36 Hours in Ohrid

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Photo: Antonia Wade

Ohrid is a newly opened, little known corner of Macedonia that should become an integral stop on a tour of Europe’s culture. It is set in a stunning UNESCO natural and cultural world heritage site, bordering an ancient lake and is nestled in a valley. The city is (unsurprisingly) known for its culture and history and is full of ancient settlements, churches and parks. Excavation work is still going on, so if you are interested in history, then you really need to go. Plus, it is so cheap that is in hard to find a reason not to; flights can be as little as £30 return. Whizz Air only started flying direct to Ohrid from London in June 2015, and I was lucky enough to get one of the first flights out.

Friday

When we landed in Ohrid it was hot, sunny and we were just a short 10-minute ride to the centre of the city. I stayed in an Airbnb flat, but there is a huge variety of cheap accommodation. Aim to stay in the downtown district because it sits on a hillside facing the lake. If you leave your window open or sit on a balcony in the evenings you can hear the music of an accordion player floating up from the lake’s edge. Eating within Ohrid is incredibly cheap, so aim for the traditional FYRM (aka the Republic of Macedonia) dishes of selsko meso with a glass of mastic (the national drink of FYRM).

There are so many beautiful churches to visit in Ohrid. The area was once called the Jerusalem of the Balkans and had 365 churches, one for every day of the year. The first one you have to visit when you arrive is St John at Kaneo, a short walk from the centre of Ohrid. It is reasonably tricky to make your way through the winding streets, so I recommend downloading a map on your phone prior to leaving your accommodation. The church itself is nestled on an outcrop overlooking the beautiful lake. Either arrive as the sun is setting for a beautiful view, or arrive earlier to enjoy the sunset during your evening meal. There are some ancient frescoes of exceptional quality inside the church, although you cannot take pictures of them. I recommend getting a postcard.

After you have had your fill of the church make your way along a path down the cliff to a series of restaurants right by the lake’s edge. My favourite restaurant is Kaj Kanevche, where you can watch fish swimming around from the terrace over the water. The food itself is delicious: fried plasica and freshly caught trout finished off with fresh baklava liberally drizzled with honey. I do not recommend getting Ohrid trout because it is endangered, and as a result, what is served either fake or needs to be protected.

From the restaurant you can either make your way along the same path back to Ohrid or take a short boat trip across the lake.

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Photo: Antonia Wade

Saturday

A slightly unconventional suggestion for an activity to take part in on the Saturday is to hire a moped. Hiring a moped will allow you to see so much more of the surrounding area, especially the Galičica National Park just down the road. Moped hire is very cheap (approximately 26 euros for the day), and outposts even provide suggestions of where to visit. I personally took the road up into the National Park to a spot that overlooked the whole lake. From there you can either return to Lake Ohrid or continue over the pass to a series of hairpin turns. Whilst certainly thrilling, I do not recommend this option to any novice drivers. But for anyone with a bit more experience, the small villages on the road back to Ohrid are beautiful. This trip will probably take a full day, but really introduces you to the culture of FYRM and provides a short tour of the surrounding area. You can either stop at one of the villages on the way for food, or take some snacks with you for when you get hungry.

Alternatively, take the road alongside the lake where weeping willows drape into the crystal clear water. Halfway down Lake Ohrid there is the Monastery of St Naum, where there are some more beautiful frescoes, a beach and natural springs. St Naum founded the monastery himself, and legend has it that you can still hear his beating heart if you put your ear to his grave. If you can, take a boat trip from the monastery which will take you over the springs and show you the exterior of the entire monastery. This will allow you to appreciate the natural beauty of Lake Ohrid and the surrounding hills, as well as this beautiful site. The atmosphere of peace and religious significance attracts many tourists, so try to arrive early to beat the crowd. It is also a good place to pick up a few souvenirs, as there are more souvenir shops here than in Ohrid.

The Bay of Bones water museum is en route. It includes a recreation of a pile-dwelling settlement (from 1200- 700BC) and a water museum, as well as a recreation of a Roman fort further up the hill. The tour guide speaks briefly, and then you are free to wander about. Whilst quiet, it is a charming stop and is exceptionally beautiful on sunny days. There is also a diving centre nearby, if you are interested in diving in an ancient lake, which costs approximately 40 euros per hour. In the evening, head back to Ohrid to enjoy more delicious traditional dishes at the Villa St. Sofija.

Sunday

On Sunday morning I recommend visiting some of the nearby cultural sites. Right in the centre of town is Tsar Samuel’s fortress, encapsulating St Panteleimon and the battlements. The battlements themselves are extensive, with 18 towers and four gates remaining. However, you should really go for the view, which is stunning. Try to go both in an evening and during the day, so you can get some amazing sunset pictures and also see the fortifications themselves. After this, head to the ancient amphitheatre of Ohrid. It is not quite as impressive as the churches, or the famous Greek amphitheatres because it is surrounded by modern developments; however, it is certainly interesting – and even better if you are visiting during a performance.

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Photo: Antonia Wade

After that it will be time to return to the airport for your flight home. If you choose to make Ohrid a stop on a longer tour, then include as much of FYRM as you can. I have never met people friendlier than the people of Ohrid. When we stopped for a break from the motorbike, a couple of people stopped and asked us if we needed any help, directions were offered freely and we were even invited into a house for coffee. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people. I have never felt more welcome anywhere, and I look forward to going back.

A sidenote: There is a festival from 15 July until 15 August that is immensely popular within FYRM, so unless you are going especially for the festival avoid Ohrid during these times. June is probably the best time to go because the weather is sunny with rain confined to thrilling thunderstorms, few tourists and exceptionally long days. As for souvenirs, I cannot say enough how amazing the coffee was, so stock up. We were introduced to it by a local family that taught us how to brew it properly, but it is quite an easy process. It is delicious, sweet, not very bitter and makes a perfect present.

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