Sunday, November 4, 2012

Macedonia Part II: Oh, Ohrid

Spoiler alert- I loved Ohrid. I'm sure you can't tell by my face full of joy

We said goodbye to Vishni and continued on to our final destination, Ohrid. The GPS easily led us to Ohrid, and then things got a little difficult. The Old Town is made up of levels of stone terraces, so the yard of one house might be a bit higher than the roof of another. This really threw off the GPS, but the same problem happens in the U.S. with raised highways, so this is to be expected. Once we found our way through the gates of the old town we parked in a make-shift lot in front of the ancient theater and then set off on foot. Our apartment for the weekend, in Villa Ohrid, took some finding, but once we discovered it we saw it was close to where we had originally parked. Since it was only 11:30 no one was there. We decided to wander around and find lunch and walked straight into the heart of the Old Town, St. Sophia church and courtyard, a mere 5 minute’s downhill winding walk from our apartment. The weather was sunny but cool, the air was fresh and clean, the birds were singing, and the church was beautiful. Restaurant Sveta Sofija was open for lunch, so we sat on the outdoor patio overlooking the courtyard. I had done some restaurant research on Ohrid and Sveta Sofija consistently came up as fantastic, and it did not disappoint. We passed bites around the table, sharing everything and pronouncing it all amazing. We took our time, eating, drinking, talking, and breathing in the fresh air and the sunshine.

Life is good when you have good people to share it with

Feeling left out without alcohol props, we borrowed the boys' beer.

The stone stairs that led us to the center

Given the idyllic circumstances, of course we immediately fell in love with Macedonia, repeating over and over how calm it felt. Ohrid and her streets were all but empty. It was clear we were visiting in the off-season, which suited us all just fine. There were a few men gathered drinking coffee on the opposite side of the courtyard, the cats kept us company begging for fish under the table, and our waiter came ‘round to re-fill our glasses. These little knots of activity took place in a strangely silent Old Town. Instead of feeling deserted, though, it felt peaceful. I imagined the streets filled with lake-bound tourists in layers of bathing suits and summer clothes, eating gelato and heading to the beach for drinks and swimming. A few shops discreetly advertising para-sailing an scuba diving were darkened, now that the lake was inhospitable to such pursuits, but I much preferred having Ohrid in a quiet season over the ability to swim in the lake.

I think we walked this hill about 100 times. The theater is directly to the left out of frame.

Another one of many narrow staircases slicing downward through the terraced stone streets

Some tourist destinations feel lacking without the energy of so many people, as though the buildings have no purpose but to be filled with souvenirs and postcard stands, but Ohrid didn’t feel that way at all. It seemed as though Ohrid was just Ohrid, people or not. The buildings were not made to please the eye of those on vacation- the streets and stairs and stone houses had been built hundreds of years ago. I liked that it felt like a real place instead of an amusement park- it was interesting even in the off-season when so many of the diversions of vacation and the tourists seeking them are absent.

After a long lunch we headed back to Villa Ohrid to check in. We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the room. Kiwis covered the roof of the porch and the wall along the walkway to the back door. There was a large porch overlooking our own little grassy yard, and beyond that, the misty lake shining under the sun.

Turn right at the kiwis, left at the figs, and stop when you get to the porch overlooking the lake.

Grass? Is that... you? Oh, how I've missed your face.

From our porch

It was a proper apartment, with a separate living room, kitchen area, bathroom, and one bedroom. The place was spotlessly clean and had what looked to be brand new furniture and bedding. It comfortably slept all 5 of us between two double beds and a large pull out recliner that transformed into a single bed. Between our first impression of the Old Town and the awesome apartment it was clear this vacation was exactly what city worn travelers like us were looking for.

We had no plans for the weekend other than the hike and ending up in Ohrid, so we set out that evening just to wander the streets. Ohrid has all the charm of the funky city infrastructure of places like Venice or the tiny cities of Cinque Terre carved into cliffs- cobblestone streets, narrow stone staircases, terraced neighborhoods, thin winding alleys, and random hills that are incredibly steep. Flowers and fruit seem to burst out of every seam, from fig and olive and persimmon trees to kiwi vines draped across roofs to grape vines running along wall tops. Flowers hang out of pots and stretch from between the rocks in the walls, they line the stone streets and soften the edges, or wind themselves around the trees filled with fruit. Malwine said “It’s like the Garden of Eden, you can eat everything!” That about sums it up.

Kiwis, in October. Oh, Mediterranean climate, you fox.

That is an ERMAGERD, FERGS! face

And then, of course, there is the lake. The banks of the lake have been occupied for about 2,400 years, and I can understand why people have wanted to live near such water for so long. It is enormous, ringed with hills and mountains, crystal clear, and often covered in layers of mist that blend with the clouds. When the sun is piercing through the mist and clouds and reflecting off the lake it creates a view that I would call magical if it wouldn't be such a cliché, so I’ll say I don’t know what to call it. It made me calm just looking at it.

We walked along the boardwalk tracing the shore and ended up at a small pebbly beach. A restaurant sat at the base of the shore side cliffs, with a wooden balcony above it jutting out from the rocks. We sat on the balcony to watch the sunset over lake, and those partaking had Macedonian wine.

Once the sun was gone we set off along the water in the opposite direction of home until we found a walking street lined with shops and restaurants. This was the part of  Ohrid that reminded me of Nice- somehow this commercial avenue didn’t feel hectic or rushed, even though there were blocks and blocks of places to spend money. The night ended at Cosa Nostra, a solid pizza place with the best banana split I’ve ever had- which was fortunate, since it was also Malwine’s first.

Ohrid was also nice enough to give us the perfect album cover for our light rock Christian record

The next morning Malwine headed to our pebbly sunset beach to enjoy the solitude and a book, and the rest of us set off on some leisurely hiking around Old Town. It’s not hard to do a greatest hits of Ohrid’s Old Town- signs are helpful but not obnoxious, and the Old Town is not large. Tsar Samuil’s fortress seemed like it was right around the corner from the ancient theater (albeit up a very long hill); an easy, tree lined path took us right to the stunning St. John at Kaneo (Sveti Jovan Kaneo) church on a cliff overlooking the lake, and winding back brought us to St. Clement. Looping further back to the theater and beyond we left through the gates of Old Town to walk the outer wall. With no time limits, plans, or expectations we still managed to cover most of Old Town, and re-trace our steps several times, before late afternoon.

From the fortress' walls

Heading to St. John at Kaneo

St. John at Kaneo as we said goodbye to it 

The gate into Old Town

The ancient theater and a misty Lake Ohrid

Our group reunited for a late lunch at Damar, which was right next to Restaurant Sveta Sofija and also incredible. One thing I have missed since moving to Albania is a variety of food, and it was so nice to be able to order a myriad of plates that were totally different, filled with vegetables, and presented in interesting ways. The "vegetable pan" was my favorite dish there.

Vegetable Pan- not what the description would lead you to believe, still fantastic


It is so beautiful I can BARELY MOVE

We decided to repeat our sunset watch over the lake, and took another night walk. Our last night ended with a dessert and wine feast at Sveta Sofija, and an inappropriate salad appropriately named "Sexy Salad".

Two scoops of chocolate ice cream on top of a bed of mixed nuts, into which a banana is stuck. And topped with whipped cream and honey. Subtlety, broken.

I'm like a teenaged girl with a crush on a Tiger Beat hottie here, you guys, but I can't stop heaping effusive priase on Ohrid. It is one of the most pleasant places to simply wander. I’m sure much of this was due to the absence of crowds, the perfect weather, the fantastic food, and my fellow travelers. Ohrid is the kind of place one goes to write a book, or paint on a back porch overlooking the lake, or do yoga at sunrise, or sleep in a hammock. If you’re looking to not have a care in the world, in other words, find a way to get to the Old Town. I’m sure far more people have described it far more eloquently than I have, but it’s truly that charming and enjoyable. It was a pleasure to spend time there, in the truest sense of the word. I have so many places “on my list” that there are very few I would say this about, but Ohrid- and Macedonia, in general- get my vote for a return visit.

Roof dog wants you to come to Ohrid

So does balancing cat

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