through the stunning nature of Southern Macedonia to spots where public transportation barely goes (except for a taxi).  Off we go, into the mountain, towards the sun.

Blick von oben auf den Ohrid See von 1600m Höhe

The second part of our story will follow soon!

A few tips 

[1] Relax Car rental. Book online for 10% discount. . We paid 58€ for our Chevrolet Spark plus 50€ gas (the tank was much fuller when we gave the car back though). We drove nearly 700km.

[2] Possibly the best housing near Ohrid:  Robinson Sunset House. 10€/ night in a dorm or 20€/25€ for a double room, view on the lake and creative and friendly atmosphere. Boat tours in summer, located right by the Galicica Nationalpark. Turn left at the city limit sign of Lagadin (coming from Ohrid), following the signs “Robinson” uphill. Phone: +389 75 727 252

In Lagadin you can dine in a hotel restaurant for more money than elsewhere. It’s still not too expensive and the food is good.

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