Ohrid, MacedoniaOhrid, on the Double: Village & Lake. The Historic & Stunning UNESCO-listed Region of Soutwest Macedonia
”… when I arrived, again just as I did in 2007, I sat there, in the same place on the same wall in the same silence savouring the same sense of serenity and drinking in the same stunning serenity, waiting for the sun to set. I knew what to expect. It’s the exact reason I returned. And it didn’t disappoint.”
Image || Boating on Lake Ohrid, southwest Macedonia. April 25, 2017.
It’s not far from Tirana, Albania, to Orhid, Macedonia, easily the country’s most alluring destination resting by the shores of the lake of the same name – 130 kilometres, give or take. It’s slightly further from Skopje, the Macedonian capital, to Ohrid – 170 kilometres or so. It takes longer to drive those distances than one would imagine it should; the winding roads and the climb to the mountain pass that is the international Kjafasan/Qafë Thanë border crossing with Albania delayed proceedings on the journey from Tirana to Orhid in 2007; whereas yesterday, and almost a decade on from that first visit, the roads of central Macedonia slowed progress sufficiently on the journey from Skopje to Ohrid. Both times the outcome was the same – evening tranquillity by the calm shores of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia’s enchanting and UNESCO World Heritage-listed crowning glory. Some places are just worth revisiting however long it may take to get there.
– UNESCO commenting on the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid region
dMb Country Overview - Macedonia
Region – Southeastern Europe/The Balkans (dMb tag: The Balkans). Capital – Skopje. Population – 2 million-plus. Official Languages – Macedonian, Albanian. Currency – Macedonian Denar (MKD) GDP (nominal) per capita – US$6,140 Political System – Unitary parliamentary republic. EU Member? – No (as of April 2017). UN Member? – Yes (admitted April 1993 using the name, under the instance of neighbouring Greece, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)). G20 Member? – No. Size – 25,700 km² (Europe’s 14th smallest country is approximately half the size of Costa Rica and slightly larger than the US state of Vermont). Topography – Mountainous and rugged. Brief History – It’s complicated, as Balkan history tends to be. Inhabited since Neolithic times, the region was the homeland of one Alexander III of Macedon (aka Alexander the Great, born in Pella in present-day Greek region of Macedonia in 365 BC) who set forth from here to conquer the ancient world in the 4th century BC. The Romans held sway (from approx. 160BC), the Byzantines (from 395 AD), the Bulgarians, Serbia, and finally the Ottoman Turks who ruled for over half a century (from 1389 to 1912). Then came almost a century of more upheaval and Yugoslav Communist rule, before independence in 1991, something of a novelty up to that point for the long-oppressed Macedonians. Formation/Independence – 1991 following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (and in what was the only peaceful withdrawal of the former Yugoslav army from any of its former republics). UNESCO World Heritage sites – 1. Tourism Catchphrase/Slogans – Macedonia Timeless. Famous For – Alexander the Great; Mother Theresa (born in Skopje); Lake Ohrid. Highlights – Shimmering Lake Ohrid, the jewel in Macedonia’s crown; remnants of the ancient past – Roman ruins and Byzantine-era churches; wilderness hikes; garish ‘New’ Skopje.
Name Note (2019 Update): – What’s in a name? A lot, seemingly. The naming of this little country has always been a thorny issue, one that has stoked tensions with neighbouring Greece for close on 3 decades now – Greece felt that the use of the name Macedonia following the mini-state’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 constituted a territorial claim on its own northern region of the same name (international recognition of Macedonia’s independence was delayed by Greece’s objection to the new state’s use of what Greece considered a “Hellenic name and symbols.” Greece finally lifted its trade blockade in 1995 and the two countries agreed to normalise relations, this despite continued disagreement over the use of “Macedonia” in the name). Since independence Macedonia was forced to call itself the rather convoluted Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on the international stage, a title given to it by the UN and a title the Greeks were happy to roll with, even if 132 countries had recognised it as the Republic of Macedonia, its former constitutional name. In a bid to end one of Europe’s longest-enduring diplomatic rifts, and after years of negotiations, the country agreed, in 2019, to prepend the word ‘North’ to its name to help distinguish itself from the neighbouring northern Greek region, a move the Macedonians hope will accelerate its path to eventual EU accession. On my two visits to the country (in 2007 and 2017), the country was called (the Republic of) Macedonia and is thus referenced as such throughout my postings as opposed to its new official name of (the Republic of) North Macedonia.
Visits – 2 (April 2017 and September 2017). Where I went/What I saw – Ohrid (2007 & 2017); Skopje (2017).
Ohrid On The Double
There are two versions of Ohrid here in this placid region of southwest Macedonia: one is a small hilly resort town with a compact walled Old Quarter of traditional houses with red-tiled roofs, medieval churches, monasteries, open-air ruins, and a centuries-old fortress towering above it all; the other is a shimmering lake straddling the mountainous border between Macedonia and Albania, one of Europe’s deepest, oldest, and most picturesque bodies of water harbouring a unique and UNESCO-protected ecosystem. Two reasons to visit when, for me at least, one would be draw enough. Fortunately, where Ohrid is concerned they come as a package.
Ohrid | An Escape
In these days of mass tourism, when insufferable crowds seem determined to conquer every corner of Europe, Ohrid is — shh! — still something of an escape. Just. OK, so you might consider giving it a wide bearth in July and August, when the tourist circus descends on the town and fill its lakeside cafés and the bars and traditional restaurants of the tight cobblestone streets of Ohrid’s atmospheric and walled Old Quarter. But relative to Europe’s well-established beaten-track destinations (pick one, any will do), this is still a corner of Europe that’s largely untouched by the hordes. Maybe it’s the region’s remoteness – it does take a bit of effort to get here – that has spared it from the masses. Whatever it is, Ohrid still offers a respite. For now at least.
UNESCO World Heritage | 1979 & 1980
The town of Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe – it was first mentioned in Greek documents from 353 BC. However, the charming tourist-friendly town found today nestling by the shores of the lake was built mostly between the 7th and 19th centuries. With its abundance of history, heritage, and architecture, not to mention the uniqueness of its lake, the Ohrid region has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status – the lake, albeit only the Macedonian side, in 1979 followed by the village in 1980.
I didn’t visit Samuel’s Fortress on my 2007 visit to Ohrid. I’m not quite sure why, especially as it’s as obvious a beacon as the settlement has – it’s the highest point in hilly Ohrid and visible from anywhere in town.
– UNESCO commenting on the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid region
During the Byzantine period, Ohrid became a significant cultural and economic centre, serving as an episcopal center of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Along with Preslav in modern-day Bulgaria, it became a site of the first Slavic universities in the 9th century. Given Ohrid’s present UNESCO-listed status as a former centre of Slavonic and Byzantine literary and culture, it’ll come as no surprise to learn that the place is awash with historic Byzantine-era structures. That said, some of the structures are not quite as old as one may think. Where Ohrid’s Church of Saints Clement and PanteleimonIn is concerned, it a case of reconstructing the past as a means of preserving it.
Ohrid | The Lake
Image || The iconic St. Jovan Kaneo Church overlooking Lake Ohrid on the outskirts of the village of Ohrid, southwest Macedonia. April 25, 2017.
Early today I revisited the St. Jovan Kaneo Church, this time approching from Ohrid village via the elevated series of shore-skirting boardwalks installed to service the shacks and resturants doing business on the lake’s small and stony Potpesh and Kaneo beaches.