Macedonia doesn’t currently appear at the top of many people’s bucket list destinations but if you’re looking for a little Mediterranean treasure, away from the hoards of the usual European crowds then look no further than this warm-hearted, history-rich country. As a land-locked nation, it is often overlooked in favour of the nearby countries Greece and Croatia, which boast white sand beaches and crystal clear waters, but Macedonia’s 940 foot-deep secret is a huge attraction and if it’s a large body of water you’re after with a seaside culture than Lake Ohrid is the spot.
The town of Ohrid is beautiful, charming and full of character. The white-wash stone houses, with their wrought iron balconies and fuchsia-coloured flower baskets are reminiscent of the Grecian Islands, while the narrow cobbled streets with ageing archways and quaint churches, whisper of provincial Italy. There are also influences from the five neighbouring countries but Macedonia has created a strong identity of its own. Despite decades of heavy struggle in gaining independence and even a battle to hang on to its name after a conflict with the Greeks, it has emerged victorious; a beacon of natural beauty and rugged charm.
Life in Ohrid is centred around the mystical lake, which as the locals proudly boast, is one of the oldest and deepest in the world. From every angle, it shines brightly, a gleaming diamond in Macedonia’s wiry landscape. There are many walking routes around the lake where you can explore the huge pool of water from various viewpoints.
Wandering around the small town on foot, we watched life unfold on the fringes of Lake Ohrid. Two elderly ladies sat side by side on a crumbling wall nattering rapidly, their headscarves tied neatly under their wrinkled chins and aprons fastened around their waists, apparently unperturbed by the blazing midday sun. As dusk settled, children performed dances in traditional Macedonian dress on a stage in the town square. Ribbons and white cotton flailing, they were all pointy toes and elbows as they moved energetically around each other, executing each move faultlessly to the high tempo music and the roaring clapping and cheering of the crowd. The Macedonians appear to both laugh and smoke in equal measures; frequently and heartily without inhibition. They are happy to extend these warm smiles and kind laughter to visitors, making a stay there instantly more enjoyable.
Walking on the waters edge at dusk was a magical experience. Small wooden boats glided through the lake, breaking the still, dark liquid. A thin wispy mist had settled low on the lake, shrouding the surrounding mountains and the golden honey-tinged sky melted into the clouds as the sun set slowly behind them. The red tiled houses, sprawling up the surrounding hillsides, were bathed in a warm gentle light, their reflections blurry in the lake’s dark waters.
Mornings were spent exploring the UNESCO World-Heritage protected old town; mystical monasteries, crumbling Roman amphitheatres and ancient fortresses, kept alive by tales of evil kings and courageous war heroes. Ohrid doesn’t lack for history, in fact it is overflowing with it, each ancient ruin guarding stories which reveal centuries of scandal-soaked history. During the sunny afternoons we reclined on loungers in one of Macedonia’s laid-back lakeside bars and drank fruity cocktails whilst dipping our toes in the icy water for relief. Star Bar boasts a long pier over the lake and comfy loungers with big umbrellas which makes it a perfect place to settle for the day, enjoying the up-tempo tunes and the cheap cocktails whilst suspended over the deep waters of the lake.
In the evenings we enjoyed hearty moussakas and fresh Greek salads with the local wine, which was surprisingly pleasant. They make a delightful Riesling in Macedonia so be sure to give it a go.
Taking a boat trip across the lake, we discovered a religious festival on one of the small civilisations on the waterfront. Long queues of people snaked around the church, shuffling forward slowly, patiently waiting to pay their respects inside. The barbeques of the town restaurants were fired up as the hungry crowds poured in to enjoy flavoursome slabs of meat with Greek salads and cold lemonades. We sat side by side with them on the grassy patches of ground by the lake, enjoying the food, the views and the exceptionally rich culture.
We stayed in the charming Villa Boban where the owners Tina and Boban were obliging to any of our needs. They gave us recommendations for restaurants and helped us hire a car when we needed. They also insisted we crossed the border into Albania to try the renowned Lake Ohrid trout. To put this into perspective, in Macedonia an average main dish cost around £3-4 where the trout cost closer to £20. Our lovely hosts assured us that in Albania it would cost less than half the price and it was worth the travel – apparently it’s what all the locals do. Setting off with our passports in hand and a sketchy map, we eventually found the recommended restaurant. We were the only diners in there so received exceptional service and the trout was well, trout. A perfectly nice piece of fish but perhaps not worth crossing a border for. But hey, when in Rome…
Macedonia is still incredibly cheap; the pound travels far there and everything from food to travel is great value. Ohrid is a town that the locals enjoy during their holidays but there are no Hiltons, no Michelin starred restaurants and no package deals. In a word, get there soon before it changes. We took a punt on Macedonia but luckily, it more than paid off.