Macedonian Ramble: Ohrid’s Divided Legacy


Church of St. John at Kaneo—one of the many Orthodox churches and monasteries around Lake Ohrid, which lies between Albania and North Macedonia.

This is the fourth part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

The border guards at the Sveti Naum post (it’s named after the nearby medieval monastery) stamped me into the Republic of North Macedonia, and one of them said that occasionally a bus came out to the frontier, although he didn’t know the schedule.

I found the bus stop by the roadside, but after waiting in the cold for fifteen minutes I decided that my best chance to connect with civilization would be to walk to the monastery, which was about a mile away.

Above Lake Ohrid, I had the winding road to myself, but still missed the foot path down to Sveti Naum, which sits on a bluff above the water.

The monastery is a UNESCO heritage site (with a hotel, restaurants, and out buildings) and one of the great destinations of North Macedonia, but on a December afternoon it had the feeling of purgatory.

I finally found a path from the road down through woods and across a stream, and made it to the main entrance, a parking lot that I am sure is full in summer. (People come to the monastery to swim and picnic.)

Before approaching the complex, I decided to stop at one of the restaurants lining the entrance walk—to eat something and warm up.

Just about any meal on Lake Ohrid involves the local trout. (Stay in Ohrid for a week, and you will never eat fish again.) For a late lunch, I had one in a thick barley soup, which was delicious, if a touch fishy.

The waiter kindly lit space heaters around my table, so that I could eat with my gloves off and linger over the views of the monastery complex.

Rebecca West’s Farewell to Yugoslavia

My first knowledge of Sveti Naum came in the 1970s when I tried to read Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her 1181-page travel epic and history of Yugoslavia from the late 1930s (just before it disappeared under the Nazi invasion).

I didn’t finish reading West until the early 1990s (Yugoslavia was again at war), but when I got to her Macedonia chapters I discovered numerous references to Sveti Naum as a masterpiece of slavic architecture.

Her arrival at the monastery was not unlike my own. She writes:

We passed under an arch and were in the small square formed by the monastery buildings. They are a mixed lot, put up at various times, since the fourteenth century, which are painted different colours, some white, some grey, some red, for no other reason than that the monks happened to be given these paints. At one point there are no buildings, and a terrace looks down on the wide face of the lake. The air up here is cooled by the breath of the water. In the centre of this square, is the tenth-century Church of Sveti Naum. It is dark and low, its stone walls are brown save where they are plastered white, and its two cupolas, one of which is taller than the other, are of red and white brick, very old, very dim in colour; and it is roofed with red-brown tiles. In shape it is like a locomotive.

During the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, West (although she died in 1983) was reviled for being “pro-Serb,” as if she had been huddled in Pale, writing speeches for Radovan Karadžić, the president of the Republic Srpska who was lated convicted in the Hague of war crimes.

In fact, when her book was published in 1941 West was more anti-fascist, as at the time of publication Hitler’s legions had swept over the country that she loved, which would eventually lose a million citizens to wartime genocides and atrocities.

For anyone who hasn’t spent years traveling to the remote corners of the Balkans, West’s history and travelogue can be practically unreadable, as it assumes background knowledge of the area that is lost today.

At best, however, the book is a time capsule of a lost civilization – the Yugoslav ideal from the 19th century – that in stretches can be read as the longest Blue Guide in history. But if you devote yourself to fifty years of Balkans travel, as I have, it can be a rewarding, if slightly dense, companion.

Around Sveti Naum

At the entrance to the monastery there’s a tourist hotel, but it was closed for the winter. Next to it there’s a dormitory of sorts where I assume monks live and work. Unsure where to go, I eventually made my way around to the back, where the small 10th century chapel sits in a stone courtyard overlooking the lake.

From a man in a little booth selling tickets, I bought some votive candles to light inside. He was so surprised by my appearance that he gave me a package of postcards, for a souvenir, and asked me how I happened to be in Naum on a cold December afternoon. I skipped telling him about Rebecca West or wanting to understand the front lines of the Balkan wars, and mentioned that I had Yugoslav family members and had dreamed of seeing Lake Ohrid since the 1970s.

Inside the chapel, which was damp and cold, I lit the candles (in memory of my grandparents, whose courtship in 1917 was based, in part, on the dream of Yugoslavia ) and left them burning in the small table of sand. Then I took pictures of some icons, one of which West describes in detail, when she writes:

… above the tomb was a portrait of Sveti Naum, almost certainly painted by someone who knew him. He was the successor to Sveti Kliment, the first Christian missionary to be sent by Cyril and Methodius into these parts, and he had to bring not peace but a sword, since none of the persons involved had yet heard of peace. He looks a warrior.

As much as I enjoy traveling in the orthodox world, I have never been particularly drawn to icons as works of art—important as they are in the evolution of the Renaissance that came in their wake.

Boorish as it sounds, I am drawn to landscape paintings, notably those of the impressionists who manage to work in trains or railroad stations on their canvases. But on a cold bluff in Macedonia, I did warm to Naum’s images on the stone walls, especially as he meant so much to West in her travels. She writes:

The argument here, in Sveti Naum, which has been recognized for a thousand years, is a persuasion towards sanity; a belief that life, painful as it is, is not too painful for the endurance of the mind, and is indeed essentially delightful. It presents that argument in a series of symbols. There is the circle of mountains in which the great lake lies. There is the lake, the circle of water, which is a natural substance like the rock of the mountains.

Outside of the chapel, I took some pictures, including several of a white peacock who seemed to be ruling the roost, and looked down from a stone wall at the lakeside beach below, here just a rocky shore.

The Bus to Ohrid

To get to the town of Ohrid, I needed to catch the last bus of the day, which, according to a posted schedule, departed at 5 p.m. from the parking lot. I found the bus stop and waited there in the cold with my backpack and briefcase, stamping my feet to stay warm.

Had there been cars in the parking lot, I might have tried to hitch a ride, but it was forlorn. In the end, about fifteen minutes late, a small public bus rumbled into the parking lot and did a sweeping U-turn right near where I was standing.

I didn’t have Macedonian dinars, but two U.S. dollars from my wallet seemed to cover the fare and some incentive compensation for the driver.

About an hour later—after stopping in numerous lakeside villages—the bus dropped me in the center of Ohrid, which has both a new and old town wrapped around a hillside on the north side of the lake.

It took me about twenty-five minutes (using the hunt-and-peck method of navigation) to find my hotel, Villa St. Sofija, in the old town near the lake. (Such was the penetrating winter cold that twice I had to nip into stores along the way and warm up.)

I could see the villa on my phone and on the printed hotel directions, but it was tucked behind an old town square, with the entrance like that of a speakeasy, and I passed the front door several times before I found it.

The clerk on duty made up for it by welcoming me with a pot of hot tea and a small shot of slivovitz—local brandy, not unlike what rescue dogs in the Swiss alps carry around their necks.

Medieval Ohrid in the Cold

I only had a night and a day in Ohrid, but it was glorious. I suppose it helped that I had the cobblestones of the old town to myself—the result of visiting a summer resort in December.

Even in the bracing cold I enjoyed poking into the town’s many old churches, not to mention its Greek and Roman ruins.

For my meals I found an elegant (and completely empty) restaurant in the old town square which had a window table looking down toward the lake, trout with everything, some medicinal brandy to ward off the bone-chilling cold, pleasant waiters, and a few house cats who begged politely next to my table.

I took several long walks up and down the surrounding hills, which, as in Jerusalem, are lined with churches, chapels, monasteries, and Greco-Roman amphitheaters.

In Balkan travel, Dubrovnik is the destination of choice, with endless cruise ships moored off its Venetian walls; but Ohrid is a jewel off the beaten path.

Macedonia’s Endless Rival Claims

The Greeks were here first, but it was the Romans who gave the town its sacred notes, and Byzantine influence can be seen everywhere, although mostly in the arches of the many orthodox churches that ring the hills above the lake.

The medieval castle, at the top of the hill, felt like an Ottoman relic to me, but it dates to the 11th century (if not well before) when Ohrid was the capital of medieval Bulgaria.

Hence Bulgarian anger, to this day, that Macedonia isn’t part of the modern state—although that anger can be matched in Albania, Serbia, Greece, and Turkey, all of which have similar claims to the land.

I vaguely followed sign-posted walking routes, but it was impossible to get lost. Once out of the old town by the lake, everything is open and overlooks that water, which is ringed with mountains in the distance.

Perhaps the prettiest church—really more a chapel—is on the water’s edge in the village of Kaneo (it’s all part of Ohrid). A sign on the pathway said little was known about the origin of the church, but that it most likely dates to the mid-13th century, when Macedonia was the heart of an orthodox empire, which you can call Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian, or Byzantine, depending on which ethnic feathers you want to ruffle.

Had it been summer, I would have spent the day in a deck chair beside the lake, eating lunch (yes, more trout) and drinking the local wines (while occasionally swimming and reading my book about the 1912-13 Balkan wars). As this was December I kept walking, had an early (indoor) lunch back with the restaurant cats, and bought some pearl earrings for my wife and daughters – after discovering that Lake Ohrid is famous for its pearls.

Then I set out on foot with my backpack for the bus station, which is in the new part of town, where I caught a bus to Bitola, a ninety minute ride through wild mountains gorges that once demarcated the WWI front lines between Allied and Axis forces.

Next: The World War I front lines around Bitola, North Macedonia, formerly Monastir. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.