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


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