Sunday, 28 August 2011


Ohrid old town from the lake
So, it's been a really enjoyable four days here. Ohrid isn't a big town, but it is permanently busy and, whatever you are here for, there's something usually available to do.

Like many towns in the former Yugoslavia, Ohrid is split between an old town that spirals down from the crest of the hill in a series of tight, cobblestoned-corkscrew streets. Imagine Ansthruther or Pittenweem, with Fife accents and fish n chips replaced by baking heat, burek, and Macedonian, and you're somewhere close. On the other side of Bul Kliment Ohridski is the Tito-era part of town, all rectilinear low rise apartments and hotels in various states of repair.

The old town is quite beguilingly beautiful, as befits a world UNESCO heritage site (Ohrid has held this status since 1979). There are two remarkable churches, one of which- St. Jovan at Kaneo- is widely believed to be the most photographed structure anywhere in Macedonia. The town of Ohrid was founded by St. Klement Ohridski, who has a statue by the plane tree at the lakeside. In the early mediaevel times, Ohrid was a significant religious centre, and the first South Slav university was founded here. Back then there was a continual war between the South Slavs of various origins, and the Ottomans, and the Ottomans eventually prevailed, ruling the roost here until the beginning of the twentieth century.

...and the Lake from the old town
These days Ohrid is mainly a tourist town; Bul. Kliment Ohridski is crammed at all hours of the day and (even Sunday) night. It's like walking on Oxford Street on a busy Saturday. Macedonians are very open, sociable, family-oriented folk; large family groups promenade slowly down to the lakeside, chatting animatedly. The street has its eccentrics, too; a white bearded man, ludicrously sporting some 1970s pink Elton John-style outsize glasses, stumbles erratically through everything from folk songs to Happy Birthday on his wheezing accordion.There is a significant Albanian population here, too, unsurprising with Albania on the other side of the lake. On Friday, as I headed out for a long walk, the call to prayer from the mosque was sounding across the town centre.

It's unusual, too, that the secular and the sacred seem to co-exist so easily here. In the UK, large churches and religious sites have an unspoken small exclusion zone around them, so that no pubs or clubs disturb their peace and quiet; here, Eurodisco and house cranks out from about nine at night, cheek by jowl with some of the remarkable churches on the hill. Much of the tourist population throngs Sar Camuel in the evening, where the main boozers and clubs are. I was delighted to re-acquaint myself with Slovenian Lasko again over the weekend; after the Macedonian Skopsko beer, the smooth, fast-disappearing Ljubljana potion seem the one most widely available.

Yesterday I took a break from watching the 24hr football on Ustream, and went to a real game; 100 denar (£1.25) got me in to the crumbling Biljana Springs stadium to see the local team, newly promoted, against the big city slickers of Vardar Skopje. Or, in Macedonian terms, the Ribari (Fishermen) against the Црвено-Црни (Red and Blacks). The stadium was like a run-down Dundee junior ground, with a running track around it (think Downfield or Dundee Violet, for those of you who know these exotic junior stadia). In truth, watching the capacity crowd of 3,000 was much more entertaining than the actual game, which was brutal- soporifically slow, error-strewn, replete with misplaced passes and woeful timidity in attack.

Flares, Bog Roll and lots of noise as the Ribari ultras desperately try to enliven a dull game
Undeterred, the Ribari ultras proceeded to go absolutely mental in spite of the turgid fare on offer, peppering the little used running track with bog roll and letting off marine flares at the slightest provocation. Ohrid cut open a shockingly bad Vardar defence several times, but sadly their forwards had the penetration of a blunt HB pencil against a block of granite. In the end, the home side were rather unlucky to lose 0-2, to two well taken late strikes from outside the penalty box, as Vardar finally remembered that they had played football before. In a week where Scottish football plumbed new European depths, it was gratifying to note that an Airdrie or a Raith Rovers could comfortably have taken care of these two rank rotten sides.

The Macedonian President's summer hideaway

 Today I went out on a boat on the lake; a little wooden thing with an outboard motor, and a Vietnam-river-boat style old army canvas over the top. We headed off in the general direction of Albania, before cutting back past the summer residence of the Macedonian president, on a secluded outcrop- the building originally put up for Marshal Tito in Yugoslav times. A little police boat bobbed at the edge of the little jetty, indicating that the president was there, although the two officers on duty seemed fully occupied in making their lunch. It was very peaceful, with the water, calm, a deep blue-green.

So, that's pretty much the end of the holiday phase of this trip, and Ohrid was a very good choice to end it in. Macedonia is still off the beaten track for many UK tourists, and options for getting here are limited, but if you get the chance to come to Ohrid, don't hesitate- do it.

This week, I'm basing myself in Bitola, about an hour's drive from here and ten miles or so from the Greek border. Whilst there, as well as looking around Bitola itself, I'm going to Prilep- home of the longest established artist's colony in the former Yugoslavia and still going in contemporary Macedonia, as well as Krusevo, where there is a museum dedicated to Nikola Martinovski, Macedonian's J.D. Fergusson-cum-Chagall. Having written a near dissertation's worth of pure bunkum on here today, my next update will be from Bitola probably on Wednesday night- by then I should have had my first meetings and taken my first notes for the big tome.

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