Ohrid: City of Light

Byzan­tine spe­cial­ist and writer Christo­pher Deliso has spent many years liv­ing in the Balkans, and Lake Ohrid is one of his favourite spots. He shares it with us here

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It was first de­scribed for me as 'a lake of ill for­tune.' That was in 1998, when I was study­ing Byzan­tine his­tory at Ox­ford. This rather bleak as­sess­ment was made by a late 11th-cen­tury arch­bishop, Theo­phy­lact, lament­ing his pas­toral ban­ish­ment to the 'small and wholly des­ti­tute' lake-town of Ohrid. In the em­pire’s Mace­do­nian hin­ter­land, an iso­lated ter­ri­tory that un­til a few decades ear­lier had been un­der Bul­gar­ian con­trol, Theo­phy­lact was far from the cap­i­tal of Con­stantino­ple- con­demned to a life sur­rounded by un­cul­tured ‘bar­bar­ians.’ In its poverty and mis­ery, Theo­phy­lact noted, his arch­dio­cese could only be com­pared to that of Mykonos.

To­day, of course, this com­mon curse would seem rather up­roar­i­ous - shim­mer­ing Ohrid is cer­tainly Mace­do­nia’s most glo­ri­ous get­away, while Greece’s glitzi­est tourist isle needs lit­tle en­dorse­ment. But in the me­dieval pe­riod, life was rather harder. De­spite its el­e­vated fortress, learned scrip­to­ri­ums and el­e­gant churches (as the prob­a­bly ex­ag­ger­ated say­ing has it, one for ev­ery day of the year), Ohrid might seem rather iso­lated, de­spite it hav­ing al­ways been a key stop along the Ro­man Via Eg­na­tia – the road that con­nected the Adri­atic coast with Con­stantino­ple, pass­ing through to­day’s Albania, Mace­do­nia, Greece and Turkey.

Hav­ing vis­ited and writ­ten about Ohrid so many times since 2002, I must con­fess that I can no longer imag­ine it as a tourist des­ti­na­tion, but rather, as a state of mind. And it seems I am not the first in this re­gard; in­deed, the town’s orig­i­nal an­cient name of Ly­ch­nidos (in Greek, mean­ing a ‘place of light’) be­trays an age-old aware­ness of the spir­i­tu­al­ity of the place; the translu­cent wa­ters of the mas­sive and deep (up to al­most 300 me­tres) lake, set be­neath a forested moun­tain and ringed by vil­lage set­tle­ments and an en­thralling old town of cob­bled laneways and ter­ra­cotta roofs, in­deed at­test to a set­ting amenable to con­tem­pla­tion and the cel­e­bra­tion of nat­u­ral beauty.

Tack­ling Ohrid can be done in just a few days, though a longer stay will in­vari­ably be well re­warded. The town of Ohrid it­self, hug­ging the lake’s north-eastern bank, has roughly 50,000 in­hab­i­tants, while the some­what smaller town of Struga lies to its west, in the low­lands that hosted

the an­cient Via Eg­na­tia that leads into Albania. The Great-Pow­ers pol­i­tics of the early 20th cen­tury, fol­lowed by the Balkan Wars and WWI, saw ter­ri­to­rial changes. By 1919, Serbs and Al­ba­ni­ans had di­vided the lake it­self (two-thirds for the Yu­goslav king­dom, in­her­ited since 1991 by the Mace­do­nian repub­lic, and about one-third for the nascent Albania). To the south of Ohrid, nu­mer­ous ham­lets and ho­tels stretch for over 30 kilo­me­tres, run­ning be­neath the forested Mt. Gali­cica, un­til the grand Monastery of Sveti (Saint) Naum, lo­cated just be­fore the south-eastern bor­der with Albania.

Thus both Ohrid town and its en­vi­rons pro­vide unique and var­ied ac­tiv­i­ties; these range from pe­rus­ing an­cient ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites and Byzan­tine churches to swim­ming, hik­ing and even paraglid­ing from a moun­tain­top that (in se­lect places) af­fords mag­nif­i­cent views of the twin tec­tonic lakes, Ohrid and Prespa, the lat­ter of which feeds the former from the el­e­vated eastern side of the moun­tain, through hun­dreds of tiny springs.

Ohrid is a UNESCO-listed Her­itage Site, and wan­der­ing its old town shows why. But while many ven­ture to the main sights from the cen­tre and then up, it’s far more ef­fi­cient (and less tax­ing on the body, es­pe­cially in the sum­mer heat) to start at the top and work your way down. To reach your start­ing point is just a short ride up the hill by taxi or car to the Gorna Porta, or ‘Up­per Gate.’ The first point of in­ter­est, to the left, is the 13th-cen­tury Church of Sveta Bo­gorod­ica Perivlepta (‘Our Lady the Most Glo­ri­ous’). This evoca­tive shrine is most no­table for its re­cently re­stored art­work, with the typ­i­cal Byzan­tine iconog­ra­phy of saints and bib­li­cal scenes brought vividly to life in wall fres­coes. The ad­ja­cent Icon Gallery in the church court­yard dis­plays some of the most valu­able and unique Byzan­tine icons any­where.

The path from the church west­ward leads next to the clas­si­cal amphitheat­re, site of cul­tural events since Hel­lenis­tic times. Built around 200 BCE, it was later used by con­quer­ing Ro­mans. While not as spec­tac­u­lar as some other an­cient am­phithe­atres, Ohrid’s is still suf­fi­ciently well-preserved that it hosts (along with other venues through­out the town) ma­jor con­certs and per­for­mances dur­ing the an­nual Ohrid Sum­mer Fes­ti­val dur­ing July and Au­gust.

Just be­yond the amphitheat­re is the cen­tre­piece of old Ohrid – the 10th-cen­tury fortress of

Bul­gar­ian Tsar Sa­muel, built on the site of an an­cient Mace­do­nian cas­tle from the 4th cen­tury BCE. Si­t­u­ated at the high­est point of the town, the cas­tle is ac­ces­si­ble by a nar­row stair­way and crowned by an enor­mous Mace­do­nian flag that bil­lows in the breeze; along with visi­tors tak­ing the oblig­a­tory photos of the old town and lake through the fortress’ solid tur­rets, you may come across a tur­tle lum­ber­ing through the grass, or an itin­er­ant en­ter­tainer play­ing the gajda (a tra­di­tional, sin­gle-bagged ver­sion of the bag­pipe).

Af­ter the fortress, the path leads to Plaošnik, the most in­trigu­ing and com­plex site in old Ohrid. Par­tially re­con­structed in 2002, it com­prises the multi-domed Church of Sveti Kli­ment and Pan­tele­j­mon. This me­dieval shrine was built on the foun­da­tions of a 5th-cen­tury basil­ica, and con­tains a won­der­ful jum­ble of even ear­lier Chris­tian mo­saics. As you walk through the church, be sure to gaze down through the glass floor seg­ments to see the orig­i­nal 9th-cen­tury church foun­da­tions.

Be­yond Plaošnik, the path­way de­scends slightly to its western ter­mi­nus near a cliff, and a site which is surely the most-pho­tographed in Mace­do­nia: the Church of Sveti Jo­van at Ka­neo. Al­though rather small on the in­side, Ka­neo has some sur­viv­ing orig­i­nal fres­coes be­hind the al­tar, and at­tests to the seam­less merger of hu­man con­struc­tion and nat­u­ral beauty that have al­ways made Ohrid such a spe­cial place, and that have marked the ar­chi­tec­tural in­tu­ition of Or­tho­dox Chris­tian­ity.

Con­tinue down­hill from Ka­neo to re-en­ter the old town and its maze of old houses. First, how­ever, if you fancy a break or a bite to eat, drop into the diminu­tive open-ter­race restau­rant that op­er­ates in sum­mer be­neath Ka­neo, from where you can also have a swim in the lake’s warm wa­ters. Ohrid is famed for its de­lec­ta­ble en­demic trout (though, as an en­dan­gered species is best avoided); at Ka­neo’s sum­mer ter­race you can in­stead en­joy golden fry-ups of plas­nici, tiny lake fish that have been en­joyed for cen­turies; in­deed, the noted Byzan­tin­ist Dim­itri Obolen­sky records the afore­men­tioned Theo­phy­lact of Ohrid as hav­ing sent such fish, in salted form, to friends around the em­pire, as many as 200 at once.

In­deed, for all his grum­bling, it seems that Theo­phy­lact felt quite in­spired by Ohrid’s vi­tal role as one of the key places where the mis­sion of Saints Cyril and Method­ius was per­fected. Set­ting off from Thes­sa­loniki in to­day’s Greece in the ninth cen­tury, the two monks passed through Mace­do­nia to con­vert the Slavic tribes, all the way up to Moravia (in to­day’s Czech Repub­lic and Slo­vakia). Method­ius’ most learned dis­ci­ple, Kli­ment (840-916), con­tin­ued his work in de­vel­op­ing an Ohrid ‘Lit­er­ary School’ to trans­late and com­ment on Bib­li­cal and other Chris­tian texts in the new lan­guage, and so to reach the lo­cal pop­u­la­tions.

As a pi­ous Byzan­tine, Theo­phy­lact felt it his duty to trans­mit the high the­ol­ogy of the Greek lan­guage and the schools of Thes­sa­loniki to his ‘bar­bar­ian’ flock far from Con­stantino­ple, and this he did in Ohrid’s most splen­did cathe­dral, Sveti Sofija, an acous­ti­cally-per­fect if smaller replica of its Con­stanti­nop­o­li­tan name­sake. Built in the 9th or 10th cen­tury, the church is sup­ported by col­umns and dec­o­rated with elab­o­rate, if some­what faded, Byzan­tine fres­coes. It lies fur­ther down

The Church of Sveti Jo­van at Ka­neo at­tests to the seam­less merger of hu­man con­struc­tion and nat­u­ral beauty that have al­ways made Ohrid such a spe­cial place, and that have marked the ar­chi­tec­tural in­tu­ition of Or­tho­dox Chris­tian­ity

amidst the clus­tered homes of the old town, and is backed by a serene gar­den. (Like the clas­si­cal amphitheat­re, Sveta Sofija has also been known to host the oc­ca­sional Sum­mer Fes­ti­val con­cert, ow­ing to its re­mark­able acous­tics and am­bi­ence.)

Not far from the church, among the old town’s nar­row laneways, stands Ohrid’s Na­tional Mu­seum (also called the Robev House, af­ter the former own­ers of this 19th-cen­tury man­sion). Like the Uranija Res­i­dence op­po­site it, the Robev House ex­em­pli­fies the el­e­gant tim­ber-framed con­struc­tion of Ohrid’s 19th-cen­tury re­vival when the city (and much of Mace­do­nia) was still un­der Ot­toman Turk­ish con­trol.

On its three creaky floors, the mu­seum-house dis­plays lo­cal an­tiq­ui­ties rang­ing from wood carv­ings and con­tem­po­rary art to Ro­man ar­chae­o­log­i­cal finds and the most im­por­tant (and rarest) find of all: a del­i­cate 5th-cen­tury BCE golden fu­ner­ary mask made in Ohrid by the an­cient Mace­do­nian dy­nasty, one of a hand­ful (the oth­ers taken by Bul­garia and Ser­bia when they had con­trol) dis­cov­ered at a mon­u­men­tal an­cient Mace­do­nia burial site in a nearby vil­lage. Once rarely on dis­play, the mask (and ac­com­pa­ny­ing golden glove, ring and ear­rings) oc­cupy a spe­cial room of their own; these trea­sures, and other golden arte­facts from even ear­lier pe­ri­ods of the Mace­do­nian dy­nasty, at­test to the town’s most glo­ri­ous an­cient pe­riod.

The fi­nal two sur­viv­ing Byzan­tine churches of the old town, Sveta Bo­gorod­ica Bol­nička and Sveti Nikola Bol­nički, are nearby but eas­ier to miss, ow­ing to their diminu­tive stature and abun­dance of more mod­ern dis­trac­tions, which in­clude some very good tra­di­tional restau­rants and cafés and jazz bars packed with young rev­ellers by night. These 14th-cen­tury churches are small and some­times closed, but worth a peek when open for their me­dieval icons. They pro­vided an im­por­tant func­tion in un­health­ier times - the word bol­nica means 'hos­pi­tal' in Mace­do­nian, and the ap­pel­la­tion in­di­cates these churches were used as a sort of quar­an­tine quar­ters for out­side visi­tors dur­ing the oc­ca­sional plague.

Con­tin­u­ing on through the stone streets of the old town, you ar­rive at the main port and square, lined with shops and cafés; the main pedes­trian

mall to the left, Sveti Kli­ment Ohrid­ski, is pop­u­lar for an evening stroll. Pass­ing more lit­tle shops and eater­ies, it leads up to the newer part of town and past one lov­able lo­cal ec­cen­tric­ity of na­ture - the Či­nar, a 900-year-old plane tree that sprawls up and out of the street’s very cen­tre.

Many visi­tors to Ohrid choose to stay in a num­ber of at­mo­spheric guest houses, pri­vate apart­ments, or newer ho­tels (as well some com­mu­nist-era larger ones) in and out­side of the town. From the main port reg­u­lar boat trips can be ar­ranged, that can take you all the way to Sveti Naum Monastery on the dis­tant south­ern shore of the lake. Al­ter­na­tively, you can drive or go by bus or taxi to ac­cess the many won­der­ful places nes­tled be­tween Mt. Gali­cica and the wooded wa­ter­front. Rus­tic life pre­vails in tiny vil­lages like El­shani, a few kilo­me­tres out of town, in­ter­spersed in the cool for­est air, along nar­row roads where the wild rasp­ber­ries fall ef­fort­lessly into your hand.

Along the curvy coast road head­ing south from Ohrid, you’ll find many of its big­gest (and most crowded) sandy beaches, in­evitably prox­i­mate to the hand­ful of large con­crete ho­tels erected when Mace­do­nia was a repub­lic within Yu­goslavia, and all of it ruled by Josip Broz Tito. Some­what more re­cently, the Mace­do­nian govern­ment built a rather dif­fer­ent set of lake­front struc­tures based on an ear­lier taste in hous­ing: that of Ohrid’s orig­i­nal Ne­olithic in­hab­i­tants.

Ever since 1977, un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­ol­ogy car­ried out near the se­cluded beach and camp­ing site of Gradište has re­vealed amaz­ing re­mains be­lieved to be up to 3200 years old. Ex­plor­ing at the so-called ‘Bay of Bones’ off the Gradište penin­sula (near the mod­ern vil­lage of Peš­tani), ar­chae­ol­o­gists work­ing from 1997 to 2005 dis­cov­ered the buried re­mains of stilted huts, along with ce­ramic tiles, an­i­mal bones and other arte­facts. Be­lieved to have cov­ered an area of 8,500 square me­tres, the set­tle­ment was built on plat­forms and con­nected to the main­land by a bridge, and in­hab­ited be­tween 1,200 BCE and 700 CE. To­day, a neat new mu­seum honours these early set­tlers, with a re­con­structed wooden bridge lead­ing to a deck where 24 stilted huts tell the story of daily life in an­cient times - with repli­cas of Ne­oliths ab­sorbed in their daily tasks - and in­for­ma­tion about the site. For scuba divers keen on his­tory, the un­der­wa­ter site can also be ex­plored through spe­cial ar­range­ment.

Some 7.5km down the coast from Peš­tani stands Ohrid’s most tra­di­tional and evoca­tive vil­lage, Tr­pe­jca. Al­though cer­tainly pop­u­lar with day-trip­pers in re­cent years for its white-peb­ble beach and deep azure wa­ters, it re­mains very much a work­ing vil­lage, set steeply down from the moun­tain where el­derly women de­scend with don­keys laden with sticks to the wa­ter­front, where fish­er­men un­tan­gle their nets on the hulls of colour­ful caiques. If you want to get away from it all, or at least from most of it, Tr­pe­jca is one of Ohrid’s bet­ter op­tions, a place where the night is al­ways scat­tered with stars, gen­tle waves and the croak­ing of frogs. It makes an ex­cel­lent place for swim­ming, and is also close to the moun­tain

road just be­yond that leads up and across to Lake Prespa.

You can also soak up the sun and en­joy some good meals at a very small hand­ful of lo­cal restau­rants on the wa­ter­front and, if you’re keen on more lo­cal church his­tory, get a lo­cal fish­er­man to bring you to the aban­doned Church of Sveta Bo­gorod­ica Zahum­ska, built prob­a­bly in 1299. A short boat trip from the vil­lage, it is oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble by land, near the very deep­est point of the lake, Sveti Zaum comes as a rev­e­la­tion, set grace­fully amidst fo­liage on a small beach. A rel­a­tively sim­ple church with a three-sided apse, the walls are dec­o­rated with fres­coes, some (such as a 1361 paint­ing of Sveti Naum) dat­ing from the pe­riod of the Ser­bian me­dieval em­pire.

Be­yond Tr­pe­jca, wilder­ness takes over and, save for the tiny vil­lage and camp­site of Ljuban­ište, there are no signs of hu­man set­tle­ment un­til the road curves west­ward to­wards the epic con­clu­sion of the Ohrid ex­pe­ri­ence - Sveti Naum Monastery. This spir­i­tu­ally and his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant site is pre­ceded by a long and pop­u­lar beach, where a con­cen­trated jet of cold wa­ter comes rush­ing out of a wooded la­goon south of the lake; in­cred­i­bly, this mass of wa­ter main­tains its co­he­sion un­der the

sur­face all the way to the op­po­site shore at Struga, where it rushes north­ward and into Albania as the Crn Drim River.

While most visi­tors come just for a visit to the monastery and trip to the beach, the monastery com­plex does of­fer a mod­ern ho­tel and restau­rant should you like to stay longer. The monastery is the largest work­ing one in the area, and was in­valu­able for the trans­mis­sion of holy texts from Greek into Old Church Slavonic, fol­low­ing the mis­sion of Cyril and Method­ius. Naum was a con­tem­po­rary of Sveti Kli­ment and their church, built around 900 CE as the Church of the Holy Ar­changels, was re­named af­ter the saint in the 16th cen­tury, when Mace­do­nia was part of the Ot­toman Em­pire.

The multi-domed struc­ture, ringed with rose gar­dens and home to pea­cocks that freely roam its well-man­i­cured lawns, is set on a high cliff over­look­ing the lake. Like Sveti Jo­van Ka­neo al­most 30km to the north­east, Sveti Naum is one of the most beloved and oft-pic­tured sites in the Ohrid area. Its de­sign and fres­coes are quintessen­tially Byzan­tine, at­test­ing to Mace­do­nia’s rich tra­di­tions. Be sure not to leave the church with­out press­ing an ear to the saint’s tomb - it is said that you can still hear his heart beat­ing.

Above: View of the town of Ohrid from the lake with the fortress of Tsar Sa­muel in the back­ground

Left: The church of Sveti Jo­van at Ka­neo (Im­age: © Diego Delso) to­day and an old post­card, dat­ing to 1930, show­ing the church (Im­age: The State Ar­chives of the Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia (DARM))

Be­low: Ex­te­rior of the Na­tional Mu­seum, Robev House

Mid­dle: Ceil­ing fres­coes from Sveti Sofija

Above: The church of Sveti Zaum which can only be reached by boat (Im­age: © Chris Deliso)

The Monastery of Sveti Naum

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