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North Macedonia 2021: Part 4

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

23rd August:

For my first full day in Ohrid, I realised I needed to go into town quickly for breakfast after I saw the spread a German couple had made for theirs. They mentioned a bus left regularly from the main road, so I set off on my way, and grabbed a little something from the nearby shop while I waited. In the end, a passing motorist stopped to ask if I needed a lift, so I hopped into what I thought was simple hitchhike. In fact, he said in simple English after we were already driving away, he was an independent taxi driver who asked for Ден200. That’s still less than a licenced driver, but it was a sneaky method of catching fares. He’d lost his job in the fallout from covid and was undercutting the taxi companies until something changed. He was playing what I assumed to be Macedonian pop music on the radio, and he hummed along to the bombastic beats along the way. The date on the dashboard said 1/1/1997. I arrived at 12, and after paying him the fare I turned towards the centre of Ohrid again. The small hit of food I’d had before the drive would last me long enough to find something more substantial, and since I was already in town, I figured I’d make a day of it.

I began to get a feel for the town; now that I had more time to explore, I could better understand its charms. It also exposed my complete ignorance of Ohrid outside of the little information I could remember from my Byzantine Empire lectures at university. The sum of that knowledge was limited to it being the place where St. Clement of Ohrid (surprisingly) devised the Cyrillic alphabet, named after his contemporary and colleague St. Cyril. Ohrid was also the site of the 'world’s oldest university’ according to our guide in Skopje, though I’m not as confident with that claim as he was. It is no longer in use. I had no clue that there was such a vibrant pearl industry here though, who would’ve guessed? Seems there’s a lot of pearls in the lake here, and the locals certainly want to let you know about their quality. I think I saw more pearl dealers than I’d even seen pearls in my life up until that point.

At the top of the town is the old fortress, which I could just about see from my position by the waterfront. To get there, I had to walk through the Old Town, which was as picturesque as the name suggests. The low-level buildings were mostly white stone with terracotta roofs. Flowerpots popped out from behind corners or sat on steps waiting for the rain to arrive. Some of the more popular bars had lake-adjacent seating that you could spy through the open doors, which also allowed a cool breeze to flow through to the street. As I started to climb the hill, the bars gave way to quiet hotels and church courtyards, one of which, the Church of Saint Sophia, was in the middle of preparing for a wedding. I decided to come back later.

Quickly I was up amongst the private houses and decided to follow a dirt track through a copse to see where it would go. I ended up on the other side of the ticket office for the monastery (or the remains of one). Truthfully it was mostly ruins, but there was a newer church occupying the space that had a wonderful sea view. The whole complex was complimented by Orthodox chanting projected from handy speakers, completing the ambience. Said ambience was that of an abandoned churchyard with disembodied voices singing on a bright sunny day.

The view was nice, and it only improved once I reached the fort at the top. For a moment I was in a pine forest before arriving at the entrance, which was unexpected and made me think I’d made a wrong turn. Clearly, I hadn’t, and what’s more, when I entered the fort, I realised I could turn sharply to the right and walk up to the ramparts, avoiding the ticket booth completely. The views were better than at the monastery below, but the ruins of the walls were so uneven that it was barely safe enough for two people to pass by. Also, the size of the viewing platform meant you had to dither until somebody else left. However, this did give you plenty of time to take in the whole thing, including the warm breeze and clean air. The feeling when you breathe in clean air is underrated. It was certainly worth the walk.

On the trip back down, I passed by a different church – Holy Mary Perybleptos – and went into the little courtyard preceding the entrance. I heard a frantic meowing coming from somewhere but couldn’t immediately place it. Finally, I discovered it was in a box, and upon asking someone if the cat was alright, they chuckled and lifted the blanket off the top. It was a tiny ginger kitten, very squeaky and very restless. It had been abandoned by its mum and was now being looked after by one of the residents. I was allowed to hold it and pet it, making it one of the best days of my life. Afterwards, I looked inside the church and discovered a rainbow of frescos that filled up every possible scrap of wall space. I’d missed the sign that asked that no photos be taken, and when I was confronted about it, I apologised and left. Despite the shameful exit, it was well worth dropping in to see. I imagine that the depth of detail is comparable to that of the cave frescos in Cappadocia back in their heyday.

Next up was the ancient Macedonian Odeon (Macedodeon?), and whilst it was cool to see how intact it was, relatively speaking, there wasn't much to say for it. It would make a fun place to watch theatre or movies from, for sure. ON my way back to the lakeside, I once again passed the wedding at the first church, although this time they were taking photos. I noticed two drones hovering overhead for different angles. I didn’t realise people had started using them for weddings, but I suppose it makes sense. It makes me wonder what weddings will look like in ten years. All robots maybe? Robot priests? That would be neat. I thought it best not to invade their privacy.

I took a right at the waterfront to continue up the lake and away from the town. I walked along a wooden jetty that skirted around the bottom of the cliffs I’d stood on top of before. I wasn’t walking over the water for long, and it was crazy to see how busy the tiny strips of beach were there. A couple of trees supplied not nearly enough shade for everyone, and people were lounging on any scrap of space left. One man was sunbathing on an upturned rowing boat and was dangerously close to burning. A few students were chatting in the shade of a weeping willow. A young couple were playing cards on hot stones. A child was struggling to build a sandcastle. A small dog was sleeping at the feet of two old ladies. It was a nice route past a part of Ohrid I did not expect to exist. I didn’t expect the cliffs to last so long, nor all the houses and hotels fighting each other for a lake view. At a certain point, when seeing that the path continued up and over the next set of cliffs, I realise I may be walking forever if I followed any further, so I stopped at a self-contained chapel sheltered by the same overhanging cliffs. There was a small overflowing fountain in the centre and a few boats moored underneath another willow, and a mother cat slept on the low wall, with four kittens together in a pile on the floor, all of which framed an uninterrupted vista back across the peaceful lake to Lagadin and beyond. In other words, it was the perfect place to sit and stay awhile.

The walk back to Ohrid was much quicker. I decided I’d seen enough for one day and went to grab some lunch. I found a bakery that looked promising, and what I found was a revelation. Macedonian pastries are an event. I loved the filo pastry cheese roll, but the star of the show was absolutely the cherry turnover. That was the best pastry I’ve eaten in a long time. Come to Macedonia for the pastries, everyone! Lastly, I took the bus back to Lagadin. It was, again, a minibus, but this one didn't close the doors before driving away to let in some cooler air. Dinner was a homemade carbonara at the hostel, and I almost ate raw bacon thinking it was ham. And that was the end of the 22nd.


24th August:

After tonight, I’ll be done with Macedonia, so it’s time I reflect on my time here a bit. When I first tried to come here, I was caught out by Greek border policies and outdated information. As a result, I had an enjoyable detour to Turkey. This time, I made it here with no issue. I’m sad to say that I’m not sure it really mattered, in the end. I’ve spent at least half my time inside the hostels without trying to explore because I felt like I’d seen everything after one or two days of arriving. I came to Ohrid in part because I’d heard good things about the hikes, but they were all closed due to forest fires. The walking tour of Skopje and the walk up to the Millennium Cross were great, but I felt as if I’d seen everything despite the sincere love our guide had for his city. I think it was simply the vibe; I didn’t vibe with Skopje, which isn’t anybody’s fault, but makes me worry I’ve been overly critical of it. This is a shame, because the people are lovely and the country is beautiful, and I’m sure if I had a car, I would be able to explore more. Perhaps this is a country that needs more than the flexibility of a minibus to fully appreciate. North Macedonia is small enough that, yes, you don’t need to be in Skopje for a week when you have a whole country available! I’ve been limited by a lack of inspiration on this leg of the trip (and a little insomnia), but I’m sure that with some planning you could spend a nice week and a half here. I wish I’d been able to experience it like that. As it is, I’m not sure I’ll come back to North Macedonia without some better planning. Here’s hoping Sofia is a palette cleanser.

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