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Weekender: Macedonia

On the shores of one of Europe’s mightiest lakes, the little-known city of Ohrid has an ancient church around every corner

Weekender: Macedonia
Jovan de Kaneo Church, Lake Ohrid. Image: Getty

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Ohrid has often been dubbed ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’. Like the Holy City itself, it’s known its fair share of religious turmoil, yet today the UNESCO-listed Old Town is a vision of calm. Delicate minarets peek out behind rooftops while tumbledown churches hide in every nook. Head through cobbled streets towards St Sophia, once the seat of the archbishop of the Orthodox Church. Its impressive exterior overshadows the petite square it’s set within. Inside, the walls and ceiling are adorned with portraits of bishops, archbishops and patriarchs, from Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. 

Ohrid is a city to explore on foot, weaving between the old houses, through the ancient city walls towards the town’s crowning glory: the beautifully frescoed, recently restored Church of the Holy Mother of God Peribleptos, dating from 1290.

The city’s religious past is everywhere you look, even out on the waters of Lake Ohrid, where year-round boat trips ferry tourists to the impressive monastery of St Naum.

The lake is one of Europe’s oldest, and deepest; in the summer months it’s popular with divers. It’s tranquil, trout-filled waters provide a fitting backdrop for a city, which is equally unruffled.

Learn the lingo

Fala’ is the easiest way to say thank you. The Macedonian version (‘vi blagodaram’) is difficult to pronounce and although the former Yugoslavian countries have separated, this short version of thank you endures across the region today 

Bring it home

“Only the men in my family know the secret,” Vane smiles knowingly. He’s the third generation of his family to create the Ohrid pearls (the Talevs are one of only two families in Ohrid who make pearls). “All the others are fakes,” he says, frankly. “My grandfather came up with the secret in 1923 and we’ve been producing them ever since.” The pearls are made in his family home using the scales of the plasica — a fish found only in Lake Ohrid. The Talevs have provided pearls for the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Diana and the president of Croatia, and still sell them exclusively from their shop near the Old Bazaar.

Out of town

At Koritski Rid viewpoint, you emerge from the clouds, 4,660ft above sea level in the mountains of Galicia National Park. It’s only 30 minutes’ drive from Ohrid, and the winding route has great views across the lake’s entire coastline. From the viewpoint, the gleaming expanse below marks the border between FYR Macedonia and Albania. After reaching the area’s highest peak, Magaro, head down the other side and enjoy views across Lake Prespa. The road loops back up to Ohrid, passing through several villages and miles of apple orchards.

If you only do one thing

Walk along the wooden waterside walkways towards Kaneo for sunset. The former fishing settlement comes to life in the summer when its inns open and boat rentals are available. Follow the hand painted signs along the shingle beaches and up the warren of steep and sloping alleyways to yet another impressive church — St Jovan de Kaneo.

Wine & dine

Borek for breakfast
Bakeries line the main road leading away from City Square of Ohrid. Swing by for fresh-from-the-oven boreks and crepe cakes, paired with natural yoghurt.

Take five
Grab a seat at a Turkish coffee shop in the Old Bazaar where you can watch the tea delivery boys on their bicycles somehow balancing their cups and glasses on metal trays.

After dark
There are plenty of places to sample the cheap local beer and fine Macedonian wine — from Parisian-style Objectif and the red velvet-clad Jazz Inn, to the cool Liquid bar and the hip, rooftop Shilla.

Essentials

Wizz Air flies twice a week to Ohrid (St Paul the Apostle Airport) from Luton. Hire cars are available in the city centre from Escape from €31 (£26) for 24 hours.

Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)