“This is as good as it gets. Get comfortable, we’re settling in”. We sat down. Saturday in Ohrid, Macedonia, is much busier than you would think a small lakeside town of 50,000 is capable of. Cafe tables are plentiful, but empty seats are scarce. Strolling locals look that extra bit sharp compared to the weekday crowd. It’s a sunny spring afternoon, but the winter chill hasn’t yet left the air.
There just aren’t that many places in the world like the historic city of Ohrid, Macedonia. Lake Ohrid is the oldest lake in Europe, possibly 10 million years old. And despite over ninety kilometers of scenic shore being shared between Macedonia and it’s neighbour Albania, I’m pretty happy just sticking to a few hundred meters on the East coast of the lake. Ohrid, is the small city of dreams. But it was never in my dreams.
Growing up, I had no idea about the Balkans. As a typical gen-x’er, I was born in the 70′s, grew up in the 80′s, and got drunk in the 90′s. I lived in typical western suburbia, a latch-key kid who wasn’t going to be doing any international travel until I was old enough to get a job and pay for it myself. My interest in the world was piqued mainly by one medium – television.
Like many from the Balkan nations, Silvio Rivera migrated to Australia in the 1960′s – and helped open the eyes of Australians to the rest of the world. For decades, every week Silvio would use his dulcet tones to introduce and narrate one of my favourite weekly programs – “Thalassa”. It was a series of generally European documentaries, where the common theme is life on the water.
Balkan settlements on the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas were often featured on Thalassa. With sparse narration and the sounds of languages I didn’t understand, personal subjects were usually leathery fishermen wearing funny hats – steering their boats through glassy watered ports to offload the days catch, and always accompanied by plentiful cigarette smoking and booze drinking. I dreamed of visiting these communist-era Yugoslavian lands. However, I don’t ever remember land-locked Macedonia ever being featured.
Macedonia wasn’t high on my must-see list. Being from an island nation, I’ve always considered land locked nations with suspicion. Until I reached Ohrid. The lake, and the town, is a beauty. A lengthier description of Ohrid wouldn’t be of much use. Because even more remarkable than the appearance of Ohrid, are the emotions and the feelings created by simply being here. And those feelings, are truly indescribable. It gets under your skin, and makes you question the very thought of ever leaving.
I’m not the only one who recognises how special Ohrid is. UNESCO world heritage sites are recognised either for cultural significance, or for the beauty and importance of the nature within an area. Very rarely, UNESCO finds an area that has both outstanding human cultural value, as well as important natural attributes. Ohrid is one of these few sites worldwide that meet both criteria. In the words of UNESCO, the region of Ohrid “should be protected for the common heritage of humanity”.
As with the non-stop scenery, the evidence of a long human settlement in Ohrid is abundant. A well preserved but genuine and even rustic old town features a range of distinctive architecture spanning more than two millennium. From ancient stone churches, through to the “new” houses built during Ohrid’s wealthy Turkish period in the mid 19th century. Due to the number of important historic churches (more than 300), Ohrid is referred to as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. Just to prove the depth of culture here, I’ve also been told it’s the “Ibiza of Macedonia”, thanks to the number of bars and clubs – they’re especially heaving during the summer months.
Ohrid’s old streets and alleys are cobble-stoned, winding, and undulating. A 2000 year old Greek ampitheatre sits downtown. Above it, the castle-like Samuil’s fortress looms on a forested hilltop. In between, houses, schools, stores, and restaurants are wedged in. Ohrid may be a showcase of history – but it’s also a real working town with barely any loss of authenticity. I’m not sure if this is an example of how to do gentrification correctly, or if this is just the way Ohrid has always been.
With a huge list of attractions worth visiting, it’s easy to forget that number one thing to do in Ohrid, is to just be here. And dependent on the time of the year, or the day of the week, you may or may not have company. Ohrid definitely isn’t a secret – in the summer months, the population swells and tourists can outnumber locals 3 to 1. Right now, in early spring, it’s a local vibe and tourists are few.
In some ways, it’s a shame that I’m just one of those tourists.
Because, I would quite happily be an Ohrid local.
If anyone can think of any good reason to leave, I’m all ears.
PS, do you realise how cheap the Balkans are? Would you like to see a post outlining what is undoubtedly the cheapest, and best value destination in European tourism? I’ve been keeping track of expenses, let me know in the comments if this would be of any interest to you.
UPDATE: I have now written an article showing just how inexpensive this part of the world is. It just may be the cheapest place in Europe. <— click
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