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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Macedonian Flag MACEDONIA


November 16. LAKE OHRID  "History and Religion in Macedonia" Rob and I woke up early and stopped by to see Lesley on our way out of the hotel.  She met us a while later at the Pink Panther for breakfast.   Greasy but tasty grilled sandwiches of eggs and ham were filling, if not very healthy.  The menu only offered instant coffee, which confounded me.  Who has taught people that Nescafe is a suitable substitute to real coffee?  It is not as though making the real thing is so much trouble.  Seeing my disappointment the waitress returned a while later with a complimentary cup of Turkish-style coffee which was much appreciated.  I had missed the Turkish-style coffee since Sarajevo.  Rob ordered a hot chocolate with his breakfast and it was the thick melted chocolate variety, not our ordinary chocolate milk.

The weather was shaping up rather nicely so we headed towards the lake after breakfast.  The main pedestrian area that led through the old part of Ohrid was covered in time worn white stones but construction had many of them torn up and they were apparently being replaced with newer stones.  It was an unfortunate upgrade since the old stones had worn so well and contributed to the atmosphere of the area while the sharp edged new stones looked too austere.  As we reached the waterfront we didn't make it far before spotting an inviting cafe.  Rob and Lesley wanted some coffee and I was perfectly amenable to another one myself.  It was a popular cafe in the front of a small hotel.  They served their cappuccinos with small spoon sweets that looked like they were made of quince.  One little gooey sweetened fruit was served in a tiny glass bowl with a demitasse spoon and made a nice accompaniment to the coffee.  Spoon sweets were something I had read about in Greek cooking.  While Macedonia and Greece have a contentious relationship they also share some cultural history.  We also ordered some crepes to eat with the cappuccinos.

As the smoke level started to climb with the growing number of customers we finally moved ourselves to the patio where we could enjoy the sun.  It was still a bit chilly but it was worth the view of the misty lake against a mountainous backdrop.  Not long after we relocated ourselves we saw a boatman ease up alongside shore to try and interest us in a ride on the lake.  Out of curiosity we asked how much but when he offered 15 euros per person we knew we wouldn't be taking him up on it.  We politely declined but that didn't prevent him from joining us at our table and talking our ears off for another half hour.  Initially we didn't mind but then he just kept going on and on, hopping from one topic to another without hardly taking a breath and gradually turning into a bitch and moan session.  After learning that Rob and I were Americans he went on about all of the American military people he knew and told us that he had once been permitted a ride in an American helicopter.  His Christian values were another theme, assuring us that he was a good Christian man.  And, if his border line proselytizing didn't start to annoy us enough his unmasked contempt for the Albanians was more than we cared to hear about.  He went on about the closeness of Macedonia and Greece and how their common history makes them bonded - hinting at the Christian history which is not shared with Albania.  I am not sure that the Greeks feel the same way since they bitterly contested Macedonia's choice of name, fearing it would lead to claims over Greece's northern state of Macedonia, where most of ancient Macedonia actual lies. Greece only gave in when the name officially became the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRM) but in practice people just use Macedonia since the Macedonians don't want to be associated with the former Yugoslavia.  Too much historic rivalry to digest in one conversation with a boatman.  Surely we couldn't understand the tensions between the people in that region but we certainly had no reason to share his contempt of the Albanians or anyone else and didn't fancy listening to him anymore.  What did any of it have to do with taking a boat ride on Lake Ohrid anyway?! I finally broke down and just cut him off by saying that we had much to see and didn't want to waste the good weather.  If you ever visit Lake Ohrid beware of a boatman named Christopher.

In fact the day was getting away from us after our leisurely eating and coffee drinking so we did need to get moving.  We visited the local "National" museum that stood just a couple of blocks back from the waterfront, in a splendid old Turkish-style home.  The contents of the museums weren't as compelling as the architecture of the four story house with ornately carved wooden detail against the white plaster walls.  Macedonia's location has made it a victim of a turbulent history and it somewhat miraculous that the country has persevered to its present independence.  Originally part of the Greek Macedonian region that was conquered by the Romans in the 4th century BC, Macedonia  had twice undergone Turkish rule and has been fought over by Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria.  In 1943 it was given full republic status under Yugoslavia but in 1991 the people voted for independence and were peaceful granted their wish in 1992.  Today Macedonia is a forward looking and mostly peaceful nation except for a section of the northwest where Albanian separatists still stir up conflict.  

Ohrid is famous in history as the place from which St. Methodius and St. Cyril hailed, fathers of the Cyrillic alphabet, and was an important religious center.  Under Byzantine times Ohrid was the Episcopal center of Macedonia and the first Slavic university was founded there in 893 by St. Kliment, a disciple of St Cyril and St. Methodius.  Throughout the years of occupation by external forces its role was diminished but when the archbishopric of Ohrid revived in 1958 and gained independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1967 its importance in the modern nation of Macedonia was established. 

From the museum we continued up the hillside full of old white buildings to visit the Byzantine churches of Lake Ohrid.  We first came to the 11th century Church of Sveti Sofija (Saint Sofia) but passed on seeing the interior in lieu of seeing some other churches before they closed.  The cobblestone streets wound up the hillside and took us around the side of the hill that overlooked the lake.  The afternoon sun glistened against the water and made for a wonderful view across to Albania.  Lake Ohrid is the deepest lake in the Balkans (294m) and one of the world's oldest lakes.  In this idyllic setting we found the 13th century Church of Sveti Jovan Bogoslov Kaneo.  The small red brick church looked west over a steep hill that dropped into the lake.  

Up from the small red church we found the newly redone Church of Sveti Pantelejmon and Sveti Klement.  It was the oldest church in Ohrid but its new facade betrayed its years and it was less charming than the other two we had seen.  A service was going on so we sat outside on the benches and listened to the music and sermon being broadcast from speakers.  Ruins filled the courtyard in front of the church and souvenir stalls marked the entrance to the church grounds.  There was a whole population of stray dogs romping about, being harassed by rock-throwing boys.  The mothers nearby didn't seem to take notice so we scared away one boy that was about the pelt a skittish looking female dog.  This endeared us to her and she continued to follow us for a while.  In addition to the bratty kids she was being followed by three excited males and had to keep sitting down to thwart their advances.  Across from the church we found a covered area that protected mosaics from a 5th century Christian basilica.  A raised walkway took us up and around the different murals.  The little herd of dogs followed us.  We continued up to the top of the hill to visit the remains of the 10th century citadel and the herd of dogs followed us.  As we went up the steps of the wall of the church the female dog became conflicted.  She wanted to follow us but when she started to climb the stairs she exposed herself to her three suitors and trying to set on every step just wasn't working.  She sat at the bottom to wait for us until she became too annoyed and took off to get away from the other dogs.  

We began to descend from the hilltop in search of one last church.  In our guidebook it was written as the Church of Sveti Klement since the remains of the saint had been stored there while their original home was being repairs.  Saint Klement now shares his rebuilt home with Saint Pantelejmon.  It took a while before we deduced that the Church of St. Mary was the church we were seeking.  As we stood at a crossroads and consulted our guidebook a young Korean man approached us.   It turned out that he was an American immigrant from Los Angeles but for some odd reason he was traveling without a guidebook.  He seemed a bit helpless and started to go on about his foot being sore and his unpleasant travels in Eastern Europe.  He was a bit of a downer and we were at a loss as to how to help him improve his situation.  Anything we proposed was rejected to the point where we just wanted to tell him he should go home.  We didn't actually tell him that but he did appear to be too far in a rut to pull himself up and enjoy some of what he was experiencing.  When you reach that point I think it is time to call it quits.  For a moment we thought of asking him to join us but he seemed like more than we wanted to take on and he was heading to Albania while we were going to Kosovo.

Leaving the lone guy we detoured down the hill to see the ruins of an old Roman Amphitheater before heading to the 13th century St. Mary's Church.  The grounds around the church were unkempt and we wavered on whether or not to go inside but were rewarded with some lovely frescos when we finally did.  An English-speaking Macedonian woman that worked at the church proved to be a wealth of information.  She told us to ask if we had questions and when we did she couldn't contain her enthusiasm for the church.  It was hard to stop her from giving us a complete tour.  She didn't ask or even imply that she wanted anything in return for sharing her knowledge and just seemed thrilled that we were interested.  The church had survived the communist period very well since it was considered a B-class church and not a target of oppression by the government.  At that time the frescos were too hidden behind years of candle smoke for anyone to know they were the work of Thessaloniki artists from 1295.   They had been vividly restored and her tour gave us a good understanding of the layout of an Orthodox church.  The narthex walls were covered with images from the old testament while the main hall was painted with images from the new testament.  An image of the saint to whom to church was devoted always appeared above the entrance to the main hall and the second level of frescos in the main hall were dedicated to the story of the saint's life.  Since this church was dedicated to Mary her image was painted above the door and the story of her life was shown in a series of images that surround the main hall.  The first level of frescos in the main hall were saints and other important religious figures, Mary's life filled the second level, and the third level was reserved for images of the life of Jesus.  Aside from her knowledge of the church our guide was a fascinating woman herself.  She had a red scarf around her neck and was perhaps dressed more youthful than her age but it suited her vibrant personality.  She was an orthodox communist, a combination of beliefs which gave her a unique personal ideology.  During the communist times of Tito the church was oppressed and as a devout orthodox person she was put to use as a kind of educator on religion, allowing her at least an academic relationship with the religion that she was no longer allowed to officially practice.  She proclaimed the years under Tito as paradise and therefore had not entirely returned to her purely orthodox existence after his rule ended.  It is an understandable position from her perspective since the economic imbalance the contributed to the breakup of Yugoslavia had benefited the poorer states while burdening the wealthier states, causing Slovenia and Croatia to be the first to separate from the union.  Now that there is no wealth to be redistributed Macedonia is faced with struggling to build its own economic strength and for some of those who lived through Tito's time the present state of things must seem challenging.  Blending her two ideologies she maintains a pragmatic attitude towards religion.  She said that maybe it couldn't be proven that God exists but it couldn't be proven that he didn't so why not believe.  At the end of the day she believed that we were all judged by what we did during our lives, regardless of our faith.  She also maintained a vegetarian diet because she claimed that the saints were vegetarians.  She had an uplifting spirit and the highlight of our day.

From St. Mary's Church we descended through more narrow cobblestone walkways to an Italian restaurant not far from the local museum.  It was quiet place and served up some good salads and pizza. I had taken a real liking to shopska salad that we first ate in Bulgaria.  It was similar to a Greek salad with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and onions but instead of feta it was covered in a grated soft white cheese.  After dinner Lesley went back to the hotel while Rob and I browsed some of the souvenir shops on the promenade.  There were quite a few and the key item for sale were Ohrid pearls.  They were not ordinary freshwater pearls that were harvested from the lake but manmade pearls using fish scales and a special process to create iridescent pearls of various colors.  I am still not entirely clear on the process but they somehow employed their Ohrid trout scales for the purpose.  Ohrid trout was famous in the region but, unfortunately, it was notoriously expensive as well so we didn't try it out.  We met Lesley at a cafe later on but I was feeling spent and returned to the hotel to go to bed early.

November 17. LAKE OHRID In our day our church touring we had covered most of what there was to see in the old part of Ohrid.  We had considered taking a bus ride around the lake to another monastery that stood just on the Albanian border but ultimately decided against it.  There was no reason to get an early start so we just arranged to meet up with Lesley in front of the Pink Panther later that morning.  But, as habits develop quickly, we ended up running into her when we went for coffee at the same cafe we had spent so much time at the morning before.  On our way we bumped into Angela who had just arrived the night before.  She had already made a quick tour of the sites and was planning to move on soon to Albania. 

After sitting for a while over a couple of cappuccinos Lesley and I left Rob to read while we went to check out some craft shops and search for a supply of spoon sweets.  The waiter in our cafe had provided us with the local name for the preserves and told us they were available in shops around town but our hunt was unsuccessful.  We went as far as the bustling little town market at the opposite end of the pedestrian area but only found marmalade.  The market was worth the walk and had a wide array of goods from child height onions, mounds of cabbage heads, a butcher, and almost anything else you could need, except spoon sweets made of quince.

We returned to collect Rob from the cafe and made a final walk around the center of Ohrid before Rob and I went to use the Internet and Lesley returned to the hotel.  As the sun set we walked along the shore of the lake and watched the pairs of Swans glide along the still water, occasionally coming over in the hopes of a bite to eat. We met up with Lesley again for dinner at the same Italian restaurant but didn't linger long after we were done.  Our bus to Skopje the next morning was before sunrise and we had a long day passing through Macedonia an up to Kosovo where we weren't even sure we could find a place to stay.

SLOVENIA Ljubljana Oct 7-8 Piran Oct 9-12

CROATIA Istra Peninsula Oct 13 Split Oct 14-15 Hvar Oct 16-18 Korcula Oct 19 Dubrovnik Oct 20-29


BOSNIA Sarajevo Oct 30 Oct 30 Nov 1

SERBIA Belgrade Nov 2-3

ROMANIA Bucharest Nov 4 Suceava Nov 5 Nov 6 Cluj Napoca Nov 7 Sighisoara Nov 8-9 Brasov Nov 10 Nov 11

BULGARIA Sofia Nov 12 Nov 13 Nov 14

MACEDONIA Lake Ohrid Nov 15 Nov 16-17

KOSOVO Prishtine Nov 18 Nov 19 Nov 20 Nov 21

GREECE Thessaloniki Nov 22 Athens Nov 23 Nov 24