We didn’t see a lot of highlights in Sofia, but the cathedral was pretty impressive

From Macedonia it was east to Bulgaria. We’re still in the Balkans but no longer in the former Yugoslavia; the development of an independent Bulgaria dates back to about the 7th century AD when the Bulgarian Empire emerged to dominate most of the Balkan Peninsula. Of course, given that this is still the Balkans, Bulgarians think of that greater Bulgarian empire as their natural border.

On the long drive from Bitola we stopped for lunch at a lakeside restaurant in Veles, Macedonia. It wasn’t great dining but it was a pleasant stop. And that wine you see was just for me; Mark was driving so I got to enjoy it on my own.

We were here once before when we came to a wedding in 2010. We only spent one night in Sophia then, but we loved it and have always wanted to come back. Despite the recent history as a Soviet satellite, Bulgaria had quickly emerged in the 1990s as a full-fledged member of the European Union complete with cafés and all that kind of pleasant life. Unfortunately, on this pass through we had a bunch of errands to do – especially the need to work with the U.S. embassy and get new passports – and still didn’t really get to enjoy the city that much.

The embassy is stuck a pretty fair distance from the center of the city and they make it really difficult to accomplish things. Ultimately they set an appointment for us, but somehow neglected to tell us that to get access to the embassy you couldn’t bring any electronic gear larger than a cell phone. No Kindle, no iPad. Do they know what decade this is? So we show up for our appointment – our really hard-to-get appointment – and are told, no, you can’t enter with those devices that we always have with us. What are we supposed to do? It’s not as though the security-conscious embassy is going to take kindly to us just trying to hide our little purses in the bushes or something.

So we decide that I’ll take stuff back to the hotel (some two miles away) as quickly as I can and try to get back for the appointment. Fortunately a Bulgarian guard at the embassy took pity on me and told me of a grocery store just a few hundred meters down the street that had lockers where I could store my stuff. Ultimately that worked, I made the appointment, and we have new passports coming.

Borisova Gradina Park (Boris’ Garden, named for Tsar Boris) is a massive expanse surprisingly near the city center. You wonder if it’s safe to walk these endless and isolated paths? This elderly woman, walking around 6:30 in the evening, seems to think so.

Besides that, yes, we got to enjoy the cafés a bit. There are a couple of absolutely huge parks near the city center with miles and miles of great trails for walking and biking and running and sitting and all that, and some good food. Ultimately, though, we didn’t get to see a great deal of Sophia. From here we’re east-bound toward the Black Sea but we have to come back to pick up our passports – we don’t know precisely when as they can take anywhere from five to 10 business days to produce – so maybe then we’ll have more time to explore and enjoy Sofia.

St. George Church, smack in the middle of the city, dates back to the 4th century and is by far the oldest building in Sofia

And a view from the inside of Bulgaria’s cathedral. Bulgarian Orthodox churches are surprisingly empty compared to Roman Catholic churches. We learned after taking this that we weren’t supposed to take pictures inside the cathedral but it’s not as though they could take this away from us…

Bitola’s highlight was the great floor mosaics at Heraclea, a city founded by Philip of Macedon and named for the Greek hero Hercules

Sometimes we go to these off-the-beaten track places like Ohrid and hit a home run. We loved it. Then there’s Bitola, not exactly a strike out, but kind of a lazy fly ball.

Bitola is Macedonia’s second largest city, down in the southwestern part of the country and just a little north of the border with Greece. It was founded by Philip of Macedon in the 4th century BC and for many years was a key cultural, educational, and commercial hub. From the time of the Ottomans it was known as the “City of Consuls” as so many nations had consuls here. So it sounded interesting.

Bitola’s main pedestrian thoroughfare

More interesting than it was, it turns out. There was a lively street of outdoor cafes and that was fun but it was kind of limited. There were some ruins about a mile out of town that were worth an hour or so. Mostly the ruins were pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, but the mosaics, covered up for some 1,400 years, were pretty impressive. And I loved a bit of the history: the city was an important part of the Byzantine empire but was sacked by a rising threat to Byzantium, a guy named Theodoric. Ultimately Emperor Zeno convinced Theodoric to turn his attention to the remnants of the Western Roman Empire instead, which Theodoric proceeded to conquer in the late 5th century. As Rome in those days was something of a … how do you say it? Shit hole? … he made Ravenna his capital and developed the fantastic mosaics we fell in love with last summer.

More of the mosaics, in really remarkable condition

But for those ruins, though – and even they were at best a brief visit – there wasn’t a lot to see. So I did what I liked to do when there’s not a lot to do and climbed up a big hill out of the city to look down. And that’s it. From here we move into Bulgaria, a country we visited and loved back in 2010.

Looking down on Bitola from high atop a neighboring hill

That church up there was my goal and I took the rainbow as a good omen

Macedonia’s countryside, looking away from Bitola

Not all of Bitola was this run down, but it is obviously a poor city in a poor country. Traveling here helps me understand the frustration many Macedonians feel about all the money being spent to spruce up Skopje

Macedonia is primarily Christian, but it was founded as an explicitly multi-cultural country and you see many mosques as you travel around. I have to say that I love the towering minarets you see as you drive through the country.

The Church of St. John, dedicated to John of Patmos, sits on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid and the town below

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.

The Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon is another church with some great views

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.

Frescoes in the Church of St. Sophia date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. When the Ottomans took control they plastered over these evil paintings so when they were uncovered centuries later they were in great condition for their age.

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.

A view of the lake from our hotel. There wasn’t a lot of swimming there but I can speak with authority that the water was clean, reasonably warm, and relaxing.

This was my favorite tiny stretch of beach, well out of town and very quiet. I spent several hours there finishing the biography of George H.W. Bush I had started.

Part of the lovely path out to my beach. From here it went up into the hills and then back down, so you had to really want to get there. I did.

Mark in front of the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon. Both the interior and exterior have been massively renovated in recent years but, to our surprise, the interior was pretty uninspiring. From the outside you expect it’s going to be huge and impressive but it really was neither.

Speaking of not so huge, there were lots of Yugos and other similar cheap, old little cars around

Lots of flowers and beautiful buildings and so on in Ohrid

The reconstructed walls of Bulgarian Tsar Samuel’s castle dating from the late 10th century make for great views over Ohrid

There was a walking path way around the lake. Ultimately I don’t know how far it went, but it was a long way around where you would find what looked like pretty hip beach clubs and bars and so on.

Speaking of food, we loved the simple things. In this case fried cheese, grilled eggplant, and cabbage.

And then there was the night of dancing in our restaurant

Our table was often surrounded and we didn’t mind a bit