First Day by Land, Second by Sea: Exploring Ohrid

Lake Ohrid is to Macedonia as Paris is to France or Venice to Italy: if you make a trip to this country, everyone tells you that there you must go.  I had a choice at the end of the week which I spent with my roommate from Ljubljana in her Macedonian hometown of Delchevo: cross the border into Bulgaria and hike the Riga Mountains, or take a bus back to Skopje and spend the next few days in Ohrid.  While the mountains are my home, I chose the latter; I thought it was better to stay and end my time feeling as though I really knew Macedonia rather than hop through another one or two countries before heading back to Slovenia.  Besides, I’m not sure my roommate would have ever forgiven me had I not visited one of her country’s most famous sites!

The bus ride from Delchevo had been one for the books.  Driving from Delchevo to the Macedonian capital of Skopje took four hours over long stretches of bumpy sundried roads.  Curtains hanging over every window kept me from burning, but did little to prevent the bus from becoming a dry sauna when the temperature outdoors had for the past week hovered at or above 100 degrees F.  The only open window in the entire bus was the emergency hatch in the ceiling.  Having spent the night prior out in town, first at a traditional kafana enjoying meats and white wine while listening to the serenades of a young guy singing traditional songs about love and family and land, and then heading to the disko until nearly when the sun rose to announce the next day, I was in no mood for a hot and bumpy bus ride back to Skopje.  Nevertheless I somehow survived and caught the next bus to Ohrid.

We pulled into the Ohrid bus station just before six p.m.  The town was still awash with sunlight, but the clouds hovering over the lake and surrounding mountains provided much needed respite from the strong summer sun.  I walked off the bus into a crowd of six or seven residents holding up signs to advertise – room? Room?  Do you need a room?  Ten euro, seven euro, forget about finding a hostel and stay the night with a family in town!  I had made a reservation for a hostel even before arriving however and so I passed by these folks and made my way towards the center of town.

Ohrid is not such a big place, and the signage to guide travelers from the bus station to the city center was…let’s say, nonexistent.  Whipping out my offline map, I determined the road towards town and started walking.  The roads to the hostel led through old neighborhoods with kids on bikes and women working in gardens in the front yard, often tending to a robust garden of red peppers and banana peppers complemented by tomato plants and perhaps a row of onions.  These, along with bread and cheese, are absolute staples of the Macedonian diet.

I swung open the front gate and stepped inside Agartha Hostel Ohrid, a three story house converted into a hostel.  The check-in desk sat on the second floor near the kitchen and lounge room.  All was quiet when I arrived, presumably because everyone was still out by the lake or grabbing a bite to eat in town.  I took this opportunity to stop by the grocery store down the street and grab some ajvar and bread to fill me up.  How I was hungry I couldn’t say; while staying with my roommate’s family the previous week, her mom would become concerned and ask if I weren’t well if I didn’t eat at least three helpings at every meal.  By the time I’d left I’d eaten enough to feed an entire army.  Luckily Macedonian food is absolutely scrumptious, so I was always more than happy to eat whatever was prepared for the day.

As the sun began to set and the patrons started trickling in from a day out in town, the guys running the hostel fired up a grill in the front yard and tossed some burgers on the grill to hold a barbeque.  Indie rock and folk music lulled everyone into a relaxing mood, and a group of about twenty people eventually conglomerated in the yard, spread out over numerous lawn chairs and blankets and an old rickety bench swing.  The guests came from all over: England and Australia, France and Switzerland, the U.S. and Colombia.  Some had been at the hostel a day, others over a month.  Apparently Ohrid had a way of reeling guests in and convincing them to stay long past their original departure, much like I experienced while staying in Belgrade.  Over the next few days I too became one of those travelers who became wrapped up in the beauty and serenity of this calm lake town and chose not to leave for another destination.

At night by the fire, I met a few people planning to the next day and explore some of the monasteries built into the hills surrounding Ohrid.  While Ohrid is a small town, there are an astonishing 365 monasteries built around it, one for every day of the year.  We rose early to begin our walk before the strength of the sun could really beat down, though in our decision to walk to the base of the hill instead of catch a taxi, we still didn’t start hiking until 10am in the morning.  Walking from the center of Ohrid to the base of the hills to the northwest of town was a pleasant affair.  Traveling with Allana and Brad, a couple from the U.S. and Australia, and Ben, an English guy, we meandered through city streets and into sleepy neighborhoods before beginning a slow climb up roads towards the forest.  Several older folks sat outside enjoying the weather over a cup of coffee or a beer.  One group of men was playing checker on a charcoal gray table, the two in competition stooped over the board with four others leaning in from all sides to observe the game.  They waved enthusiastically to us as we walked by, calling out good morning and wishing us well on our hike.

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Sv. Petka

Brad had plotted out the route the day before, but it’s difficult in Ohrid to acquire anything less rudimentary than an animated map looking straight out of Dora the Explorer.  Our designated path was drawn as a red squiggly line diverting from the small town of Vigosti into the forest north of Galicica National Park.  Signs here and there provided a semblance of guidance through the woods; at least the first stop on our hike was quite close to the start of the forest.  This point was the monastery of St. Petka, a beautifully constructed two story worship space nestled among the trees which provided a serene view of Ohrid.  Allana and I were instructed to pull on long skirts before stepping inside.  Indoors was a chapel, dimly lit and adorned with dozens of paintings of orthodox icons, where visitors can light a candle.  Those who actually practiced orthodox Christianity would often walk up to the icon framed and laid atop a stand at the front of the table, kiss the image, and leave behind a five or ten denar coin (Macedonian money).

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Ohrid from St. Petka
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St. Nikola

We departed the monastery and filled our water bottles with fresh cool water from the hillside before continuing on our journey.  The path from here was a bit more difficult to follow.  At times it was difficult to determine whether flattened grass or thin rows cleared of trees were hiking trails or simply the result of animals tracking through the woods.  More than once we had to turn back after attempting to follow what looked like a path, but which only led us into thickets of thorns and scratchy weeds.  On our way to the top of the ridge we passed three more monasteries: the first, a small white building which sat silent save for the rustling of a cat rolling around near the entrance; the second a monastery constructed along a creek bed with a small mill wheel turning with the flow of the water and an old man sitting at the entrance, instructing us to walk through a small tunnel under the base of the building and continue onto the other side; and the last one constructed into the hillside, its walkway providing the only passage onward to the ridge.  Eventually we came to cluster of tree stumps sitting near the river.  These provided the perfect point to take a break and enjoy a bite to eat, then splash our faces with fresh water in order to cool off under what had become once again a burning hot sun.

I was told the night before that this hike would be short and sweet, taking only four hours or so.  Well, by this point we’d already been hiking nearly four hours and hadn’t even reached the top.  I bit into one of my three meat and cheese pastries both with great appetite and a bit of regret, knowing that I’d have to stretch what little food I’d brought over a much longer journey than anticipated.  Brad shared with us slices of a peach that he’d bought that morning at the market, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that was the most delectable peach I’d ever had.  With each bite peach juice ran through the fingers, leaving everyone a sticky mess but satisfied by such a delicious dessert.

IMG_1276After twenty minutes we were back on the trail, heading onward and upward.  Brad was convinced that we should be reaching the top, and lo and behold the tree line broke just fifteen minutes after we resumed hiking.  We could gaze over dozens of kilometers with trees now out of the way, catching sight of the town of Ohrid down below and seeing all the way to a famous monastery 18 kilometers away on the south shore of Lake Ohrid.  A pack of sheep higher up on the trail began a bit of a mad dash towards us as we hiked, and I froze as their numerous bodies sprang down the slope towards a better place for grazing.  There was no sign to indicate that we had reached the top, but the ground rose no further so we forgot about the map and just claimed that we made it.

Some four wheeler tracks began nearby and led us on a descent down the southern side of the hill which we had just ascended.  Five minutes down the way we came across a post with a set of arrows nailed to the top.  North, south, east, west, each sign indicated a destination in the distance.  It appeared no mountain organization tended to this post however, since the strength of the sun had long since faded away any sign of words.  The arrows were completely whitewashed, so we just took the trail that led downwards and hoped for the best.

Down, down, down through the forest we went, until eventually the trail let out into a small village.  The dirt road was quiet save for a young man on a tractor guided by his father.  We weren’t quite sure where this trail let out, but walking down would surely take us back into town.  In the end we realized we had hiked a considerable distance south from Ohrid to the town of Ramne, but from there it was easy to catch a bus and make our way back into Ohrid.

IMG_1318Hot, sweaty, and hungry, everyone made a quick stop back at the hostel to wash up before heading out for a bite to eat.  This night’s meal was a colorful plate of falafel and salad which we enjoyed at a bar table situated on the main pedestrian street through Ohrid.  I think I might have inhaled the food more than eaten it, but it was still some of the best 3 euro I’d ever spent.  After refueling, we took a nice walk down to the waterfront and sat with our feet dangling over the stone wall of the wharf to observe as the sun set behind the mountains of Galicica.  Topping the night off with a cone of ice cream, it finally became time to head in for the night.

The next morning I was invited to join the hiking party from the previous day, but this time we wouldn’t be heading for the hills – we were spending the day on the water.  Lake Ohrid is about 18km long and 6 km wide, and its tall rocky bluffs and secluded rocky beaches made it a perfect place to enjoy both on- and off-shore.  Ben and I took single sea kayaks while Allana and Brad shared a double kayak.  We took off early in the morning, setting a return time of 5pm so that we could travel a few kilometers down shore and have time to relax on a couple of the beaches accessible only by boat before turning around.

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Setting off into the water of Lake Ohrid was one of the best things I did during my time there.  The water in the morning was smooth as glass which made the start of our day an easy leisurely row.  We rowed for about forty-five minutes before pulling into a little alcove of beach sitting at the base of a 50m rocky bluff.  It was time to crack open what beer we’d brought and finish it off before it became too warm in the sun.  Small rocks created a toasty bed upon which to lay, and at least half an hour passed before any one of us were willing to pull ourselves away from the sun-kissed ground.  We all took a few minutes to dip into the lake, swimming out into the quickly deepening blue waters.  Never had I seen in my life such clear water; each individual fish at my feet reflected through the surface, and had I had goggles I would have been able to observe the life of the lake for dozens of meters in all directions.

Refreshed from the swim, we hopped back into our kayaks and continued our way down the shore.  Two more stops and some hours later, we finally reached the end of our route: the Bay of Bones.  This site was a reconstruction of the original pile-dwelling settlement that occupied the bay for hundreds of years.  Thatched rooftops and walls created a small village floating on water.  This was all the more fascinating to see from the viewpoint of the inner lake.

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Eventually it was time to turn back; the clock had already struck two and we had only three hours to return along a route which had taken almost five to traverse on the way down.  There would be few breaks this time, and we rowed as a pack back up the shoreline.  Halfway through it was time to relax and give our muscles a break, so we sidled up to a rocky shore and snacked on the last of our food while watching tour boats cross the lake, traveling back and forth between Monastery St. Naum and Ohrid.

The wind seemed to be picking up by that point and the clouds above the lake were taking on a steely gray color.  Concerned about impending rain, we chose to cut our break short and continue our way back to our starting point.  Within fifteen minutes the waves had grown significantly.  I was quite comfortable in the choppier waters, having been through much worse while sailing on Lake Michigan in college, but Allana had never before faced having to row her way through mean waters.  Her boat quickly began taking on water as her and Brad’s boat was swept sideways time and time again by the rolling waves.  I slowed down to offer my water bottle as a bailer, and Brad quickly began pulling one bottle of water after the other out of the kayak.  Eventually he bailed out enough to leave only a couple inches of water inside, but the weather was not getting better and we all concluded that it would be safest to pull up to the shore and call our kayak rental contact to arrange for an earlier pickup.

I reached the shore first and called to arrange for help.  Fifteen minutes later our contact came to the shore and gave a quick chuckle with a smile on his face.  “You were so close!” he claimed, “not even a quarter kilometer more!”  Instead of bringing a van down to retrieve the kayaks, he would take the boats and row them the rest of the way back to the rental company’s dock.

Never one to turn down an exciting adventure, I volunteered to row my own way back to the dock.  I took off first as rental guy hopped into Brad’s kayak and two of his friends settled into the tandem kayak.  The waves by this point were a couple feet high, but this only made the rest of the row more exhilarating.  I loved the rush of adrenaline brought on by the more wild waters, the thrill of cresting over each wave and sailing onwards while constantly anticipating the next move necessary to keep moving forward instead of taking on water.  In just a few short minutes I had reached the dock, and an older beer-bellied man lounging on the lake shore in striped blue and white swim trunks came over to pull my kayak up onto the shore.  He laughed with surprise at seeing me in the kayak, surprised to see someone in the water at this point.  After pulling my kayak up onto the rocks, we turned and waited to assist the other two boats once they arrived.  Allana, Brad, and Ben returned to the rental dock by foot, and we thanked the rental guys a few times over before catching a bus back into town.

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IMG_1412.JPGBack in Ohrid, the hostel owners once again prepared dinner for its patrons.  One of the guests, Patrick, had stayed in the hostel for nearly two months but had finally decided to move on, heading the next day for the mountains in the north.  To celebrate his stay and wish him well on the rest of his journey, we were served a fabulous spread of pasta and vegetables complemented with a shot of rakija.  To top it off, during the meal the sound of drums began to reverberate through the staircase leading to the kitchen and lounge.  Patrick was to be treated with a performance by a Macedonian musical trio!  A man with an accordion led the way, followed by a fellow with a clarinet and the last of the trio carrying the drum.  Their music filled the floor, and soon all the guests were up and dancing.  Left foot over right, right over left, left over right and shift over a spot; everyone was dancing and turning in a circle around the room.  We laughed and danced and ate until late into the night, and even when I retired to my room to sleep, the beat of the drum continued drifting through hallways.  It was a Macedonian party at its finest, and a wonderful way to top off my second day in Ohrid.

 

…To be continued: more time in Ohrid!

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