Macedonia isn’t on a lot of people’s radar. The former Yugoslav republic has had a difficult past and not being a member of Schengen or the EU makes it a relatively difficult place to get to. It doesn’t have much to offer the luxury or high maintenance tourist, but for those with an open mind and a little grit, it is well worth a visit. Its most scenic spot is the city of Ohrid on a lake of the same name. Despite the country being landlocked, in Ohrid you will get strong Mediterranean vibes with a refreshing dash of Slavic charm. And since it still is a bit of a hidden gem, you can enjoy it all on the cheap.
Being sandwiched in the middle of the Balkan peninsula means that Macedonia is built on mountains. Ohrid is no different, rising vertically from the low lake level. For those with strong enough leg muscle (or the cash to pay an expert cabbie), you can enjoy numerous panoramic views of both the city and the lake.
Below the Fortress atop one hill is Plaošnik, an archaeological complex. It includes the Church of Sts. Clement and Panteleimon and a sweet, little cafe from which to enjoy stunning views of Lake Ohrid. One of Macedonia’s more unsavory habits is charging foreigners for entry while Macedonians get in free. The church complex is no different. Still, it’s a small price for charming views and helping to maintain the country’s historical sites.
Further down from the main church is the small Church of St. John at Kaneo. Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the lake, it is arguably Macedonia’s most picturesque spot. The rust-colored bricks of this Byzantine beauty perfectly contrast with the sparkling blue of Lake Ohrid.
From here you can walk down the cliff and along the coast back to downtown Ohrid. Along the way you’ll pass numerous restaurants where you can enjoy the scenery and savor Macedonian treats. Most of the dishes are grilled meat, and Ohrid is known for its fish. On the side be sure to order piperki, large, green, sometimes spicy, roasted peppers served in vinegar with fresh garlic and cilantro. After stuffing yourself, finish it off with a Turkish coffee.
Another not-to-be-missed spot is St. Sophia, possibly the oldest church in Macedonia, and easily the most iconic (it’s on the money!). In order to protect the marvelous frescoes inside, photos are not allowed. However, you can feast your eyes on the memorable Orthodox iconography. Some of them bear extremely old examples of Cyrillic, the alphabet Macedonian is written in.
If you’re on a lake and it’s warm, you’re probably going to want to do some beaching. Also along Lake Ohrid are places where you can relax in the clear, fresh water. Be advised, most of the beaches are made with pebbles, so they don’t lend themselves too nicely to lounging, but with a beach chair, you’ll be just fine. If you’re like me and don’t actually want to get in the water, there’s a walking trail along its edge. Or if you’re feeling indulgent or romantic and have a little extra money, you can hire a boat ride. Sunset makes for a particularly magical time.
Ohrid is a great place to get to know a little bit about Macedonian history and also enjoy some of the benefits of its modernity. It’s easy to forget that the city is along a lake and is not a charming Mediterranean coastal town. You’ll leave with a heavy belly and azure memories.
What are some other hidden gems in Europe that I should know about? Let me know in the comments!