It is believed that Ohrid, located in the southwestern part of Macedonia, once had 365 churches, one for each day of the year, giving it the title of “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, fact or fiction we’re not sure, what I know for sure is that this small city is one of Europe’s oldest human settlements and that it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, a decade before the breakup of Yugoslavia.
I first heard of Ohrid in 2016 when I moved to Bulgaria and started reading about the First Bulgarian Empire. Ohrid which was once the capital of the Bulgarian Empire is currently the most popular destination in Macedonia, home to many historical monuments and the oldest and deepest lake in the Balkan Peninsula, Lake Ohrid.
Crossing the Border into Macedonia
Driving from Tirana to the Macedonian border was actually very pleasant. The weather was nice, the road was not in such bad shape and we managed to see a few concrete bunkers while on the road. We had initially planned crossing the border at Pogradec, but since it was getting late and we were coming from the north, we decided to cross it at the western side of Lake Ohrid, in direction to Struga, but sometimes the shortest route isn’t the fastest…
Darkness had fallen by the time we approached the border and we couldn’t imagine what we were just about to experience. I rolled down the car window, I handed our Portuguese IDs and the car documents to the police officer who could barely understand me and that’s when we got told that our nationals IDs were apparently not enough to travel in Albania, making a lot of questions whether we had been allowed to enter the country with these documents or not. Of course I wouldn’t enter a country if I knew this document wasn’t enough… It’s all over the Internet!
“We’ve got passports inside a backpack in the trunk, which we don’t use much, but we brought them with us just in case”, I told the officer. I opened the backpack that was in the trunk, got our passports and handed them to the officer. However, it was still not enough for them. That’s when he told me to go back, pointing at this warehouse. The other officers were just pointing to the warehouse and shouting “Magazine”… Yeah, well, in the middle of the night, with my girlfriend, and driving a Nissan Micra to a warehouse in the middle of nothing in Albania, sounds exciting doesn’t it?
I understood immediately that they were going to inspect the car, searching for drugs. We had to remove all of our belongings from the car, literally everything, even my sunglasses that were in the glove box. There were two officers in there with us, who didn’t speak a single word of English, one of them, going through all of our belongings with my girlfriend on some old desk they had there. She had to open every single souvenir bag, and believe me, we had so many… The other officer was lifting the car and checking every single compartment, wheels, doors, trunk, hood…
One hour later we were free to go. I drove back to the border and this time they let us pass. Then, it was time to enter Macedonia. Once again, two officers who approached from each side of the car, making a lot of questions. I was already mad, so I told them that we had just been checked when leaving Albania and that it would make no sense to be searched again, to which they quickly replied that they would re-inspect if necessary. I stopped speaking, I didn’t want to create any more troubles. They wanted to know how long we had been on the road, why were we in Albania, etc… I told them exactly our plans and our itinerary, and then they let us go. I felt they were nice people who were just doing their job. The important part was that we were now in Macedonia!
Ohrid is a fairly cheap destination, specially when speaking of accommodation. We spent a night in Villa Ohrid Anastasia for the equivalent price of 11€ and we were extremely well received by the hosts. The bedroom was very nice and clean, the bed was comfortable and we had a parking place right at the entrance. There wasn’t much more to ask for.
By the time we checked in at the hotel it was already late and we were starving, so we went out to grab a bite and discover the city at night. We drove to the center and parked near Sveti Kliment Ohridski Street, the town’s main shopping street that goes from the City Square of Ohrid to the central roundabout.
It was late and most places were already closed. We couldn’t hang out very long since I had paid parking for only one hour. We grabbed two of the best chicken gyros I had in my entire life at an open food stand and we sat down for a while enjoying the silence of the night. In a matter of minutes we were back to our room for our only night spent in Ohrid.
Next morning we checked out of the guesthouse and we drove back to the city center. I was luckier this time, I found the perfect parking spot on Jane Sandanski Street, just a few meters away from the lake, and the best part? For free.
Back in September 2016 we made plans to visit the lake and the surrounding area. We booked that trip through Grabo.bg, a famous Bulgarian website, however such plans never became true. The night before our departure from Sofia, we were informed that the bus had broken down and the trip was cancelled. I remember being so mad, however, we tried to chill and pick a different destination. The next morning we got on a bus to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Nevertheless, our desire to explore the southwestern part of Macedonia hadn’t disappeared.
There we were now, almost a year later, witnessing the beauty of Lake Ohrid, the deepest lake in the Balkans and the oldest lake in Europe, having survived for more than a million years. It has a maximum depth of 288m and a total area of 358km³, shared between Macedonia and its neighboring country Albania.
We walked the Old Port of Ohrid and we sat down for a while. From there I shot some of my best photographs of the city. I could see the entire town’s shoreline, the giant Macedonian flag and on top of the hill, Tsar Samuil’s Fortress. Small boats were crossing the lake, old fishermen were offering boat tours to tourists and in the meantime a marathon had just started. There were now hundreds of people running by the lake.
At the gardens in front of Ohrid’s Port we found the Monument of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a statue of the two Byzantine Greek brothers responsible for inventing the two oldest Slavic alphabets, the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic alphabets, which would later be developed and spread by their disciples Kliment and Naum of Ohrid.
We kept walking towards west, through the narrow streets of Ohrid’s Old Town where all houses are picturesque, colored in white and brown, just like those little house lamps that light the streets at night. I love such architecture, it makes the city look so cozy and friendly. It is definitely one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to and I really wish I can come back in the near future.
As we were walking through the Old Town we came across the National Workshop for Handmade Paper, one of the only seven workshops for handmade paper in the world, where an original copy of the Gutenberg’s printing press can be found. The owner himself was a very nice and gentle person that for free showed us how to make paper using a technique from the 2nd Century BC. As a sign of our appreciation we bought a few souvenirs.
Just like mentioned before, it is believed that Ohrid had 365 churches long time ago, but the first one we saw during our visit to the city was the Church of St. Sophia, also known as Church of Holy Wisdom, a construction that dates back to the 11th Century. The construction itself looks very old and nice, but we didn’t visit the inside as it doesn’t feel right to pay for an admission fee of 100 Denars just because I’m a foreigner. It should be equal for everyone.
Something I really enjoyed about this town is that you can find flowers pretty much everywhere. Flowers of different colors, shapes and species, just like the ones I will show you below. I really like shooting photos of flowers and plants every time I travel to a new place and Macedonia has definitely a lot to offer.
We walked this wooden path along the lake heading west, where a goose could be seen floating in the lake. There were plenty of padlocks attached to the chains, with names engraved on them, similar to those you can find on bridges all over Europe. However, here you can also find the zodiac signs with instructions on how to make a wish “Drop your coin, touch your sign, make a wish”. I found it quite creative.
Late breakfast took place at Kaneo Restaurant. Despite the fact that breakfast portions were kind of small, I really enjoyed the place, a true hidden gem located by the lake.
In a matter of minutes we reached St. Jovan Kaneo, an Orthodox church, which is believed to have been built during the 13th Century. Its architecture is similar to those of other old churches in the city of Ohrid, however, no other stands on such amazing cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid. It became immediately one of my favorite sights in Europe and the world. The only way to experience it, is to be there and witness such stunning view… Breathtaking!
Located within a few meters from St. Jovan Kaneo, you’ll find one of Ohrid’s most important archaeological and religious sites, the Plaoshnik. It is home to the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, Macedonia’s most sacred church, where Saint Clement of Ohrid was buried after his death in the year of 916.
On top of the hill in the Old Town of Ohrid, stands Samuel’s Fortress, one of the city’s most famous landmarks and former capital of the First Bulgarian Empire during the rule of Tsar Samuil. To visit, you’ll be charged an admission fee of 30 Macedonian Denars, about 0.50 Euros. Climbing the stairs to the walls offer the most spectacular panoramic views of the city, the lake and the surrounding area. On top of one of the towers, there are binoculars you can use to look through for free.
Starting our descent to the city center, we came across other interesting landmarks, such as the 2300 year old Ancient Theater of Ohrid, Macedonia’s only Greek amphitheater, which was later used for gladiator fights during Roman times. It was kept buried for many centuries and in the beginning of the 80s it was uncovered by accident. Since then, it has been used for public performances during the annual Ohrid Summer Festival.
Several churches on the way down… Of course, almost every street in this town has a church, otherwise it wouldn’t be titled “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. I started thinking that the popular belief that Ohrid once had 365 churches was actually plausible.
Our visit to the town was coming to the end. Our last moments were spent in the main city square, where the statues of Saints Clement and Naum can be found, and in the Old Bazaar Street, which we had discovered the night before.
In the blink of an eye we were back on the road for a 3-hour drive to the last city in our itinerary across the Balkans, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, Skopje.
Stay tuned for the next part of The Ultimate Balkan Road Trip