The Views are Great, but Damn those Hills

Fireworks over Lake Ohrid

So Ohrid is Macedonia’s shining pearl situated on the banks of Lake Ohrid, which is 18 miles long and about 945 feet deep and one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes. The old quarter of Ohrid is filled with cobblestone streets,, ancient churches, Roman ruins and cute little cafes, bars and restaurants. And because Ohrid is built on a hillside, the area offers spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains. However, when I arrived in Ohrid it was already dark so I really wasn’t able to appreciate the extent of the view from my room. Sure I was able to see the fireworks lighting up the sky to celebrate Macedonia’s Independence Day (today), but it was still dark. So when I woke up in the morning and walked into the living room it was a “Holy Cow” moment. The views from the town of Ohrid across Lake Ohrid towards Albania were nothing short of spectacular. It was lake and mountains a far as I could see. Truely one of the most spectacular views from a hotel room I can remember.

View from my room

Now about my hotel. It is a small boutique hotel/wine cellar in the middle of the old town of Ohrid. The old town is built into a hillside so that means a lot of climbing. I had to walk about two blocks uphill just to reach my hotel and then up three floors of wooden steps to reach my “penthouse” room. (Yep somehow I have the room on the top floor.) Needless to say, I am getting a bit of exercise hiking up and down the stairs.

Panorama from my room

Anyway, after a good old fashioned North American breakfast (no more soup or pastries for me), Jane met me with a local guide who was going to accompany us on a walking tour of old Ohrid. Now “Lyupcho” is a trained archeologist who has participated in numerous local digs and turned out to be a wealth of knowledge about the history and ruins of Ohrid.

In fact, before we even left the front of my hotel, Lyupcho was pointing out a brick structure across from my hotel that turned out to be an old 14th century church. Apparently, Ohrid is filled with more than 365 ancient churches and basilicas.

Sveta Bogorodica Bolnička

Anyway, we walked down the little alley to the main cobblestone road through Ohrid and stopped at the bottom of the hill to look at Sveta Bogorodica Bolnička (Holy Mary of the Hospital Church) and Sveti Nikola Bolnički (St. Nicholas of the Hospital Church), two 14th century Byzantine style churches that were used during the plague to house the sick and dying. Apparently because there were so many churches in Ohrid with the same name, the locals started attaching identifiers to the end of the church name to distinguish one from the other. Hence the name “hospital” at the end of each of these names.

Pizza and church

And while plenty of people stop to take pictures of the pretty little churches, Lyupcho pointed out that most are oblivious to the fact that a local pizza joint shares the backyard with Sveti Nikola Bolnički. Huh? So I climbed up the stairs and took a look and sure enough, there were outdoor tables for the pizza joint abutting the wall of the church. Well THAT is something I had not seen before.

Alleyway in old Ohrid

So after the church and pizza lesson, we wandered down the cobblestones to our next stop: the National Workshop for handmade paper. Ljupcho Panevski has been keeping the Ohrid tradition alive of making paper using an ancient technique dating to the second century B.C. Mr. Panevski provided me with a demonstration showing me how he soaks plant fibers in water and then strains the resulting slurry through a sieve leaving a mat of randomly interwoven fibres on the screen. Once the fibers are dry, you have paper.

Paper maker in old Ohrid

And as an added bonus, Mr. Panevski showed me one of two Gutenberg presses that exist in the world, which he uses to print various patterns on the paper, which he sells to the public. The whole process and visit was absolutely fascinating and reminded me of the handmade paper demonstration I saw when I was in Myanmar. (Apparently others think it is fascinating as well since Nic Roberson of CNN did a story on Mr. Panevski and his effort to keep an ancient art alive.)

Church of St. Sophia
Backside of St. Sophia Church

So after the visit to the workshop, we walked a little further through the ancient old town, past historic homes and shops before finally reaching the St. Sophia Church. The church dates to the 11th-century and is considered Ohrid’s most impressive church. The church features a beautiful garden area and inside is filled with elaborate, very well preserved frescoes. The fresco above the nave was in remarkably good shape with vibrant blues made from lapas azul.

Apparently the reason for the remarkable condition stemmed from the fact that during the Ottoman rule, the frescos were covered with plaster. The plaster preserved the frescos and when the plaster was removed, the frescos had retained their vibrant images and colours.

Ceiling of St. Sophia Church

The other impressive aspect of St. Sophia Church was its acoustics. In fact the sound is so good in the church that there were two steinways off to the corner that are used for concerts throughout the year.

We next moved on up the hill to a site which housed ancient ruins from a 4th or 5th century Byzantine basilica that was uncovered in 2007 when a resident decided to build an addition to their home. The area is absolutely littered with ruins and every time someone decides to build an addition onto their property, the excavation uncovers more ruins. As a result, most folks have stopped digging down and instead simply add on to the top of their home since ruins uncovered preclude the homeowner from building and result in loss of property for less than market value.

Mosaic from 4th or 5th century Byzantine Church
Pillars from 4th or 5th century Byzantine Church

Anyway, lucky for me this excavation actually did occur and it was really something else. Gorgeous mosaics had been uncovered along with pillars from the original building and fragments of other artifacts. The site was a gold mine. I wandered around the covered little site trying to take in each and every object uncovered from the ancient basilica site until it was clear my guides wanted to move on.

Ancient Roman theatre in Ohrid

So from the ancient basilica, we continued to walk up the hill to a huge Hellenistic (Greek) theater built in 200 BC. (Now this was my kind of ruins!) When the Romans invaded, the theater was converted from the arts and was used, instead, for gladiator fighting and Christian executions. Needless to say, the locals hated the theater so when the Roman Empire collapsed, the locals buried the theater. The theater lay buried until 1980 when construction on some nearby houses uncovered relics that lead to the discovery of the site. However, because the theater was buried for so many years, the lower bowl was in excellent condition.

Old city wall in Ohrid

We wandered around the theater for a bit (which is used today for concerts) before walking towards the upper gate of the ancient wall that rings Ohrid. We then turned up yet another cobblestone street towards still more churches. The primary church in this area was also one of the oldest churches in Ohrid: the Holy Mother of God Peribleptos Church built in 1295. The Byzantine era church sits up on the hillside overlooking Lake Ohrid and provides stunning views of the town and lake below.

Ceiling inside Church Mother of God Peribleptos

And while the views were spectacular, the frescos in the Church were equally magnificent with many of the painting still largely in tact. Lyupcho pointed out to me how different the frescos were from frescos you see in other Byzantine churches because the faces of the subjects actually contained expressions and gave the appearance that the frescos were almost like portraits. This was highly unusual for a Byzantine church where most subjects are expressionless and often without more humanizing details. Apparently the frescos were an outrage for their time and many in the very conservative Orthodox Church did not like them. Today, many call the church the Sistine Chapel of Ohrid.

Czar Samuel’s Fortress
Inside Czar Samuel’s Fortress

Our last stop of the morning took us on another long hike to the opposite side of Ohrid to the fortress of Czar Samuel of Bulgaria. The fortress was built in the 10th century and is the site of extensive excavation efforts. It is believed the fortress was built on the site of a 4th century BC fortress built by King Philip II of Macedon. The fortress dominates the hillside and of course because it is a fortress, occupies one of the highest points in Ohrid. As a result, the walk took us up yet another hill past walnut and almond trees (yummy) before we reached the fortress walls. Quite frankly there was no much to see, but the views from the fortress were spectacular.

View from Czar Samuel’s Fortress

We then left the fortress and took a walking path through a small park area high above Ohrid. The path led us past excavation sites where digs continued. In fact, as we walked past one site Lyupcho picked up what I thought was a rock and turned it over to show me that it was actually a fragment from an ancient pot complete with faint hints of colour. Amazing.

Church of St. John at Kaneo

Our hike through the woods continued until we reached a clearing above the lake. The clearing gave us a perfect view to the gorgeous 13th century Church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo that is often found in pictures of Ohrid. The church really was stunning against the azure backdrop of the lake, and after seeing it in person I could understand why so many people feature the church in articles about Ohrid.

We made our way down the stone steps to the front of the church, took a quick peek inside and continued on to a cute little restaurant on the lake where we stopped for some cold drinks. We then walked the 15 minutes or so back to the center of Ohrid past … oh hum … more Roman ruins where I said goodbye to Lyupcho.

Ohrid houses surrounding Old Roman fortress

Next up was lunch. Dean drove us about 5 km outside of town before taking a side road up a series of switchbacks to the top of a hill where a restaurant, run out a family home, was perched on a hillside. Terrace Uvarna was about as far out of the way as you could get. However, the food made the effort to get there entirely worth while.

View from the restaurant at lunch

We ended up sitting in the upstairs floor in the small little wooden building and were joined by two young guys from Amsterdam who sat at another table in the room. As usual, Jane ordered lunch which came in waves. First were a series of three appetizers called “pies” made out of phyllo dough and stuffed with a variety of cheeses and greens. I was not fond of two of the pies … far too bland, but the pie stuffed with cheese and greens was quite good. However, the stars of the meal were the stuffed grape leaves and the stuffed peppers. Absolutely world class, melt in your mouth food. We also had this bean dish in a red sauce called tavce gravce. The dish is apparently a national staple, but quite frankly I found this dish a little bland as well and not even in the same category as the stuffed grape leaves and stuffed peppers.

Appetizers for lunch

By now I was full and tired, but the owners insisted I try their fig preserves: whole green figs boiled multiple times and then preserved in the syrup used in baklava. These little morsals were tasty goodness and really put me over the edge. I needed a nap.

By now it was close to 3:00 and I was exhausted. We offered the two Dutch fellows a ride since they were discussing walking back down the hill. They happily climbed in and we dropped them off at the bottom of the hill before driving the 15 minutes or so back to Ohrid.

My hotel

Once back in Ohrid, I took a nap before meeting Jane at about 5:45 for a short boat trip around the lake. The captain picked us up at one of the docks in downtown Ohrid and turned the boat to the west. We road past the wooden pedestrian path that parallels the lake, which we had walked earlier in the day before passing the Church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo. Once past the church, we headed into a little bay as the sun was setting. Our captain then turned the boat around and headed back to the dock.

Boating on Lake Ohrid

The wind had picked up a bit and the sky had clouded over, but the captain insisted it was not going to rain. He eventually dropped us off at one of the waterfront restaurants that adjoined his home and was run by his wife (and every conceivable family member). Dean, Jane and I ended up having dinner at the restaurant, although I have to admit it was probably my least favourite meal of the trip so far. The fresh veggies were terrific as was the cheese and wine. However, the pork chops were a little over cooked for my liking.  And while by ordinary standards, the meal was superb, by Macedonian standards to date, the meal was just OK.

No matter. The company was great and views were spectacular. After dinner,Dean and Jane wanted to go for drinks, but I begged off. I was tired and simply wanted to go to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a full day on the water and I wanted to be rested to enjoy the day.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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