Ohrid: Europe’s Oldest Lake

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t seem like much of an exaggeration to say that Ohrid was once the most important Slavic city: it was a key religious centre for the Orthodox religion and was the capital of the Bulgarian Empire at the turn of the 11th century. At its peak it was said to have one church for every day of the year and is possibly the place that invented the Cyrillic script now not just used in countries like Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia, but even as far afield as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia.

As soon as you catch a glimpse of Lake Ohrid, one of Europe’s oldest and deepest you realize that this is a special place; it’s not as high or as deep as Titicaca—which I haven’t visited—or even as Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan—which I have—but as you emerge from a pine forest to catch a first glimpse of Sveti Jovan Kaneo on a cliff over the lake against a background of snow-capped mountains, it really does seem magical. I even met a Macedonian philosopher who believes that this city, its location shaped like the bowl of a Greek theatre, was founded by King Philip of Macedon and Aristotle as an experiment—after a long drinking session.

Sveti Jovan Kaneo, Ohrid at sunset.

Of the 365 churches that supposedly existed in this Balkan “Jerusalem”, the ones that remain are spectacular covered in frescoes with elaborate iconostases. But getting to see them was difficult with Macedonia out for the low season. I arrived from Skopje around midday and once I’d left my things at the place I was staying, it was really a race against the unknown that is winter opening times. My visit to Sveta Sofija, one of the city’s most important churches, was repeatedly foiled by a padlock on the door of the church: I didn’t have much hope of success in the afternoon but thought I’d pass by just in case to ask someone if they knew. The first person I asked, a waiter, couldn’t believe it was closed and had to take a look at the door himself to check, then assured me that it was definitely be open at 10 tomorrow morning. The next morning I was sitting outside drinking my morning coffee when I asked the same question to a different waiter who was equally sure that 10am would be the appointed hour—until he saw that it was already past 10. The next person I asked—the Macedonian philosopher—told me what a laid-back country Macedonia is. Well, I had time, maybe it was time for another coffee?

The snow-capped mountains of Galičica across Lake Ohrid.

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