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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Cooling off in Macedonia's Lake Ohrid

Tom Allan travels to Macedonia and explores the landlocked country's spectacular lake and layered history 

The church of St John, Kaneo, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia / Tom Allan
The church of St John, Kaneo, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia / Tom Allan

The Italian media called it ‘Lucifero’. The heat has buckled train tracks in Serbia while in Macedonia wild fires rage on the hills around the capital, Skopje, filling the sky with an orange haze.

Lake Ohrid, in the south of the country, straddling the border with Albania, offers a refreshing refuge from the heatwave sweeping southeast Europe. A trip to its clear, cool waters and pebble beaches is an annual ritual for landlocked Macedonians.

"This is the closest we have to the sea," explains a woman on the winding bus journey from Skopje. "I live in Canada now, but still try to come back each summer."

The lake is busiest in July and August so if you come then, expect beach parties and jet-skis as well as Byzantine churches, Ottoman architecture, and one of the most unique ecosystems in Europe.

"The best time to visit is September, or early summer," says local guide Misho Yuzmeski the next morning, as he takes me on a walking tour of the old town of Ohrid, the largest on the lake and my base for the week. "It’s much more peaceful then".

Yuzmeski – writer, translator and fluent in eight languages – is an inexhaustible source of knowledge on his home town.

"However hot it gets, there is always a breeze in the old town", he says as we gaze down over the red tiled roofs and twisting cobbled streets, over the 36 kilometres of silky water and beyond, to the Albanian mountains. Right on cue, a cooling wind springs up, taking the edge off the midday glare.

Ottoman townhouses in Ohrid's old town, Macedonia / Tom Allan
Ottoman townhouses in Ohrid's old town, Macedonia / Tom Allan

Ohrid has, to borrow Homer’s phrase, a climate ‘where life is easy for men’. It is one of Europe’s oldest settlements: there are remains here from the 4th century BC. That’s modern compared to the lake itself, which at over a million years is one of Europe’s oldest.

Thanks to its age, Lake Ohrid has more endemic species per square metre than any other lake in the world, according to Unesco. The most famous of these is the Ohrid trout, said to have a taste somewhere between brown trout and Atlantic salmon. It’s now critically endangered and fishing is controlled on the Macedonian side of the lake, so the trout on Ohrid restaurant menus is mostly farmed.

Fish swim in clear water in Macedonia's Lake Ohrid / Jovan Sekuloski
Fish swim in clear water in Macedonia's Lake Ohrid / Jovan Sekuloski

The first thing you notice about the lake is the clarity of the water. This is paradise for a swimmer like me: the white pebble beaches, ochre cliffs and glass-clear water are more like the Adriatic than an inland lake.

Yulvan Sekuloski, who works in the Amfora Dive Centre, 16km south of the town of Ohrid, explains that this is one of the clearest lakes in the world. The springs feeding it filter through the limestone fissures of the Galičica mountains, giving a visibility of up to 22 metres.

The underwater world of Macedonia's Lake Ohrid / Jovan Sekuloski.
The underwater world of Macedonia's Lake Ohrid / Jovan Sekuloski.

"I have dived all over the world, and no fresh water systems compare to here," Sekuloski tells me. Divers shouldn’t miss the chance to explore the remains of the Neolithic stilt-house village in the Bay of the Bones.

These natural splendours are matched by Ohrid’s cultural and religious heritage. For fans of Byzantine churches, this is heaven. Even a non-aficionado can’t fail to be impressed by the frescoes in St. Sofia church, still full of expression and life after 900 years, or the magnificent paintings in the icon museum.

The Bay of the Bones Museum, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia / Tom Allan
The Bay of the Bones Museum, Lake Ohrid, Macedonia / Tom Allan

The sheer number of churches has given Ohrid the name ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’, though Yuzmeski dismisses the often-repeated theory that there are 365, one for every day of the year.

"That’s something the other guides like to tell people. I don’t know how many there are but not 365!"

One thing is clear though: things in Ohrid are changing. We walk on past the Roman amphitheatre to a hilltop with spectacular views over the lake – and of a string of hotel complexes on the far shore. Once the hill was covered in pine trees and layers of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman ruins. Now a major construction project is underway, bearing the unwieldy title 'The Instauration of St. Clement’s University at Plaoshnik’.

St. Clement was a disciple of Cyril and Methodius, the two hoary brothers from modern-day Thessaloniki who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. Clement founded a university here in the ninth century and from this hillock above the lake spread the new script throughout the Slavic world. The church bearing his name has been faithfully rebuilt, with new visitor- and study centres also under construction. "They have built the church beautifully," says Yuzmeski. "But the rest, it’s too much," he continues, pointing at the complex of buildings that will soon dominate the skyline.

‘Too much’ could be applied to other government projects in Macedonia. The infamous ‘Skopje 2014’ initiative saw somewhere between $250 and $650 million spent on gargantuan bronze statues in the capital – money, critics argue, that a poor country like Macedonia can ill afford.

The government has other plans for Ohrid, too: a 30,000-capacity ski resort in the mountains of Galičica National Park and further hotel developments along the lake shore. Unesco has warned that it will review Ohrid’s World Heritage status unless the more contentious proposals are dropped.

The town of Ohrid on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia / Misho Juzmeski
The town of Ohrid on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia / Misho Juzmeski

Macedonia, with the fifth lowest GDP in Europe and 23 per cent unemployment, badly needs tourism. The new Social Democrat government elected in June on a pro-reform, anti-corruption agenda have pledged to review all development that threatens the integrity of the lake.

"Our goal is to develop sustainable and responsible tourism by focusing on the local, authentic experience […] and all the adventure possibilities this area has to offer," government spokesman Mile Boshnjakovski tells me via email.

The government also plan to invest in new cycling and walking trails along the lake shore, he adds, improving access with minimal damage to the environment.

But with a slim majority in parliament and the daunting task of overhauling the country’s institutions ahead, this is far from assured. Yulvan Sekuloski from the dive centre strikes a final note of caution. "If carefully planned the wildlife and the lake could be preserved. But unfortunately there is a lot of damage done already. If it continues at this pace I think the future will not be so bright."

On my last night I speak to a young German couple, who tell me about a ‘performance art’ event they saw in the St. Sofia church the night before.

Part of Ohrid’s Summer Festival, the evening featured techno, UV lights and a male stripper. The 11th century frescoes must have blushed.

This evening the Optina Pustyn monastery choir from St. Petersburg perform. The closest we get to techno is the floor-trembling voice of the basso profondo, reaching depths that only Russians can, but the heat inside St. Sofia’s thick walls wouldn’t be out of place in a rave.

Shirts stick to the backs of chairs, programs are fanned and the choir look close to heatstroke in their black robes. As we empty out into the muggy night a honey-yellow moon rises over the Galičica mountains, casting an avenue of dimpled light across the lake. The soft lights of a nearby cove beckon. It’s time for a final swim.

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IF YOU GO

The flights

FlyDubai flies direct from Dubai to Skopje in five hours from Dh1,314 return including taxes. Hourly buses from Skopje to Ohrid take three hours.

The tours

English-speaking guided tours of Ohrid town and the surrounding area are organised by Cultura 365; these cost €90 (Dh386) for a one-day trip including driver and guide and €100 a day (Dh429) for two people. 

The hotels

Villa St Sofija in the old town of Ohrid, twin room from $54 (Dh198) a night.

St Naum Monastery, on the lake 30km south of Ohrid town, has updated its pilgrims' quarters into a modern 3-star hotel, with rooms overlooking the monastery courtyard and lake. Double room from $60 (Dh 220) a night.