Saturday, October 5, 2013

MACEDONIA: LAKE OHRID

As a reminder of our itinerary, we spent a day in Skopje, Macedonia, and then we took a little detour to Prizren, Kosovo. (See prior posts.) After spending another night in Skopje, we headed southwest for the incredibly lovely three-million-year-old Lake Ohrid (pronounced AWK-rid by locals), located on the border of Macedonia and Albania.

Our drive from Skopje to Ohrid, about 125 miles, was beautiful, full of sights like this family working what is either a very small farm or a very large garden. We saw scenes like this quite a few times as we drove around the Balkans. (Excuse the poor quality of the photo--I took it from the car window as we sped past.)

There were also a lot of campaign billboards. This guy seemed to be the front-runner, at least if the number of billboards was an indicator.  However, apparently at least one person didn't like him:

Lake Ohrid is about 20 miles long and almost 1,000 feet deep, one of the deepest lakes in Europe.

The town that lounges on its banks is full of Byzantine churches, a castle on the hill, and a wonderful old town shopping district (which, alas, we spent only 30 minutes exploring).

Our Lonely Planet guidebook for the Western Balkans says, "If you haven't seen Ohrid, you haven't seen Macedonia--it's as simple as that."  Although Ohrid is the most-visited site in Macedonia, I don't think many of the tourists come from the United States. A lot must come from Germany and other western European countries. (There were several times during our travel through the Balkans that we were asked if we were Germans.) Again and again on this trip, I was surprised by the beautiful places we saw that I had not only never seen on any "Places to Go" list, but that I had never even heard of. Lake Ohrid was one of those, but it definitely deserves to be a Destination.

Having learned the hard way that our GPS did not have maps loaded for any Balkan countries other than Slovenia and Croatia, we had printed out some MapQuest directions to our Ohrid hotel. However, directions are only useful when there are street signs, and, like almost all of the Balkans, there is a woeful shortage of such indicators in Macedonia.

Consequently, we ended up going the wrong way down a one-way cobblestone alley. I had to get out of the car and stop oncoming traffic so that Bob could get through and out. (I tried to channel my mother, who did something similar once when we were with her in Ulm, Germany.) Luckily, our misstep turned out to be a serendipitous short-cut to our cute little boutique hotel.
Photos of Vila Sveti Sofija, Ohrid
                            This photo of Vila Sveti Sofija is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Our hotel was almost in the courtyard of the St. Sophia Church, built some time between 850 and 1012 AD, not long after Macedonia converted to Christianity:
It's quite incredible that a church built ten to twelve centuries ago could still be an operating church. Later in the day as we were returning to our hotel, we went inside (no pictures allowed) to get out of a cloudburst and had the privilege of listening to a 29-year-old woman from the local university practicing on a grand piano for a concert to be held that evening. She was quite good, and the music was very dramatic with heavy chords, runs, and fancy fingering. Her considerable talent was magnified by the terrific acoustics of the room.
A nice scale model of the church in the courtyard:
Next to the church this little lady sat with an assortment of goods. I paid about $3.00 for a plate-sized doily. No wonder my mom had so many of these.
It was lunchtime, and we were hungry. We chose a restaurant from our guidebook and set off to find it. Well, it's no easier to find something in Macedonia on foot than it is in the car. However, we had some lovely vistas as we searched:

. . . and we happened upon a gem that wasn't on our itinerary, the Church of St. John at Kaneo, perhaps my favorite of all the Byzantine churches we saw.  It's location on a lonely promontory surrounded by ocean on three sides created wonderful atmosphere. When we first got there, the only people in sight were two old men sitting together on a bench outside the main gate to the church. As we passed by, one got up and creaked his way to the front door, key in hand.

He let us in, and we ooh-ed and aah-ed over the tiny but almost perfectly preserved interior. The old man seemed pleased at our exclamations of appreciation. There had been a picture of a camera with an "x" through it on the wall, but I gestured at my camera and asked if it was possible to take just one picture.  The man held up his hand and stuck his head out the door, casing the joint for who knows what, then pulled in his head, smiled, and held up one finger. I took my picture. 
The then old man offered us each a candle to light. "Familia," he said, among other words I didn't understand, indicating for whom we should ask for blessings. We dutifully lit our candles and planted them in the sand next to two others already burning there.

Obviously enjoying his role, the old man then pulled out a shot glass and, with a smile, asked, "Grapa?" (I assume that means "wine.") He was so cute, so friendly, and so accommodating that I felt really bad turning down his offer. He seemed a bit disappointed. I do wish I'd asked to take HIS picture.

We spent a little more time enjoying the ambience of the churchyard. A light wind was whipping the waves into action, which added to the sense of loneliness we felt in this out-of-the-way spot:

. . . and then we made our way down from the bluff to the water's edge and our restaurant, Letna Bavca Kaneo (Summer Garden Kaneo). It was situated right at the water's edge. In fact, the now roiling water was sending spray up to the edge of the outdoor seating area,


. . . so we retreated to an "indoor" table behind a plastic screen:
Again, we were the only people there. 

I had a nice meal that began with a soft white cheese with a tangy lemony marinade; it had been grilled to make it crusty. My oh my. 
 I also had some lake trout.

 Bob had his usual shopska salad, some deep-fried olives, and some fish soup.

From my seat I could see the cliff on which the little church sat, and during our meal I saw two people standing on the edge of the cliff.  Suddenly, one jumped into the water. "I think someone just jumped off the cliff!" I told Bob. We got up to get a closer view, and within a few seconds we could see the swimmer making his was through the angry water back to the shore.

After dinner, we set out to find another church on our itinerary, enjoying the flowers that seemed to tumble off every porch and over every wall:

I got a kick out of this little piece of Jamaica painted on a garage door and basketball backboard. It seemed so out of place.

The rain, which had been a light drizzle, turned into a downpour, somewhat but not entirely dampening our desire for adventure. The St. Panteleimon Monastery, our next destination, was built by St. Clement, a major medieval saint who lived from 840-916. He named the monastery for a saint who lived during the 4th century. The age of these churches is mind boggling. The monastery building was restored during 2000-2002, and it looks pretty good for being such a senior citizen.
I love the intricate patterns on the circular towers and the decorative crenelations made by the roof tiles:





We laughed at this sign posted near the entrance. I wonder how many tourists have actually tried to enter wearing a Speedo or a bikini.

All that laughing made me feel daring, and I have to confess that I snuck a photo of the interior. I didn't use my flash. Does that make my sin a little less grievous?

A very extensive archaeological dig is being carried out on the grounds surrounding the monastery. These roofs protect the fragile excavations and give the workers some shelter from sun and rain:
There is evidence of many more buildings that once stood on the site:
One of the most critical structures is apparently still intact: the WC and souvenir shop. We didn't visit that building.

We started the trek back to our hotel, passing the city fortress on our way.  Ohrid is a wonderful walking city, full of narrow cobblestone lanes, few automobiles, and lots of great things to see:


Another stop along the way was the St. Clement Church. It was, like almost all of the churches in the area, of Byzantine origin. I could not get a good picture of the church because of the surrounding buildings, and later in the day I bought this photo at a little art gallery.  The church is on the upper right.

This extraordinary amphitheater was built about 200 B.C. during the Hellenistic Period. It was originally used for gladiator fights, and later the Romans used it for executing Christians. As more and more Christians settled in this area, it became a very unpopular place and was covered up, which had the unintended effect of preserving it quite well. It was discovered by accident in 1980 and has since been beautifully restored. A nice blend of ancient and modern, it's now used for concerts and other performances.

In the evening we ate at the Damar Restaurant next door to our hotel where I had what I thought was yucky fried eel. Bob liked it more than I did.
 He had a traditional lamb dish that came out in a clay pot with a ladle and a soup bowl. It was definitely better than my eel.

But then there was the most amazing dessert: hot custard over strips of crepe with nuts and fruit (apples, raisins, and something else) in the center.  Incredible.
It was enough to make me want to sneak back to Ohrid some day. Or perhaps I need to figure out how to make this dessert myself. If anyone has a recipe, I want it.

And so, in spite of a little bit of rain, we loved Ohrid.  We agree that it is a place where we could rent a room and spent a few days enjoying the slow pace, beautiful scenery, and good food (especially the above dessert, which I would have at least once every day).
            St. Clement of Ohrid, holding the city? the church? in the crook of his arm and standing on tree trunk feet.

Next up: Getting lost in Albania

4 comments:

  1. You do a great job on our travel posts. Of all the places we visited, if I could spend just a couple of lazy days lounging around, this would be the place, including our hotel which was beautiful and located very near the water. We also spent much more time than 30 minutes window shopping, I think it was 3 or 4 hours, maybe even 15.

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    1. Yeah, right. Next time I will go shopping without you. You can go eat some more eel, and I'll shop.

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  2. What a fun post! I love the story of getting permission to sneak a picture. Amazing that everything is so deserted.

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  3. Loved re-reading about this city (I'm going back through your posts so I can leave comments, this time). The construction of those cathedrals is really something, both in date and in their appearance, and yes, I'm glad you snuck a photo. I have often snuck photos by turning off both my flash and my sound--no one can tell if you are photographing something, which also hopefully makes me less obnoxious as a tourist (because I love to take photos). I'll go with you there to go shopping! We'll leave Bob and Dave at the hotel.

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