Find out about the Republic of Macedonia's lake resort. Here cultural attractions are complemented by tempting bars and restaurants, seasoned with the friendliness of the locals
‘I’ve named my boats Drake and Nelson’, Georgio, our boatman and a confirmed anglophile, said proudly. At that point we had already cast off from the waterfront on a tour of Lake Ohrid for the budget price of 200 MK denars (£1=71MKD). When, in our stilted English conversation, he discovered my Irish roots and interest in football, we were (for some unfathomable reason) invited back to his lakeside cottage to drink toasts with the local ‘rakija’ - as potent as whisky. We met several generations of his family, looked at fading photographs of his great-grandfather who was also a boatman and he co-opted his wife and children as interpreters for our guided trip. It was a warm, generous welcome to this country which was reflected throughout our stay.
From the clear blue waters we had a view of the monasteries, churches and castles which are the outstanding highlights of this country. The Republic of Macedonia or FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), so named to reduce political tensions with neighbouring Greece, also borders Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro as well as Bulgaria. It is a small country with a two million population which is accessible by air at Skopje, the capital, as well as through the Albanian land border which was our chosen route. Entry formalities are straightforward and no visas are required for EU passport holders.
The lake, one of the deepest in Europe, is a delightful setting in early summer, rivalling its better known counter parts in Italy such as Como and Garda. The 17th-century Sveti (or Saint) Naum monastery situated twenty nine kilometres outside the town is a major attraction, which can be reached by boat or by local bus (110 MKD a single trip). Perched on a promontory, overlooking the lake, it has extensive grounds patrolled by peacocks and inside the church there are ancient frescoes. The Orthodox Christian religion holds sway in Macedonia and as well as being of historical interest this site draws pilgrims from afar wishing to venerate the tomb of St. Naum who died in 910 A.D. It is possible to stay here at the St. Naum Hotel Complex, from 2450 MKD per double or eat at the restaurant but we chose one of the idyllic picnicking spots available.
Back in Ohrid town we wandered through the cobbled streets towards the tiny cliff-top church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo. It is no accident that this view has often featured in films and the outlook becomes even more dramatic from the battlements of the restored mediaeval citadel of Car Samoil. In a compact area, there are traces of Alexander the Great’s father, Philip 11 of Macedon and there are ongoing extensive archaeological excavations on a 4th-century church. A Roman amphitheatre, which is the venue for summer festivals, completed our tour of antiquities outside the town.
We saved the most striking example of religious icons until last. The Sveti Sofia Church (ul Car Samoil) has delicate colourful frescoes and their power was enhanced when we were fortunate to attend a youth group’s classical music concert staged inside the building.
The average charge for most of the churches and ancient sites was 100 MKD but sometimes donations were left to our discretion. There seemed to be a policy to make sure that there was total access to their heritage and this gave an added dimension to the appreciation of these ancient artistic works.
One of the most pleasant activities in the town was totally free. Strolling by the lake along a purpose built promenade there was the chance to stop off at bars like Aquarius (ul Kosta Abras bb) for cocktails and for further research on ‘rakija’.
Where to sleep and eat
We hoped to stay as close as possible to the lake and we were delighted to rent out a room at Villa Lucija (ul Kosta Abras 29; +389 46 265 608; firstname.lastname@example.org) for 1800MKD per night . We had a balcony overlooking the water, complete with a frog chorus at night, and a patio at the back gave access for swimming. Lucija was very friendly and we made use of the kitchen facilities as well as getting take away pizza from Pizzeria Leonardo (ul Car Samoil31; +386 260 359) in the square near Saint Sofia Church
One morning we decided to indulge ourselves in an elaborate breakfast at the nearby Vila Sveti Sofiya (ul Kosta Abras 64; 254 370; www.vilasofiya.com; 4200 MKD per double). This is clearly an establishment steeped in tradition and this was affirmed by an array of fresh fruit and tasty home baked bread.
As for restaurants there is a wide selection of eating options. Restaurant Sveti Sofia (ul Car Samoil; +389 267 493) specialises in local fish. We had delicious fried squid and sweet pancakes washed down with local wine, Vanac Pivka (1360 MKD for two). In fact, I discovered that the reputation of Macedonian wine is obviously growing by talking with a fellow diner, a wine importer, who was planning a large purchase.
The Neim Restaurant (ul Goce Delcev 71; +389 46 254 504), close to the nine hundred year old plane tree, serves hearty portions of moussaka, goulash, white beans and large draught beers (400MKD for two). This informal, friendly haunt, popular with the locals, also offered a takeaway service, 250 MKD for a whole roast chicken, ideal for us.
This is an understated destination which keeps a low profile about its UNESCO heritage status. Lake Ohrid, justly famous for its clear turquoise waters, deserves to be discovered by a wider public.