Landlocked at the heart of the Balkans, North Macedonia is a relatively new country but feels ancient. Believed to be among the continent’s oldest settlements, Ohrid is also one of the few places in the world to be classed as both a Natural and Cultural UNESCO World Heritage site – after all, it sits on the shores of Europe’s oldest lake and its 365 different churches have earned it the nickname ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans’. I had always wanted to write about North Macedonia and include Ohrid as part of Europe in a Day, even though my time here wasn’t a day trip. After being stuck inside for months during lockdown, now felt like the perfect time to revisit Ohrid!
At a glance:
Republic of North Macedonia / Република Северна Македонија (Republika Severna Makedonija) / Republika e Maqedonisë së Veriut
Capital: Skopje (Скопје (Skopje) in Macedonian, Shkup in Albanian)
Currency: Macedonian Denar (MKD)
Area: 25,713 km2
National Day: September 8th
National Anthem: Денес Над Македонија (Denes Nad Makedonija) – Today Over Macedonia (Sot Mbi Maqedoninë in Albanian)
Highest Point: Голем Кораб (Golem Korab) – 2,764 metres (9,068 ft)
Famous for: Byzantine churches, lakes, striking national flag
- Milčo Mančevski (director)
- Kaliopi Bukle (singer)
- Goran Pandev (footballer)
- Todor ‘Toše’ Proeski (singer)
- For nearly 30 years, North Macedonia was embroiled in a naming dispute with neighbouring Greece. Many international organisations used the name ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ as an interim measure until both parties agreed on the name ‘North Macedonia’ in February 2019.
- In September 1991, North Macedonia held a referendum and voted overwhelmingly for independence from Yugoslavia. But while the Yugoslav authorities had intervened to suppress successionist movements in the other republics, they didn’t in North Macedonia – making it the only former Yugoslav state to break away peacefully.
- The Macedonian capital Skopje sits in a seismically active valley and earthquakes have repeatedly devastated the city, even as far back as 518 AD. In 1963, an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter Scale flattened almost 80% of the city, killing over 1000 people and leaving some 200,000 more homeless.
- Archaeologists working near the village of Kokino in 2001 discovered a Bronze Age settlement on the summit of Tatićev Kamen. Some argue that stone markers found at the site were used to track the movement of the sun and moon – which if true would indicate a Megalithic observatory more than 3,800 years old!
- North Macedonia has a somewhat difficult relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest. ‘Samo Ti’ by Kaliopi was due to represent the country in 1996, but failed to qualify from an untelevised elimination round. Officially debuting in 1998, North Macedonia then failed to qualify for around 65% of Eurovision finals between 2004 and 2019. Their best placing to date was in 2019 when Tamara Todevska’s ‘Proud’ came 1st with the juries and finished 7th overall.
North Macedonia has two official languages. Macedonian is the first language of around two-thirds of the population, while a further quarter speak Albanian. There are also small pockets of Turkish, Romani and Aromanian speakers too. A South Slavic language, Macedonian is relatively ‘new’ in the sense that it was only codified in the mid-1940s when it became the official language of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia within Yugoslavia. Prior to this, it was largely considered to be a dialect of Bulgarian – a thought that still persists today in some Bulgarian circles, especially given that the languages are up to 90% mutually intelligible. Though most people in Ohrid can speak English, attempting some Macedonian is a sure-fire way to impress!
|How much does this cost?||Колку чини ова?||kol-ku chi-ni ovah|
|Do you speak English?||Дали зборувате англиски?||da-li zboh-ru-va-te an-glis-ki|
|I don’t understand||Не разбирам||ne raz-bi-ram|
|What a view!||Каков поглед!||ka-kov pog-led|
Ohrid St. Paul the Apostle airport is one of only 2 international airports in North Macedonia and definitely the most impressively located, offering amazing views of the lake on both take-off and landing. Located about 9km northwest of the centre of Ohrid, taking a taxi is the most straightforward route into town. It’s worth taking the taxi straight up to the Ancient Theatre or Tsar Samoil Fortress, if for no other reason than to save the effort on your legs!
What to do:
Built in around 200 BC, the remains of the Ancient Theatre are the only pre-Roman auditorium in the country and also the oldest theatre in North Macedonia. Originally used for dramatic performances, the theatre was abandoned and buried after it became the hated site of Christian executions and Roman gladiatorial fights. Forgotten for centuries, the theatre had been so well preserved by being buried that when it was rediscovered and unearthed in the late 1900s the ancient stone steps were promptly used for concerts and performances once more. A short walk away up a steep path, the towering Tsar Samoil’s Fortress crowns a hill overlooking the city and is a major landmark in Ohrid’s skyline. Rumoured to be impregnable when it was built in the late 10th century, little remains inside today to show you what it once looked like but it’s still worth paying the entrance fee to climb up the castle’s gigantic ramparts – they were extensively restored in 2003 and in some places completely rebuilt where the originals hadn’t survived. You’ll be rewarded with a spectacular panorama view across the city, surrounding mountains and even as far as Albania!
Heading downhill through the forested paths from the fortress you’ll come to Plaošnik, an archaeological site of great cultural importance. As early as the 4th century a Christian basilica stood here, parts of which can still be seen at the ruined baptistery, complete with beautifully preserved mosaic floors. Nearby, the domes and clock tower of Crkva Sveti Kliment i Pantelejmon were painstakingly reconstructed entirely by hand in 2002 using the same materials as the original. It is considered one of the most sacred places in Macedonian orthodoxy as the tomb of Saint Kliment, who oversaw the beginnings of Slavic literacy in the 9th century, is housed in the crypt. Heading further down the hillside, Sveti Jovan Kaneo may only be a small church, but its backdrop on a cliff overlooking the lake is nothing short of magnificent. Precious little is known conclusively about this Byzantine-era building, other than it’s believed to have been built at some point in the 1200s. While its intimate interior boasts some nice frescoes, it is definitely the incredible location above Lake Ohrid that makes this place so special. Be sure to take some time to sit back, relax and enjoy the inspiring scene and its serenity.
Following the wooden boardwalk under the cliffs and along the edge of the lake, you’ll soon come to the edge of Ohrid’s atmospheric Old Town, a warren of narrow cobbled alleyways winding through wood and stone buildings. A particularly fine example of this traditional style is the black and brown façade of the Robev Family House, rebuilt in 1860s following fire damage. The home of an eminent merchant family till 1900, nowadays it’s part of the National Museum and displays ancient local artefacts, woodcarvings and an exhibition on the Robev family. The museum’s ethnographic wing is housed directly across the street in the Urania Residence. A short walk from the museum, the columned façade of Crkva Sveta Sofija is considered by some to be the finest church in the city. Built in the Middle Ages, during its lifetime the building has been a mosque, a museum and even a concert hall thanks to its exceptional acoustics. Reinstated as a church in 1991, head inside to marvel at its 11th century frescoes, widely regarded to be among the finest examples of Byzantine art found anywhere in Europe.
Heading away from the Old Town, City Square is a large open space next to the lake surrounded by bars and restaurants that bridges the centuries between ancient Ohrid and the modern city. Leading off the lively yet laid-back square Sv. Kliment Ohridski Street was once the location of Ohrid’s bazaar and although the majority of the original marketplace buildings are gone, the pedestrianised street still brims with shops, boutiques and souvenir stalls. While sightseeing cruises depart from the edge of City Square, if you’re short on time you can still enjoy the scenery by taking a stroll through the flowerbeds and statutes of the lakeside Ohrid Gradskiot Park and down onto Kej Makedonija. Formerly known as Kej Maršal Tito, the paved promenade follows the edge of the lake for over a kilometre, allowing you to enjoy the fresh air, peaceful waters and beautiful views across the most biodiverse lake on the planet. As you wander, take a moment to look behind you for perhaps the best view of Ohrid’s Old Town, framed perfectly between the lake and sky.
Steeped in history at every turn, Ohrid is truly remarkable. As well as being a fascinating and historic place to explore, a deep sense of spirituality radiates from both the city and its breath-taking natural setting. It’s easy to see why this extraordinary place is considered the pearl in North Macedonia’s crown and a day trip to soothing and timeless Ohrid will never be forgotten – I absolutely love it here!
A big thank you to my Dad, Jim Scanlan who accompanied me on my trips to Ohrid and also to the many wonderful people I’ve met in Ohrid over the years who have helped make my visits here so special – Многу Ви благодарам!
For a more in-depth guide to planning day trips, as well as sightseeing tips and trivia for 30 European countries, Europe in a Day – Day Trips to the Continent is available exclusively on Amazon for Kindle and also smartphones, tablets and computers with the free Kindle Reading App.
Want to discover more of Europe? Check out more day trips below!