Ohrid rhymes with “horrid,” but don’t let that fool you; this little gem on the shores of Lake Ohrid is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been in these four-plus years of travel. Ohrid is one of a small number of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list that is referenced for both its natural and cultural heritage; most sites are one or the other, but Ohrid is both stunningly beautiful and culturally important. It is a remarkable place where we could easily have spent more than the two full days allotted. Alas, we wanted to stay longer but the day we were scheduled to leave was Macedonia’s national independence holiday and they were fully booked. That’s right, we were all but kicked out of town.
What’s the natural beauty? Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in Europe, dating back at least two million years and perhaps as much as three million years. Due to its age, depth, and isolation, the lake supports some 200 species of plant and animal life that are unique to the lake itself. Walk around the hills that surround the lake and you feel that you must be on the Mediterranean, or at least Lake Como or something like that in Italy.
And on top of that, for centuries Ohrid was a major ecclesiastical city. You know you’re in a religious place when the airport is called “St. Paul the Apostle Airport.” It has been a major church place at least since St. Clement of Ohrid walked the streets here. He lived back in the 9th century (when Ohrid was part of the Bulgarian Empire) and is considered the first Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. He is one of the leading saints of modern Bulgaria and the patron saint of today’s Macedonia. By the end of the 10th century, Ohrid was the capital and main city of the Bulgarian Empire. Hundreds of churches were built during these centuries before the Ottoman invasions of the 15th century; in fact, it is said that there were once 365 Orthodox churches in Ohrid, one for every day of the year.
Certainly not all of those churches remain, but several of them do and they add immeasurably to the natural beauty of the place. On our first day there I stumbled onto St. Sophia, an 11th century church that displays some remarkably well-preserved frescoes. And as you just walk around and explore you see more of these wonderful old churches filled with icons and relics. It’s enough to make you want to join the Orthodox church. Well, almost.
Ultimately, then, Ohrid was about sitting by the lake reading, swimming in the lake, hiking up into the hills, and all that. The food was great, including one night at a place called Belvedere where live music was not just nice entertainment but even led to lively dancing around our table. One night after dinner we caught the end of a live concert with some Macedonian pop group. All in all a great way to spend a couple days. It would have been a great way to spend even more days, but they wouldn’t let us. Sad.