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Macedonia: the show must go on – Part Two

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)

(continued from Part 1)

A ride into the unknown

I knew that I had arrived in the right place when that girl asked me, “Do you work for some international organisation?” In Europe’s new democracies, there aren’t many tourists, and foreigners are mostly expats working for UNDP, the World Bank, the EU, IMF, or some NGO. This shows that new economic potential is being developed, and I have always liked to be a part of this process. But this time I had to answer, “No, I’m simply travelling.” Simply Travelling, once again thanks to the beautiful Alba from Albania, known to readers from other articles on this site.

As it is with Alba, all she told me was to meet her on 30 December, 8.00pm, in the lobby of the Palace Hotel in the city of Ohrid, 200 miles south of the capital Skopje. And no idea how to get there.

Guardian Angels

A good indication that we are pursuing the right path – in life as well as on our travels – is that good things seem to happen by themselves without much of our own effort. And so it was that on my journey to Macedonia, the heavenly forces appeared to have placed a guardian angel at every location, whom to ask for the way.

As these things happen, the plane from Munich to Skopje was overbooked and Lufthansa upgraded me to Business Class, so that I got to sit next to my first guardian angel: Mustafa, an ethnic Albanian pharmacist from Tetovo, who now works in Germany and was flying home to see his family. Throughout the three-hour flight, Mustafa let me into the know about recent developments in Macedonia. Once landed and past the usual crowds of taxi drivers, Mustafa gave me a ride to the city, showed me where to buy the bus ticket, saw me off on the bus and left his mobile number for cases of emergency. First hurdle taken, and handover to the next angel.

The bus ride lasted five hours, but time passed quickly thanks to a very kind girl who talked me through the complete history of her country in perfect English and German. Her set of the 20 most important phrases in Macedonian language, scribbled on the back of my otherwise rather useless Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, proved indispensable.

The guardian archangel was to be Pasco, the only German-speaking taxi driver in Ohrid, and a real celebrity with all those German soldiers of the Kosovo contingent who used to go to Ohrid for the weekends. Pasco became our driver, guide and friend for the next week. He led us off the main roads, gave us hints on the best meals and deals, and invited us to his home where his wife served what must be the best cake in all of Macedonia. And as for reimbursement, Pasco asked for so little that I wonder how he gets on, and refused to take more. A real bargain, this angel.

Sunrise in Sorrento, St. Moritz, and eventually Ohrid

Awaking to bright sunbeams and Alba’s sweet kisses, I felt like the protagonist in the fine novel The Following Story by my favourite Dutch author Cees Nooteboom. He finds himself awake in a hotel room in Lisbon, although he went to bed in his flat in Amsterdam the night before.

Ohrid presented me with the same surprise. I had gone to bed in a run-down ex-Yugoslav enclave with the petrol smell of Yugo cars, Tito’s version of the Lada, crowding the typical wide avenues with the infamous kiosks on each side.

But when I first saw the city at daylight from our balcony, I didn’t trust my eyes. Lake Ohrid spread in front of me, resembling the Bay of Naples from a hotel room in Sorrento. And as I turned my eyes to the snow-white mountain peaks, I had to think of skiing holidays spent in the Swiss Alps.

This mix of settings remained with us throughout the entire journey: alpine and Mediterranean surroundings, the underlying dust of the former Yugoslav empire, and monuments of the old and new Macedonia.

A sacred atmosphere

Ohrid is built around the old city hill, on top of which the castle ruins offer a wonderful panorama over the city, lake and surrounding mountain ranges. On your way up to the castle, a Roman amphitheatre represents the only archaeological remainder of classic times in Ohrid. It is currently being restored with the help of EU subsidies. The old town is also home to numerous nice small restaurants which have plenty on offer for lovers of fish and Balkan cuisine.

The whole old city exudes a sacred atmosphere, as it hosts over two dozen churches, basilicas and chapels. Two of them, Sveti (Saint) Sophia chapel and the Church of Sveti Bogorodica Perivlepta, also known as Sveti Clement Cathedral. They share an interesting detail of history with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul:

Like the Hagia Sophia, Ohrid’s Saint Sophia chapel was turned into a mosque during the short Ottoman rule. The locals removed the remains of Saint Clement, who was buried in the chapel, and took them to the Church of Sveti Bogorodica Perivlepta, from which this one received its second name Sveti Clement. Sveti Clement is Ohrid’s largest church, and holds some beautiful frescos and icons.

A particularly picturesque walk will lead you on a small path around the whole hill to a fishermen’s village at the lake. Now you have arrived in Italy, for this little quarter comes as close to a small Sicilian fishing harbour as it could possibly get. Further along the path, you reach Sveti Jovan chapel. Standing on a cliff 30 metres above the lakeshore, this is a beautiful place for romantic sunsets or a picnic among pine trees near the water.

The place to see and be seen in Ohrid is the lake promenade. One-and-a-half miles long, it stretches along the gardens of the ugly Intourist-style hotels. But if you keep facing the water, you can catch scenic views of small fishing boats on the lake in front of the 2,300 metre-high mountain peaks.

The lake promenade links the historical Ohrid with the town’s modern part. With around 80,000 inhabitants, modern-day Ohrid hosts many posh bars and clubs, and the nightlife scene is very active. On our New Year’s Eve party in a local club I was to experience the friendliness and open-mindedness of the local youth. So much indeed that in some secret moments I wished I had travelled to Ohrid without a girlfriend.

Mountains, Monasteries, and Bomb Shelters

An obligatory excursion will lead you from Ohrid twenty miles southwest around the lake, to the Albanian border and the monastery of Sveti Naum.

Like Saint Clement of Ohrid, Saint Naum built a small monastery, the monastery of the Archangel, around 900 CE, and was himself buried there. And like St. Clement’s it was destroyed and later rebuilt as the monastery of Sveti Naum. The current church dates back to the 16th century and with its heavy pillars and few windows resembles the atmosphere of a cave, although the shiny gold-plated frescos lighten up the scene.

Saint Clement and Saint Naum have carried Ohrid’s name far into the Slavic world. For together they founded a literary school and created the Glagolitic alphabet, which later became the basis of Cyrillic.

The ride to Sveti Naum is scenic and full of sights and insights. Ever new bays of Lake Ohrid open up spectacular views, and small villages along the way invite you to a break. One of these villages may be the perfect place to try the local speciality: the famous Ohrid trout.

The local wisdom, “The deeper the lake, the better the fish”, is definitely true for Lake Ohrid. At 300 metres, Lake Ohrid is the Balkans’ deepest, and the second deepest lake in Europe. The trout from Ohrid are huge, they easily feed two. And they are delicious, although I am not too fond of the local way of serving them: stuffed with red pepper. You’d do better to go for a plain grilled trout.

There are also several spring water sources on the way, the largest of which has formed its own small lake above Lake Ohrid next to Sveti Naum monastery. And if you like the scene and wish to stay, Sveti Naum has its own pretty hotel.

Only a hundred metres from the monastery, Macedonia borders with Albania. The view across the Albanian border provides for a powerful, if depressing impression: dome-shaped bomb shelters, of which Albania is full, lined up along the border with a mere fifty metres between them. Testimony to Albania’s disastrous and depressing period in the twentieth century. But Albania is a different story, sometime sooner or later on this channel.

Practical Information

Security

Whilst travel to Macedonia is generally safely possible despite the travel warnings issued by the various foreign ministries, overland travel over long routes is currently not advisable. This goes in particular for the bus route from Skopje to Ohrid leading through Tetovo. The border regions to Kosovo and the northern part of the border to Albania should be avoided. Travel in southern Macedonia, however, appears to be safe.

Getting there safely

Air travel to Macedonia is currently limited as several western airlines, including BA and Lufthansa, have cancelled their flights to Skopje. Flights with Macedonian Airlines, Avioimpex and Air Service are strictly to be advised against, due to their old fleets of Soviet-built aircraft and some Jurassic Boeings.

Of the safer European airlines, Austrian Airlines, Turkish Airlines and MALEV Hungarian Airlines still fly into Skopje. The best pick may be the flight with the modern Slovenian carrier Adria Airways, a partner of Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines. Besides flying to Skopje, Adria Airways also offer a daily flight to Ohrid from Ljubljana, with reasonable through-fares via Frankfurt, Munich or Vienna.

As for land routes, southwestern Macedonia can be safely reached from Tirana, Albania, and Thessaloniki, Greece, with daily buses to Ohrid from both cities.

Accommodation in Ohrid

If you plan to arrive at night, then accommodation should be booked before arrival, but not for more than a couple of nights. Once you are there you can look for a hotel or B&B to your own liking. If you arrive during the day, you can spare yourself the advance booking and find a place upon arrival instead.

Private accommodation is available from £5 per person per night, good hotels can be found at around £25 per room per night. Stay clear of the deceptively-named Palace Hotel – it’s one of the worst hotels I have ever stayed at. A much better choice is the Park Hotel, which is situated directly on the lake shore two miles outside Ohrid.

Further Information

There is currently no dedicated travel guide available for Macedonia, to my knowledge. The only one which covers Macedonia is the Lonely Planet Eastern Europe (6th Edition 2001, £14.99), which has 17 pages on Macedonia, including Skopje and Ohrid. But I can’t really recommend the LP, for the Macedonia section is the weakest in the whole guide.

A much better source of information is the website Ohrid at your fingertips which covers everything from history and culture to city maps, events, accommodation and dining.

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