Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia

It’s beautiful, interesting, friendly … and cheap!

This is a fine place for a vacation: beautiful, interesting, very friendly ... and very cheap.  Lake Ohrid: thirty miles long, fed by clear rushing springs.  The city of Ohrid, at the north end of the lake, is a UNESCO "World Heritage" site, like the Pyramids and Mont Saint-Michel.  There is an ancient Roman amphitheater, a medieval fortress, and Turkish mosques.  And for hundreds of years, this was the seat of an important archbishop, and the city is full of churches; so many that you could go to a different church each day of the year.  And the churches are full of icons and frescoes.  (Tourist admission to a church is usually $2.50.)

The Old City of Ohrid

The old city of Ohrid, with the medieval fortress at the top of the hill. 

 This is vacation-land for the Republic of Macedonia and much of south-eastern Europe.  Outside the walls of the old city are restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, beaches.  (The beaches are pebbly; if you want white sands, you’ll have to go elsewhere.)  The main street is crowded with strollers late into the evening, and there are amusement park rides for kids along the edge of the lake.   You'll feel comfortable as a tourist here.

Church and Mosque on a Square in Ohrid

Mosque and church across a square in Ohrid

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The impossibly beautiful little 13th century church of Saint John at Kaneo sits on an impossibly picturesque rock outcropping above the lake.   Below it, the little fishing community of Kaneo is now beaches and tables under umbrellas.  You can take a water taxi back to the center of town if you don't want to climb all those steps.

The Church of Saint John at Kaneo

The church of Saint John at Kaneo

The Beach at Kaneo

The beach at Kaneo

Petar who sits at the door of the church may offer you a shot from the plastic soda bottle he keeps under his little desk.  Now, you have to understand: a plastic soda bottle is the now-traditional container for homemade rakiya, the local distilled spirit.  Rakiya  may be made from grapes or plums.  It may be clear or yellow, it may be strong or mellow.  But the most important distinction is whether it is commercial or home-made.  Try Petar's; it's good.  Petar has four shot glasses under his desk, and speaks excellent French.

Petar Bakalov

Petar Bakalov at the Church of Saint John at Kaneo 

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The hillside village of Vevchani is a good one-day excursion from Ohrid.  The village always had an independent streak.  It declared itself the Republic of Vevchani, partly as pure joke and partly in satire of Balkan politics.  You will get a Vevchani passport when you go there.  Water from the springs above the village gushes everywhere, beside each street, even under one of the churches. 

In Vevchani, looking at a magnificent house - stone and brick.  The date carved above its door was 1908.  The house was built by a rich family - they owned restaurants in Bucharest,  - and were rich enough that they ordered their clothes from abroad, to keep up with the latest fashions. 

In 1908, this was the farthest reaches of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire.  Bandits in the hills, freedom fighters in the mountains, undisciplined Turkish irregulars, corrupt officials.  When these people built that house, they built a smaller house next door for their guards; for rich people like this to live without guards would have been impossible.

These people had enough money - they could have lived in some safe, peaceful place, in Bucharest, in Belgrade, in Vienna.  But they chose to come back here.  This was home.

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The monastery of Saint Naum is a short bus ride from Ohrid.  The sun is hot on the steep wooded hillsides, but at the monastery cool water gushes from a hundred springs into a lagoon.   Swans float on the water, and lush greenery lines the banks.  The flow gathers and rushes under the little bridge into the lake.  The trout hang in the stream.

The Lagoon at Saint Naum

The lagoon at Saint Naum 

There is swimming off the pebbly beach.  A nice restaurant and a couple of open air grills, with tables under umbrellas.  Boatmen will row you up into the lagoon, and point out (in many languages) where the springs stir the sand under the clear water.  Above the lagoon, in the 16th century church of Saint Naum, under the icons and frescos, people cross themselves, light candles, and pray.  The monastery buildings around the church are now hotel and restaurant. 

The Church at Saint Naum

The church at Saint Naum

On the saint's day (July 2 and 3), people with someone sick in the family - Muslims as well as Christians - bring a lamb, go three times around the church followed by musicians, and give the lamb to the church. 

Bringing a Lamb to the Church

Bringing a lamb to the church 

Meanwhile, the area outside the walls is a circus.  The tables under the umbrellas are packed, the restaurant is full

At the Tables under the Umbrellas 

Playing under the umbrellas

Everywhere are booths and tables, selling food and drink, souvenirs, toys, CDs, jewelry … whatever you can think of.  Amusement park rides have been set up.  Musicians go from table to table, playing for tips.  Sometimes people get up to dance. 

Sometimes people get up to dance 

Sometimes people get up to dance 

At one point there were three bands playing loudly within a space of twenty yards.  A joyous noise! 

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More information: Read "Macedonia" by Thammy Evans, a Bradt Travel Guides book.  A great book.

Getting there: There is an international airport at Ohrid, with flights from various cities in Europe.  You can also fly to Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, and take the bus to Ohrid.  Ohrid Travel (www.ohridtravel.com, 973-340-9124 in New Jersey, USA) can help.

What to do:

The "Balkan Festival of Folk Song and Dance" runs from about July 5 to 15th, with performances every night in a pleasant open air theater in the old city.  011-389-46-261-063.  Tickets: $5.

"Ohrid Summer," from mid-July to mid-August, is a festival of music, dance and theater.  It opens and closes with world-famous names (in 2008 Jessye Norman and Sarah Chang), with more modest performers in between.  Many performances are in the old city in the Saint Sophia church.  This was the cathedral of the Archbishop; it holds several hundred people listening to chamber music under the 11th-century frescos.  Tickets: Jessye Norman was $50; Sarah Chang $25.  But tickets to the usual concerts were $5 or $7.50.  www.ohridsummer.com.mk, 011-389-46-261-304

The monastery of Saint Naum is a half-hour bus ride from Ohrid ($2.50 each way) .  Or take the excursion boat ($9, round trip).

To get to the village of Vevcani, take the "kombi" mini-bus to Struga ($1) and the bus to Vevchani ($2.50).  At the Kutmichevica restaurant, the Vevchani appetizer platter and beer was $16 for three.  Kutmichevica also has some beautiful rooms with private baths, for $30 a night.

Where to stay:

Villa Flora , Goce Delcev 361, 011-389-46-270-090, daljan_gm@yahoo.com.  Pleasant courtyard, friendly owners.  A twenty-minute walk from the center - a walk that you can be completely comfortable with at two in the morning.  Two-person room with private bath, including breakfast: $45.   

Villa Germanoff, Car Samuil 57, 011-389-46-254-368, www.visitohrid.com.mk/germanoff.htm.  A small hotel in the old city, near the Saint Sophia church.  Two-person room with private bath: $45.

Hotel Cingo, Abas Emin 3, 011-389-46-250-001, hotelcingo@mt.net.mk.  Near the old market and the center.  Two-person room with private bath: $75.

Hotel Tino, Kej Marsal Tito 55, 011-389-46-230 450, www.hoteltino.com.mk/enindex.html.  On the lake near the center.  Two-person room with private bath and breakfast: $90.

Where to eat:

Ohrid is famous for fish.  The Ohrid trout is an endangered species, but still to be found on menus.  (Make your own moral decisions.)  Grilled meat ("skara") is everywhere.  In particular, "chevap" are little skinless grilled sausages.  "Shopska salata" is a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes under a cloud of finely grated feta cheese.  (You will dream about these tomatoes when you return home.)  Try "T'ga za Jug" ("Tuggah za Yugg" - means "Longing for the South"), a semi-sweet red wine.  "Skopsko" is good beer.  (A bottle of beer is less than $2 in a restaurant.) Yes, you can drink the water.

Belvedere restaurant, Kej Marsal Tito 2.  An open-air restaurant on the lake with live sort-of-traditional music in the evenings.  Dinner for four with two bottles of wine was $44.

Elit restaurant, at the far end of Kej Marsal Tito, at Biljana Springs.  Eat next to bobbing boats.  Grilled ribs, a bit of salad, white wine and mineral water was $7.

At Brioni, Goce Delcev 54, light lunch for two - chicken shish-kebab ("razhnich"), salads, mineral water and a small bottle of white wine - was $11.

Fortuna restaurant, Dimitar Vlahov 36, near the lake, has a daily special (chicken and rice, for example) for $2.

One small scoop of delicious ice cream in a cone is 50 cents from the shop near the lake, but 25 cents farther up the main street.

Money:  The local currency, the Macedonian denar, is fixed at about 62 denar to the euro, which makes it about 40 denar to the dollar at a dollar-euro exchange rate of 1-to-1.5.  Major items (hotel rooms, long taxi rides, BMWs) are often priced in euros, and you can pay in euros or denar.  Normal purchases are priced in denar, and you should pay in denar.  The only thing you can do with dollars is exchange them for denar; there are plenty of money changers.  But the easiest way to get denars is to use a debit card in an ATM; they are all over.  Be sure to tell your debit card company where you will be using the card.  Bring some cash to fall back on while sorting things out if there is a problem.

Prices above are as of 2008, with an exchange rate of 40 Denar to the dollar.  Description and rates at Villa Flora are from a personal visit in July 2009; rates at Cingo and Tino are from their web sites in August 2009, with an exchange rate of 1.5 dollars per Euro.