Friday, August 14, 2015

The pearl of the Balkans

A few more observations to finish up our time in Macedonia. We didn't do too much, a bit of wandering around, eating, shopping and visiting a couple of key sites.

We spent one afternoon on a beach about 15 minutes' drive out of the city. It's called Sveti Stefan, which means Saint Stefan, but since it sounds like 'Sweaty Stefan' in a slight German accent, we were amused. Since it was pretty hot, there were not a few Sweaty Stefans to be found on the beach. The beach itself was not as nice as those on the Albanian coast, which is to be expected. A bit crowded, full of kids, and with only a small strip of gritty sand. But, you know, not exactly a hell-hole, so can't complain.

I forgot to say earlier, Lake Ohrid's claim to fame is that it's one of the oldest lakes in Europe, dating back up to 5 million years ago. I was surprised to learn that most lakes only have a lifespan of around 100,000 years before they fill up completely with sediment. So Ohrid is kicking most lakes' arses! In honour of this, a lake on Saturn's moon Titan is named Ohrid, and both the lake and city of Ohrid are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Talking of heritage, they are clearly proud of their wines in Macedonia. They were a big wine producer in Yugoslavia, and local wines still feature prominently on Macedonian menus, many produced from local grape varieties such as Vranec. We picked up some bottles of red and rosé from the Bovin and Stobi wineries (the latter has a bottle with a cute peacock mosaic on it) to bring home with us. Not bad at all.

A stroll along the lake front
We dropped in to a couple more painted churches. One was completely covered with scaffolding, and had a team of people working to restore its frescoes. It was a shame not to be able to see all of the frescoes properly - as with many of the other churches we saw, they were literally covering the entire interior - but it was pretty cool to see the restorers meticulously working away on one tiny patch of paint at a time. I'm not sure I approve 100% though - some of the restored bits looked way too bright and fresh for my tastes. It is great to be able to see the colours and patterns as they would have been, but restore too much and you lose the authenticity.

We also visited Saint Sophia, the largest church in Ohrid, with frescoes which date to the 11th-13th centuries. These retain more of the authentic "faded" look. Photos a bit blurry since I wasn't meant to be taking any!

Ceiling of St Sophia's

Interior St Sophia's

Night in Ohrid

Dinner on the lake (literally, on a sort of jetty)
Lastly, we spent our final morning in Ohrid in pursuit of icecream (gelato-style, much better than the insipid stuff we got in Albania) and pearls. Ohrid is known for the imaginatively-named "Ohrid pearls", which are on sale in approximately one billion shops in the city, despite authentic Ohrid pearls only being made by two families. Yes, made, not harvested. For these pearls do not come from oysters, but are crafted from the scales of fish! The very same lake fish that you might find on your plate in one of the city's restaurants. The secret of how to make the pearls was supposedly learnt from a Russian immigrant who knew how to make pearls from similar fish in Lake Baikal, and it has been scrupulously guarded by the two pearl-making families (not sure how family #2 got in on the act) ever since.

I bought a single black pearl pendant, which was fairly cheap, and the three-string necklace below, which was really not all that cheap. And the clasp on it broke as soon as I got it home, boohoo! But I think it's a pretty cool souvenir that I can keep for years (once I fix the clasp) to remind me of my holiday in Macedonia and Albania.

My Ohrid pearl necklace

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Naumin' Aroun'

Naumin' Aroun', Naumin' Aroun'. A monastery made for young adults, by young adults.

The Monastery of Saint Naum lies just inside the Macedonian border, near where we crossed over from Albania. It was founded by Saint Naum himself at the turn of the tenth century, although much of what remains today dates back only to the 16th or 17th centuries.

The monastery church
Something went wrong with the latest anti-tobacco advertising
According to one website we consulted, the peacocks of Saint Naum will "welcome you with their screams". This turns out to be very true. I've only ever seen peacocks one or so at a time, and haven't previously noticed much screaming, but there's peacocks running around all over the monastery, screaming their little heads off in welcome.

Not heeding the anti-peacock warnings
The church is liberally covered all over the walls and ceilings with frescoes from the 16th-17th centuries. A lot of the frescoes and icons we saw in Albania and Macedonia were deliberately and literally defaced, or had the eyes excised. I'm a bit confused as to why, since I don't think there was a Protestant-style movement in the region - could it have been done during the Communist period?

You can see two of these faces are scratched out - we saw too many similarly disfigured for this to be just by chance

Ceiling inside St Naum's
Legend has it that if you press your ear to Saint Naum's tomb, you can hear his heartbeat. I tried, despite the tomb being covered with a probably gross cloth, and could kind of hear something. Jules didn't, though. A Guardian article I read posited that it was the sound of "water dripping somewhere in the monastery", but I think it's much more likely to be the same effect as holding a seashell to your ear, i.e.  your own heartbeat. Proof at last that Jules is a zombie.

Inside a different, newer church built over a natural pool at the spot where three springs converge. Supposedly the water helps women conceive, so I didn't get any closer
We found Rachel Dolezal's sunscreen in the gift shop. How's that for a topical reference? Seriously though, think harder about appropriate names for sunblock, Macedonia.
The main church above, with the frescoes and tomb of St Naum, is the chief attraction as far as the monastery goes. I think, however, the site is a major tourist destination mostly because of its location. As you walk through the grounds, on one side you have Lake Ohrid, which appears mostly placid, as lakes do. On the other side, though, water rushes from a smaller lake through a stream into Lake Ohrid. This smaller lake contains many springs (which ultimately themselves are filled by water flowing underground from the nearby Lake Prespa) which feed Lake Ohrid.

There is a cottage industry taking tourists on boat trips around the smaller lake, which we partook of. The springs were nowhere near as big and obvious as the one at the Blue Eye, rather, you had to look quite closely and listen to the guide's local knowledge to spot them, which was pretty cool. The water, filtered through layers of karst rock on its way out of Lake Prespa and back into Lake Ohrid, is very pure (or so we were told), and we had a little drink leaning out of our boat.

Water bubbling up from these springs reminded me of bubbling mud at Rotorua
After we had finished our boat trip, a walk around the small lake, and lunch, we moved a few feet to Saint Naum's beach on the shores of Lake Ohrid itself. After sunbathing, we took a dip in the lake, which we shared with hundreds of tiny fish. The lake is so clear (with visibility up to 22 metres/66 feet) that we could look down and see the fish swimming all around us - and sometimes feel them brushing against our legs or arms. Quite bizarre! Finally, a trout sighting (maybe?) for my Dad!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Out and about in Ohrid

After a delicious "Macedonian tapas"-style lunch at a restaurant right on the water's edge, where we stuffed ourselves with delicious pepper spread, the ubiquitous feta-style cheese also found all over Albania, chicken wings, stuffed fried pancakes etc., we decided it was time to work off lunch by tackling Ohrid's hilly streets.

We had heard the church of St. John, further along the bay, was a beautiful spot, so we headed there first. It actually wasn't nearly as far as it looked on the map, although the steep streets and flights of steps make you work for it! Dating back to the 13th century or thereabouts, it is pretty tiny inside, and covered with frescoes. What really makes it special is its beautiful location, perched on a cliff looking out over the lake.

Since we were there, we decided to head up a nearby flight of stairs to get the above view of the church and also to head to a nearby archaeological site called Plaoshnik. According to the internet, it features beautiful mosaics and an old church. All we could see was a fenced-off collection of unimpressive-looking ruins. Maybe we should have tried a bit harder to find it, since it seemed we missed out on a nice spot.

It was pretty hot and tiring work getting up the hill, but since we had come halfway up and failed to find the archaeological site, we kept going to the very top of the hill and visited Tsar Samuel's Fortress. This is basically a shell, with only its perimeter wall really left intact. You can climb all the way up this in a couple of spots though, and walk around most of the wall, which offers some beautiful views both over the city and the lake.

Standing on the walls - not much to see in the middle of the fortress

But the view from the battlements over the lake is gorgeous

We also read online that St John's was the perfect place to watch the sun set over the lake. From our hotel, you couldn't really see because the hill was in the way, but St John's did indeed offer the perfect vantage point. We timed it to perfection, arriving just as the sun began sinking over the horizon. Lucky we did, because it set really fast, dipping below the hills on the Albanian side of the lake in a matter of minutes.

For some reason, I get an almost Egyptian vibe from this photo - just imagine the boat is like one of those you see on the Nile

St John's just after the sun set
Apparently this is Macedonia's most photographed spot, and you can definitely see why. A magical place to watch the sun set.