Ohrid is rooted in a variety of historical eras; remnants of its medieval Turkish rule, its period of Renaissance and the legacy of its communist past, still linger. In 1980 it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The emblem of the Yugoslav motor industry, the Zastava is parked on every street corner, children race around on bikes and women hang out their freshly laundered washing across the balconies of the Communist blocks. One might even say that nothing has really changed around here since the Bulgarians occupied the territory in the Forties. This quiet sleepy hollow is renowned as the Pearl of Macedonia and possible the best known city in the Republic. It sits peacefully on the north-eastern banks of Lake Ohrid, home to 50,000 people. It’s streets offer some striking Renaissance architecture, some amazing hiking trails through the Galic˘ica National Park and a fabulous variety of places to eat and drink.
Ohrid is located at the other end of Macedonia in the south-west about two hours from the capital Skopje. From Sofia, you need to travel to the Gyueshevo and Kriva Palanka border and then on to Skopje, which is roughly four hours away. If you travel from Blagoevgrad then you can cross the border at Stanke Lisichkovo.
A Little History
There is a legend about the way that Ohrid was created that is told by everyone who lives outside of this amazing city; they say that once God had finished creating the world, he took his rest and during this time Satan created Ohrid. He made it so beautiful with a wonderful lake, steep mountains, lush pastures and a temperate climate. God was totally amazed when he awoke and asked the devil, “What have you done, devil? Your deeds are supposed to be evil!” The twist in the story comes in Satan’s reply, “Oh, wait a minute, God. You haven't seen Ohrid's citizens yet!”
In reality, Ohrid was originally called Achrida and was only named Ohrid in the 9th century, when it became part of the Bulgarian Kingdom. Under King Samuel, it was the country’s capital because between 990 and 1015 the eastern parts of Bulgaria were occupied by the Byzantine Empire. The city was invaded and conquered many times over the centuries belonging not only to Bulgaria but also to Epirus, the Byzantine Empire and Serbia. By the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks invaded and it remained under Turkish rule until 1912. After World War I, it was controlled by Serbia up until 1991 when Yugoslavia was broken up and the independent Republic of Macedonia was created.
The Cyrillic alphabet was invented here by St Clement of Ohrid, a student under the brother’s credited for its foundation, Cyril and Methodius. In effect the brothers created the first Slavonic alphabet, which was known as the Glagolitic alphabet. Clement, realised that the alphabet needed some modification because the Glagolitic symbols were too difficult to learn. He amended some of the letters by adding Greek ones and named the alphabet “Cyrillic” in honour of St Cyril.
This city has much to offer the visitor in terms of culture and recreation. Those who want to chill out and enjoy being in a different country should take a boat ride on the lake; the water is the clearest turquoise and the views are spectacular with a skyline full with church spires, domes and red tiled rooftops. You can buy a pair of earrings made from mother-of-pearl from the lake for around one lv.
Within the city’s old town there are many classic examples of the Revival style architecture which are being preserved. The Robevci House, which is now the National Museum, and the Uranija and Kanevce houses are the best examples of this classic style. Don’t miss the 800-year-old tree in the cobblestone square next to the old market and the Ali Pasha Mosque. It used to house a shop but today it is filled with cement.
Another sight to behold in the Old Town is the Old Bazaar, a simple but interesting market running along one street. The first part is a colourful food market, which actually used to sell animals. The bazaar spills onto the old square with the ancient tree on it. To the left there are some old stone shops – remnants of the early bazaar, take a look at the Dereban Filigree shop still run by aging Mr Dereban. The little shop is a museum piece in itself selling old jewellery weird objects for melting silver. The amazing thing about this shop is that it has played host to many royals and other famous people on official visits to Macedonia.
Above the bazaar is the incredible Mesokastro Settlement, which is where the poor used to live. Its name actually derives from the Latin meaning “outside the city walls.” The houses in this area are built into the city walls and are not visible in some area. There are great views of the lake here and some of the more prominent houses are extremely interesting to visit.
The Antique Theatre is the only remnant from ancient times and the only ancient Greek theatre in the country. Sadly the upper tier is missing making it difficult to know how many people could spectate here. The lower tier is well preserved but do not be deceived by the tall arches, which to all intents and purpose look like they are part of the original design – they are a modern addition to compliment the grandeur of the theatre.
The Monastery of St Naum sits peacefully on the south bank of lake close to the Albanian border. The small church here is home to the Saints grave and legend has it that if you put your ear to the gravestone of St Naum, you can hear his heart beating inside there are some wonderful medieval frescos, whilst outside beautifully coloured peacocks strut through the courtyard mingling with the many tourists who visit. Don’t forget to visit Bilyana's Springs, which are very close to the monastery and are set in the most beautiful, natural environment.
Other noteworthy sites include King Samuil's fortress, which lies on a hill overlooking the lake, the St Sophia and the Sveta Bogorodica Perivleptos, or St Mother of God the Most Glorious, Churches with their splendid, wall paintings. The purple walls of the 13th century St John-at-Kaneo Church has a wonderfully scenic location on the top of a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid. Its architecture has a strong Armenian influence most notable in the roof line of the dome.
Eating, Drinking and Accommodation
The legacy of Communism lives on in Ohrid’s numerous hotels particularly the Palace, Slavia, Park, Metropol, Bellevue and the Granite. There are lots of restaurants and taverns in the city; make sure to dine on the signature Ohrid trout or Ohridska pastrmka and wash it down with lashings of zholta, which is yellow rakiya but do be aware that trout have become such a rare commodity in the lake that it is actually illegal to catch the fish there. The best places to dine are the restaurants in the old city by the Old Bazaar. Macedonians also drink lots of Rakiya and Mastika.
Pictures courtesy of annya Quinn and Jacobo Canady