Editor’s note: North Macedonia is not a place that has ever been on my travel radar, but this amazing glimpse into the place by our writer Sam Spector makes me want to go. For more of Sam’s work, click here to visit his index.
I love UNESCO World Heritage Sites. To date, there are 1,121 of them in 167 countries around the world that have been marked as sites containing massive universal value. These sites fit into one of two categories, cultural or natural. An example of a cultural site is the Taj Mahal in India, while an example of a natural site would be the Grand Canyon (one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States). However, there are 28 sites in the world that fit into both the categories of cultural and natural sites of massive universal values, and one of them is one of my favorite off the beaten path summer destinations in Europe, and that is Ohrid, North Macedonia.
The town of Ohrid is on the lake that bears its name, Lake Ohrid, and is one of three cities, the other two being Struga, North Macedonia and Pogradec, Albania. While Lake Ohrid is primarily in North Macedonia, a piece of it goes across the Albanian border. The surrounding area is largely rural with settlements and farmland. Ohrid literally means “in the cliffs” and it is clear to see why, as the town’s hills overlook the lake and dramatically drop into it. Given that Lake Ohrid and the town of Ohrid are both UNESCO sites for natural and cultural contributions, it is important to understand the significance of both of these elements, and as the nature came first, I will start with that.
Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest and deepest lakes in the world, dating back nearly 6 million years and dropping to a depth of nearly 1000 feet. Whether you are swimming in it, boating across it, or just walking along its shores, it is breathtakingly beautiful with mountains surrounding the 150 square mile lake. The lake itself is at nearly 7000 feet of elevation. On the lake is a mountain and national park called Galicica, which also touches nearby Lake Prespa. Native swans, ducks, and pelicans can be seen swimming throughout the lake as local fisherman work tirelessly to provide food and income for their nearby villages. However, what makes Lake Ohrid so unique is that due to how old it is, there are many species of creatures that can only be found in Lake Ohrid, including 21 fish and 72 mollusks. Of the 1200 different species of creatures that can be found at Lake Ohrid, over 200 of them are endemic species, meaning that Lake Ohrid is the only place they can be found. Such a large number makes Lake Ohrid, many scientists believe, the most unique aquatic ecosystem of any lake in the world.
Culturally, the town of Ohrid has a wealth of history. Today, a charming pedestrian street goes through the town and is full of souvenir shops, high end boutiques, nice restaurants, and bars. There is a fun resort town feeling to Ohrid as it is one of the most popular regional destinations in this landlocked country. While the modern town feels new, rising above it is the massive King Samuel’s Fortress. This walled fortress and the walled old city of Ohrid date back over a thousand years. During the Byzantine Empire, Ohrid began to be built up in the 7th century, and due to its serenity was quickly identified as a place where monks could study religion and became the center of the Ohrid Archbishopric. During this time, many significant churches were built up that still stand today. However, where the city really got its boom was in the 11th century when Samuel the Great, the Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire, fell in love with the city and lake and briefly moved his capital to Ohrid. As Samuel fortified the town, it gained the nickname that it keeps today, “The Jerusalem of the Balkans.”
It is worth a day in itself to climb up the cliffs and explore all the historic sites. Much like its neighbor, Albania, North Macedonia (as it is now called, following a naming and diplomatic dispute with neighboring Greece, whose northern region is called Macedonia) is largely undiscovered by international tourists, and it is very affordable with many sites you will have to yourself. The massive King Samuel’s Fortress costs foreigners a mere $1.50 to enter, a fraction of what the same fortress would cost to visit in Western Europe. During the day, the fortress with its massive North Macedonian flag provides stunning views of the town, the lake, and the surrounding mountains. At night, the fortress is lit up, imposingly looming over the lake and town. A stone’s throw from the fortress is also a Hellenistic theater that dates back over two thousand years, as well as various museums and historical sites to explore. However, the most important and popular attractions are Ohrid’s many churches.
Perhaps the historically most significant church in Ohrid is St. Sophia’s Church, which was the cathedral of the archbishop in the 11th century. It is full of ancient paintings depicting Christian stories in an Eastern Orthodox fashion. However, my three favorite churches that are also worth visiting are St. Bogorodica Perivlepta, St. John Kaneo, and St. Pantelejmon-Plaoshnik. St. Bogorodica Perivlepta is a large church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and dates back to the 13th century. It is full of Byzantine artwork that could fill many museums, and the architecture of the tiled dome representing its Bulgarian influence is stunning. St. John Kaneo dates back to the 13th century as well, and though it is a small church with few paintings, it is perhaps the most photographed church in Ohrid as it is perched on the edge of a cliff with stunning views of Lake Ohrid surrounding it. St. John Kaneo provides a peacefulness that is hard to replicate anywhere. Finally, St. Pantelejmon-Plaushnik is of tremendous historical significance. Parts of the church date back to the 5th century, but it is also the site of Europe’s first university, created in the 10th century. It was in this church that the Cyrillic alphabet was invented. Each of these churches costs only a couple dollars for entry and is well worth the visit.
North Macedonia was a country that I wish I had spent more than three days in. It is diverse in its culture, with about a quarter of the country being Muslim, and the rest being largely Eastern Orthodox Christian. I unfortunately did not have time to visit the city of Bitola, which combines its Ottoman roots with cosmopolitan European culture. However, while I was in my hostel in Ohrid, I kept hearing go to Skopje, so I headed up for a daytrip to the North Macedonian capital city. Skopje is a city whose history is evident throughout its architecture. It still has aqueducts from its Roman days, a large Byzantine fortress, many Ottoman structures, and hundreds of statues, more than I have seen in any city, indicative of its Yugoslav communist past. The most prominent statue in town is the one of the most famous Macedon, Alexander the Great.
Exploring Skopje for a day is a treat you will not forget. You will walk across the 6th century Stone Bridge over the Vardar River to the 5th century Kale Fortress, both originally built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, which rises above the city and has free admission. Skopje also provides a wonderful Bazaar and a 15th century double hammam Ottoman bathhouse, both of which make for epic exploring and highlight the nation’s large Muslim minority. However not to be forgotten, the Christian majority placed on the city’s Mount Vodno the Millennium Cross, a 66-meter cross that lights up at night and is among the largest crosses in the world.
Should you go and visit the former Yugoslav republic that is now known as North Macedonia, you will be one of the only people you know who does so. However, you will discover what is perhaps Eastern Europe’s best kept summer tourist secret, and you will do so all at a fraction of the price of anywhere else you would go in the continent.
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