Breathtaking Balkans: The Best of Ohrid, Macedonia

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Breathtaking Balkans: The Best of Ohrid, Macedonia

On the shores of one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes, you will find a confluence that defines the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: cobblestoned paths lined with ornate churches lead to lakeside beaches and cafes that fill with sunbathers each summer. Legend has it that at one point, Ohrid, the largest town on the eponymous lake that forms Macedonia’s southwest border with Albania, was home to 365 churches: one for every day of the year.

While the many churches and monasteries that dot the lakeshore boast some of the best examples of Macedonian Orthodox iconography—and the seat of the religion has rested here since 2005—Ohrid and the surrounding region have plenty to offer believers and non-believers alike. For adventure enthusiasts, the town sits between three of Macedonia’s national parks where one can find great hiking, biking, rock climbing and paragliding. For the oenophiles, Ohrid is an easy day trip to many of the 84 wineries that make up Macedonia’s up-and-coming wine industry. To discover these wineries, and get an insider’s take on any activity, look up local tour operator Time for Macedonia can help organize activities to suit anyone’s interests around Ohrid and beyond.

For those looking to party as the locals do, visit during the annual Ohrid Summer Festival, which takes place from July 12 to August 20 this summer and will be capped off with a Prodigy concert that is expected to draw 15,000 visitors to the region. One can happily spend a weekend at the summer beach parties on Gradiste Beach or Plaza Orevce, but check out our other recommendations for a two-day stop in Macedonia’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site that are good for spring and fall as well.

Day One

The morning light makes for some of the best views over the lake, so head over to the family-owned Gladiator Restaurant to sip a macchiato or cafe frappé from the balcony, which sits just above the western side of the Ancient Theatre. The theatre, originally built in 200 BC, has hosted everything from gladiator fights during the Roman times to high-profile classical music concerts during recent summer festivals. The restaurant manager will be glad to share local advice for your stay in Ohrid. His wife’s family has lived in the building that houses the restaurant for generations.

Church of St. John at Kaneo Photo: Nikolovskii, CC-BY

After coffee, make your way over to one of Ohrid’s most iconic landmarks: the medieval Church of St. John at Kaneo. You will likely be approached by a local guide offering a half-day tour of the church, as well as the archeological site of Plaošnik, the rebuilt Church of Saints Kliment and Panteleimon, the 10th century Samuil Fortress, and any other sites you care to squeeze in. You’ll be expected to negotiate the price, but plan to settle somewhere around 3,000 MKD ($55) for your group—the unofficial price agreed by the local guides.

No doubt famished from your morning of climbing from church to fortress, make your way down the winding stairs to Kaneo Beach, the site of one of Ohrid’s original fishing villages and the modern location of one of its best fish restaurants. Take a dip in the lake directly from the restaurant’s “summer terrace” as you await your meal of fried lake fish—plasica (eaten whole like sardines)—or the famous Ohrid brown trout.

After lunch, take time to get lost in the city’s old town. If you haven’t yet, make sure to visit St. Sofia Cathedral and its beautifully preserved frescoes from the 11th to 13th centuries. From there, take Tsar Samuil Street to the National Workshop for Handmade Paper to buy a leather-bound book or simply to see a copy of the Gutenberg Printing Press in action. Continue on to the left for a wander through the Old Bazaar until you get to one of Ohrid’s quirkier sites: a 900-year-old cinar, or plane tree, which is held up by a combination of padded boards and a soda stand.

Many of your queries about the town are likely being answered at this point, but if you have a question about Ohrid, head back down to Tsar Samuil Street to Cultura 365, which hosts regular photo exhibitions and offers books and information on the region. Culturally overloaded? Opt instead for a nice glass of Macedonia’s staple red wine, Vranec, as you watch the sunset from the lakeside terrace at Liquid Cafe.

For dinner, there is no better choice for traditional food than Restaurant Antiko, an old mansion on Tsar Samuil Street that serves some of the city’s tastiest ajvar (a roasted pepper spread) and sarma, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid a taste of rakija, the local fruit-based liquor, head over to NOA Lounge Bar for a dram or a cocktail from their extensive list. Wind up the night with a rakija or two more at Jazz Inn, a cool live music venue with a hip crowd.

Day Two

Start the morning off with a leisurely coffee on the terrace at Kadmo Bar before making your way to the port for the 10 a.m. boat to St. Naum. The boats run regularly June to August, but check with locals for availability outside the peak summer months. The 90-minute journey is the best way to get across the lake while viewing some striking waterfront homes and the splendor of Galicica mountain and national park. You will dock just in front of St. Naum Monastery, a Byzantine-era church complex known for its world-class examples of iconography and the peacocks that strut across its grounds.

For lunch, walk the short distance to Restaurant Ostrovo for a meal of prolonged meze Macedonian-style. Set to the backdrop of a quartet playing traditional music, you will be served plate after plate of fresh local cheese, flaky spinach pie, and bowls of Shopska salad while you look out on the small boats paddling in the spring that connects Lake Ohrid with nearby Lake Prespa. Make sure to leave room for tavce gravce, a white bean stew flavored with fresh paprika.

After your meal, Restaurant Ostrovo is also one of the many places around the lake where you will find Ohrid Pearls for sale. Risteski, one of the original pearl-making families, offers some of the finest quality. Feel free to do a bit of shopping after lunch. Unlike traditional oyster pearls, the Ohrid Pearl is actually made from the scales of the tiny plasica fish, which is only found in Lake Ohrid. Make sure to also peruse the other stalls along the port selling local handicrafts while you await your tour operator for the afternoon’s activity: paragliding.

Restaurant Ostrovo Photo: Bridget Nurre Jennions

If arranged in advance, Paragliding Ohrid can pick you up from St. Naum and take you up the winding path to one of their jump points: a ledge off of Galicica Park overlooking the lake and nearby village of Trpejca. With prices ranging from 3600-4600 MKD ($65-$85) for two to four hour experiences, the company offers tandem paragliding (as well as individual lessons) and boasts a record of 6,000 accident-free jumps to date.

Ask the tour operator to drop you at the quiet, but lovely Trpejca Beach for a quick dip in the water and a lounge on the sand. Grab a table at Kaj Ribarot, one of the best restaurants on the lake. Make sure to save room for a dessert of gooey baklava or honey-soaked tulumbi. For 120 MKD (about $2 per person), you can catch a bus from the village back to Ohrid (last one departs around 7:30pm) or you can taxi back for around $20. On your way back into town, consider a night of dancing or a quick night cap at Cuba Libre Beach Bar.

Getting Here
While Ohrid has an international airport, it is often cheaper to fly into Skopje and take a bus or rental car to make the scenic 200 km trip. Low-cost carrier Wizz Air makes direct flights into Skopje from around the Balkans and Western Europe.

Where to Stay
The 20-room City Palace Hotel boasts a central location with restaurant and spa starting at $190 in the peak summer season. For the slightly more budget-conscious, Villa Mal Sveti Kliment is a cozy guesthouse with great lake views and a delicious breakfast. There is also camping available near Gradiste Beach, where you can rent a trailer or cabin.

Top image, cindy-dam, CC-BY

Breathtaking Balkans columnist Bridget Nurre Jennions is an Emmy-winning TV journalist and an international development specialist in Kosovo. Follow her travels on her blog, Bridgekrieg.

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