The girl was standing on the rocky headland, by the crimson walls of St John-at-Kaneo Church, and looking at Lake Ohrid at her feet. Her eyes searched for the Monastery of St Naum on the opposite shore. Then they drifted to the left, lingered on the boats in the turquoise water – she had ridden in one of them the previous day – and finally wandered off over the roofs of the old city's houses and churches.
The girl was in Ohrid for the first time, but she had managed to negotiate her way without anybody's help, relying only on her grandfather's keen memories. Then an elderly Macedonian lady appeared by St John-at-Kaneo.
“Her grandfather was from the Bulgarian occupation force. Occupier or not, the man liked our city,” the Macedonian says, recalling her conversation with the Bulgarian. Then she adds proudly: “Nothing has changed in Ohrid since then.”
Apparently, the Bulgarians and the Macedonians are unlikely to agree soon about the nature of the troops that entered the Aegean and Vardar Macedonia after Bulgaria joined the Axis in 1940. Were they liberators or occupiers? Both countries carefully avoid direct confrontation, especially in Ohrid, the universally acknowledged Pearl of Macedonia. Situated on the northeastern shore of Lake Ohrid, it is the best-known city in the republic – despite the fact that the CIA has failed to include it on its website map of the former Yugoslav republic. About 50,000 people live there and they are all convinced that Ohrid is the bestdeveloped, the richest and the most European city in the country.
People from other parts of Macedonia, however, tell the following story. After God created the world and lay down to rest, the devil got to work and set up Ohrid with all its beauties: the splendid lake, the steep mountains where the Galicˇica National Park is now located, moderate climate and fertile soil. God woke up and stared around in astonishment. “What have you done, devil?” he asked. “Your deeds are supposed to be evil!” “Oh, wait a minute, God!” Satan replied. “You haven't seen Ohrid's citizens yet.”
The only fault that foreign tourists will find with Ohrid's citizens, however, is their proclivity for inflating prices. Yet a dinner of the famous Ohrid trout with generous amounts of zholta, or yellow, rakiya in a restaurant in the old city amidst the dozens of Revival Period houses and medieval churches is not so costly. Landmarks cause prices to rise all over the world. In this case, they include Robevci, or the Robevs', House and the St Sophia and the Sveta Bogorodica Perivleptos, or St Mother of God the Most Glorious, Churches with their magnificent 11th-14th Century murals.
Ohrid is said to have 365 churches, one for each day of the year. In reality, they are fewer, but the number is certainly large – a remnant from the time when the city was the residence of the Ohrid archbishops. Theoretically, they were under the authority of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. In fact, however, they acted in such an independent way that in 1676 the Ottoman sultan abolished the archbishopric at the patriarch's request.
Earlier, something far more interesting had happened in Ohrid and because of it you now have problems reading any road sign written in Cyrillic. What appears to you to be the enigmatic alphabet of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Russia was invented here by St Clement of Ohrid. He was one of the students of Cyril and Methodius, the brothers who created the first Slavonic alphabet, the Glagolitic. Clement, who established an educational institution and a literary school near Ohrid at the invitation of Bulgarian Prince Boris I, soon realised that the complex symbols of the Glagolitic were too hard to learn. So, he changed most of the letters for Greek ones and called the new alphabet the “Cyrillic”. Fifty years later, it established itself as the main writing system and the Monastery of St Clement at Plaošnik – up the hill from St John-at-Kaneo Church and under Samuel's Fortress – is now a major tourist attraction in Ohrid. Its church has been recently restored and the remains of the monastery are undergoing archaeological excavations.
Outside the city, on the south bank of the lake and nearly at the Albanian border, lies a more well-preserved monastery. St Naum boasts a miniature church with medieval frescos and a well maintained yard, which is the favourite walking area for tourists and peacocks.
Ohrid is home to more than just “church tourism” and there are well over a dozen places where your eyes can rest from the views of domes and medieval red bricks or white stone walls. The easiest thing is to intentionally get lost in the maze of narrow lanes between the city centre and the hill with Samuel's Fortress. While in Ohrid's old part everybody is desperately trying to conserve the Revival Period and medieval past because of the tourists, here a different type of past has managed to survive without any particular effort.
You'll see more children riding bicycles in the streets than adults driving 1960s cars. The air carries the scent of freshly hung washing and the meals that housewives are cooking for supper. Each empty piece of land is occupied by parked Zastavas, the triumph of Communist Yugoslavia's industry. Judging from the flat tyres and tatty seats, these cars will leave their place among the weeds to set off on one last journey – to the scrap yard.
Ohrid's citizens are down-to-earth people and have retained their Communist-era hotels, just like they keep their Zastavas. Most of these establishments have simply had their curtains and names replaced by “more prestigious” ones and are still functioning. The “prestige” that the Palace, Slavia, Park, Metropol, Bellevue, Granite and the “Zastava” Hotel-Sveti Stefan (sic) exude, however, is redolent of Communism.
The elderly Macedonian is right. Everything in Ohrid is as it used to be and changes happen very slowly. The Bulgarian girl has realised this too – on her own she has managed to find the 800-year-old plane tree in the cobbled square by the old market and the Ali Pasha Mosque that her grandfather remembered so vividly. The only difference was that the hollow in the tree's huge trunk was no longer used as a barber's shop or a café; instead, it was filled with cement.
Ohrid began its existence as the ancient city of Achrida and acquired its present name in the 9th Century, when it was included in the territory of the Bulgarian Kingdom. Between 990 and 1015 it was even the capital under King Samuel, when the eastern parts of the country were conquered by the Byzantine Empire. Over the next few centuries, the city often changed hands between the Despotate of Epirus, Bulgaria, the Byzantine Empire and Serbia, but the Ottomans had the last laugh. They took Ohrid in the 14th Century and although it became one of the major centres of the Revival, the city remained under Ottoman rule until 1912. After the First World War, it entered the territory of the federal units controlled by Serbia, a status that ended after the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the formation of the independent Republic of Macedonia.
HOW TO GET THERE
Unfortunately, Ohrid is situated at the southwest end of Macedonia and you'll have to travel right across the country to get there. The good news is that Macedonia is not particularly big and this does not take much time.
If you start from Sofia early in the morning, you will need no more than four hours to pass the Gyueshevo and Kriva Palanka border checkpoints and reach Skopje. From there, it is about a two-hour drive south along the M4 via Tetovo and Struga. The alternative routes via the border crossing points of Stanke Lisichkovo near Blagoevgrad and Zlatarevo near Petrich require more time.
10 MUST DO'S
• “Thump-thump, thump-thump!” You don't need to be a cardiologist to hear St Naum's heart. According to a local superstition, all you have to do is put your ear to the stone slab covering his grave in the church in his monastery.
• Dine on Ohrid trout.
• Drink between one and 10 zholti in the taverns by the Old Bazaar.
• Try to hide your disappointment when you finally discover the only apparent monument from Antiquity, when Ohrid's name was
Achrida. The theatre under Samuel's Fortress can't compare to those in Epidaurus or even in Plovdiv, but the view of the lake is worth the climb.
• Do your tourist duty and visit the best examples of Revival Period architecture: Robevci House, which is now the National Museum, and the Uranija and Kanevce houses.
• Make new friends and eat a packet of peanuts bought from the stands along the promenade while taking a boat ride on the lake.
• Add a pair of lake pearl earrings to your souvenir collection. They are made from finely ground mother-of-pearl, pasted to the scales of an indigenous fish. The price matches their origin: an earring costs one lev. Yes, Bulgarian leva are viable currency in Macedonia's tourist areas.
• Give free rein to the romance in your soul and look for the heartshaped pebbles in Biljanini Izvori, or Bilyana's Springs, near the Monastery of St Naum. Legend has it that the woman who was King Samuel's great love lived there. In Bulgaria and Macedonia the site is the object of the popular song “Bilyana Platno Beleshe”.
• Compare the picturesque nature of the springs with King Samuel's residence in the fortress standing atop the hill near Ohrid. There is nothing much to see there – apart from the lake.
• Ohrid offers more than architecture, eating and drinking. Nature lovers can try some of the tourist trails in the Galic˘ica National Park