If Ohrid isn’t photogenic, I don’t know where is. Even in winter, the town on the edge of Lake Ohrid is beautiful – perhaps especially in winter, when crowds are non-existent and the place is populated with just the locals and the stormy skies, snow-dusted roofs and scattered ruins can be explored without the interruptions of tour groups or drunk backpackers. I’d hazard a guess that it’s a bit of a party town in summer.
I took a bus from Skopje to Ohrid on Boxing Day, with a Chinese woman I spent three days with and with whom I never exchanged names. Ridiculous as that sounds, it happens quite often when travelling. By the time you realise you don’t know somebody’s name it’s usually at a point where it’s too embarrassing to ask – you keep hoping the other person will broach the subject while undoubtedly they’re waiting for you to. You keep hoping you’ll meet someone else so that you have an excuse to introduce yourself, or try to add them on Facebook and ask how to spell their name. [This can be a little awkward if they say something like ‘the usual way’.]
If I’d been disappointed in the lack of snow on Christmas Day, Boxing Day made up for it in droves. We stopped on hop of a hill for a lunch break and I don’t think my fingers have ever frozen all the way to the bone so quickly, being the time it took for me to get off the bus, take my gloves off and pull my camera out. I was regretting not wearing thermal tights under my increasingly thin jeans. And even though we’d literally stopped at a restaurant adjoining a petrol station the view was still very pretty.
Arriving in Ohrid, I managed to get a good price for a taxi to the hostel I’d booked – apparently the local price, and the hostel owner was very impressed. He wanted to make sure that we hadn’t been ripped off. After settling into the dorm and relaxing over a glass of red wine [I’m travelling, damn it, and it’s always five o’clock somewhere in the world!], I figured that given my limited time I’d better get out and explore the town.
While evidence of snow could be found melting on the rooftops, the cobblestone streets of Ohrid were simply slippery – and my trusty Doc Martens were struggling at times. Apparently ten years of wear for secondhand boots had threatened the integrity of the soles for quite some time…not to mention the very un-waterproof cracks in the leather! The main street offered a few rather youthful Santas as well as some tacky souvenirs, but as the street opened onto the waterfront the stalls faded and the lake appeared, sapphire beneath a bright yet cloudy sky, framed by the town, footpaths and a raised walkway around the cliff side.
I followed the path along the water and beside the cliff, passing white-painted houses, closed down bamboo-roofed summer bars and rickety wooden boats, upturned and with peeling paint. It was quiet, with no noise coming from the town and only the soft motion of the water and the cries of birds to keep me company. As the walkway ended I made my way back into the lanes of the old town, passing the 11th century St Sophia Church on my way to St John Kaneo Church.
The path eventually led me to the old stone church, which was built in the late 13th century. It’s in the perfect location, although I was there at the wrong time for perfect pictures! Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid, the church is supposed to have some lovely Armenian style frescoes but was closed when I visited. Still, it’s a beautiful place to just sit and reflect.
From the St. John Kaneo Church, it’s a lovely uphill [yes, I actually used those two words in the same sentence] walk to Plaoshnik, a complex comprising an archaeological excavation as well as a reconstructed Church of Saints Kliment and Panteleimon, which sits in the centre of what was once a 5th century basilica. Sound confusing? It’s also one of the most sacred and holy sites in Slavonic Christianity – a pretty important site for the religious identity of Macedonians. I can’t say I blame them for deciding that Ohrid was a sacred place – aside from its natural beauty, the lake was apparently considered holy long before the days of Christianity so it seems they just continued an ancient tradition.
I met a man at Plaoshnik who offered to tell me all about the site, and both its Christian and pre-Christian history and importance. It turned out that he was some kind of philosopher who believed that prior to the Christian era in Ohrid the lake was the centre of a community that worshipped a mother-goddess. We ended up chatting about archaeology and history and religion and early matriarchal societies and a whole bunch of other things. The thing I most regret is not documenting our conversation in my journal, as I found it to be quite fascinating. We disagreed on a number of things, but he also gave me a list of articles on the subjects including some of his published work. He was a little strange, and none of his articles were published in particularly respectable journals, but interesting nonetheless. I think we both enjoyed talking with someone who had a little bit of knowledge about each other’s interests. He was impressed that I could explain the symbolism in the mosaics to him – the only kind of use I ever get out of my studies is when visiting archaeological sites, churches or temples!
I visited a little local restaurant without an English menu for dinner, and was very pleased with the meal I ordered. I’m not entirely sure what it was, but it was delicious. My Chinese friend [who turned out to be twenty years older than I would have guessed at 64] and I polished off the bottle of red wine and discovered that the only way to make taking a shower bearable was to take the little tiny heater in with you and balance it precariously on the sink.
The next morning we got up early; we’d decided to visit Sveti Naum Monastery together. Sveti Naum was a little out of town. We attempted to take a bus there, however after waiting for 45 minutes at the bus stop and being told in very broken English that there wouldn’t be a bus for about two hours we decided to get a taxi. It was down to me to bargain for it, and we managed to get a decent price with the fifth taxi driver we tried. It was a nice drive there, mostly along the coast of the lake and my companion spent the entire trip with her face to her camera and her camera jammed in the partly open window. When we arrived at Sveti Naum it took us a bit of time to find the monastery, not expecting that we’d have to enter the hotel to get there. We checked out the hotel garden, which was full of peacocks strutting around vainly as well as scurrying squirrels. I found these more exciting than the peacocks, as I’ve seen far more peacocks than squirrels. I tried to catch one but the tiny little critters move bloody fast. Probably a good thing, as when I told the guy who ran the hostel he laughed at me and warned me that they bite really, really hard for such tiny creatures.
The best thing about the peacocks was the sign that said ‘Warning: Peacocks Can Harm Your Children.’
Sveti Naum itself was a surprise – I hadn’t expected it to be so tiny. The present church was built in phases over the 16th and 17th century on foundations dating to the 9th century. The walls – like most Orthodox chapels – are covered in frescoes in deep, rich blues and reds and golds, and it’s these that most people come to see. The saint is also buried within the church. Photography inside is banned, disappointingly, but it’s well worth the small entrance fee if you like churches, religious art or architecture. Although, disappointingly may be the wrong word – given that so many tourists are pathologically incapable of obeying ‘no flash photography’ signs [apparently such signs apply to everyone but them], I’d rather have no pictures but know that the frescoes will survive for everyone else to see. [It also prevents me from wanting to smash the cameras of the disrespectful, which is probably a good thing as I don’t want to replace other people’s expensive cameras.]
We had to stop a number of times on the way back so that my companion could photograph basically everything she saw. It did start getting a little irritating – I felt bad for the poor taxi driver as I felt that she wasn’t being very polite in her ‘requests’. I think it’s a cultural thing, as I felt embarrassed to be in a restaurant with her and her curt demands. I don’t think she was being intentionally rude, but it still made me uncomfortable.
Back in town, we split up as I wanted to visit the fortress and she wanted to walk the route I’d taken the previous day. I took a circuitous path maintaining the vague direction of the Tsar Samuel fortress which, of course, was at the top of a hill. On the way I stopped at a falling-down church in desperate need of repair, a whole bunch of other churches [there’s a lot of them – it’s a medieval town] and at the Icon Gallery which was, unsurprisingly, full of icons. Fortunately I like icons. I took the road to the fortress from the Upper Gate. Entrance to the fortress cost only 40 denars and after entering I came to understand why: it’s really not that exciting. At all. You can walk part of the walls, and other than that it’s just a mound of rubble inside. Still, the view from the wall was not displeasing.
I headed downhill, passing Plaoshnik again before wandering some more random streets and photographing colourful old cars and the spectacular view of the snow melting on red rooftops over the town, with the odd cross and spire bursting out of the low skyline and snow-capped Albanian mountains in the background.
While there are some places I’ve visited and felt disappointed because I was there at the wrong time of year, I think that Ohrid is astonishingly beautiful in winter. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything being there in December – sure, I didn’t do much in the way of water activities, but the town itself and the surrounds are lovely to explore even in the cold. I can understand why it would be popular in the summer, but I loved the fact that it felt like I was one of about four visitors in town. I liked that it didn’t feel too touristy – no one was hassling you to buy anything, no endless offers of boat trips or the like. I felt free to do what I wanted. If you don’t care about the weather not being amenable to swimming, out of season is the perfect time to visit.
Still the only people in the hostel, I was relaxing on the balcony with a cup of tea in the evening when my friend decided that she didn’t actually know how to close doors and locked me out. To be fair, the door to the balcony was actually a door-shaped and sized window and there’s no way to properly close it without locking it. Still, it was on the third floor, the sun had set and I was freezing. I was banging on the door for almost thirty minutes before the manager downstairs heard something and came up to let me in – just as I was considering climbing down the drainpipe followed by some throttling.
The next morning we took a bus together back to Skopje; I was headed to Istanbul that night on yet another long, overnight bus trip. Thankfully we didn’t have to go back to the bus station, as one of the buses went through the town and there was a disreputable looking roadside kiosk the size of a phone booth [does anyone remember those things?] where we bought a ticket for the bumpy freezing ride back to the capital.
Back in Skopje we both had a few hours before our respective buses out of the country, and I was shouted dinner to avoid having to withdraw more denars for a meal. Plus my friend had too many left and had decided it was too cold to look for an exchange place. So, despite my discomfort at how she spoke to the waiters, I couldn’t really say much. I got a free meal after all! And travelling with a much older woman may perhaps have helped me prepare for travelling with my mother – not that she’s rude to waiters [I don’t think she knows how to be rude], but in that my Chinese friend lacked anything resembling a sense of direction, was nervous about bargaining with taxi drivers and didn’t know how to buy a bus ticket without a travel agent. And don’t get me started about crossing the street! She certainly gave me much practice with this whole patience thing I keep hearing about.
[Mum’s probably going to kill me for that. She’s a good thirteen years younger than my Ohrid travel buddy after all!]