Ohrid, Macedonia was a gem, a destination that I hope to return to one day – perhaps as a digital nomad where I can while away my writer’s block hours by staring at the sparkling lake and snow-capped mountains.
Following a simply delightful visit to Albania, I ventured into Macedonia. It was rather an epic border crossing involving hitchhiking, a horse-and-cart ride, a rather troubling few hours where I was stranded and several, very kind and humble locals who helped me along the way. That’s a story for another time.
When I finally arrived into the tranquil embrace of Ohrid, it was actually a rather cold and rainy afternoon. However, the gloom soon left and I had three very warm and Mediterranean-esque days of fun in the sun. I made camp at Sunny Lake Hostel. Owned by two kind brothers, Nino and Goyko, the hostel is well-hidden along Ohrid’s cobbled alleys and featured heated rooms, free breakfast and sun-bathed terraces for afternoon napping and visits with other hostel dwellers.
Macedonia is also known also as FYROM, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and it is up for rowdy debate which is the “true” name. It lies landlocked, comfortably nestled between Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Unlike their friends in neighboring Albania, Macedonia citizens are granted the right to visa-free travel within the Schengen zone
During my travelers throughout other Balkan countries, many travelers foretold of Ohrid’s wonders and soul-stirring beauty. I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about the hype for I’ve seen plenty of glacial lakes during my worldly travels. However, Lake Ohrid was just stunning and I am happy that I made the time for a visit.
Ohrid town perches on the lake northeast side. Along with mountains, quaint villages and tiny, hidden coves and sun-kissed, yellow beaches, Ohrid and its nearby villages flaunt a chilled-out vibe and a veritable hiker’s paradise. Ohird Lake also happens to be one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes, thought to be over 3 million years old. And though I did not swim in it, I’m told it was refreshingly cold. Given I was wearing thermals and a cozy hat during most of my time in Ohrid, I don’t regret my decision for not diving in.
It’s a bit of a fairy-tale village. Cobbled streets wind up and down the hillside, red terracotta roofs and white Ottoman houses embellish the alleyways, and open-air cafes flaunt coffee, burek stalls and ice-cream shops. Christianity and Islam are practiced side by side and church bells and Islamic calls for prayers ring the hillsides several times a day. It’s a truly serene respite.
What to do in Ohrid: I spent a few afternoons simply basking in the sunshine, reading and writing in my journal. I was due to meet up with my mom in Italy in just under a week so I also hunkered down and finished some last minute planning and itinerary tweaking. The owners of the hostel were adept at giving helpful travel advice, passing out chocolates, burek and other treats and popping open cold liters of Skopsko, a locally brewed beer.
Of course, I found a running path around the eastern side of the lake that led me toward the village of Trpejca. It seemed that everyone was out jogging, roller-blading, bicycling or walking at 5 p.m. And everyone wanted have a chat…either while I was running or while I was stretching afterward – I made many kind and humble friends during these late afternoon runs. Most people were simply interested in why I chose to visit their country and I was only to happy to tell my travel story…and learn a bit about them as well.
Though I didn’t go into the 13th-century St. Naum Monastery, I took plenty of pictures and enjoyed some quiet moments in its courtyard. The monastery is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Macedonia. It claims a nest near the lake’s shores and flaunts beautiful red-hued Byzantine-style architecture.
Another morning, I walked around the deserted fortress walls of the Roman Theater that towers over Ohrid’s Old Town. Excavation is still taking place and, although I was the lone tourist, there seemed to be many students involved in the archaeological dig.
Hiking the Galičica National Park Saddle: I love a good hike. Give me a backpack and some chocolate and trail mix and I will happily set off for 8 – 9 hours. Spending a day hiking in a beautiful nature setting seems to be my magic reset button.
Information about hiking trails outside of Ohrid was hard to come by. Much of the National Park was closed due to snow fall, maps were hard to read, transportation schedules were sketchy and trails were not well marked. I’ll admit, I should be more careful when I go hiking as I don’t often stick to a path or (geesh!) leave behind a hiking plan including where I went, when I should be home and who to notify if and when I don’t come home. (I should really start doing that though!) Luckily, I met some avid hikers at Sunny Lake Hostel and we decided to tackle the Galičica Saddle together. Hostel owner Nico tried his best to sketch a rough map for us; however, we were really at the mercy of “take things as they go and see where we wind up.”
Our eager group caught the early – only – bus to the tiny village of Elshani. From there, we began our assent, first by walking through farmland and forest and then near barren landscape of rocks, mosses and lichens. The switchbacks took us about 6 kilometers up to where the snow began. And from there, we followed the path across the icy mountain face until we reached the ridge. Then, the snow-covered ridge took us along another 2,000 meter path where we had gorgeous views of both Lakes Ohrid and Petra.
I’d like to say it was an easy hike. Physically, yes it was manageable. However, I gather that we were all in pretty excellent shape. But, though the path was marked by red and white stripes on rocks and trees, we lost the path several times. Sometimes the marked tree had fallen, sometimes the paint on the rock was faded and sometimes we missed the mark completely as it was covered in mud, leaves, snow or … just nowhere to be seen. We had to turn around and retrace our steps several times to get back on track and, at one point, we were clinging to an almost vertical mountain face and were digging our boots into icy snow for precarious footholds. A mere slip and one of us would have fallen several hundred/thousand meters down the mountain! So, in hindsight, we probably should have been more cautious!
But, it was all worth it in the end. The view atop the mountain was simply stunning and the quiet was ethereal – the perfect place to nap, meditate, think or just exist in the moment. After about five hours of hiking, we were eager to refuel with lunch and some much needed foot rubbing. It was bitterly cold at the top of the mountain so our respite was short and sweet. We lasted about forty minutes before the cold drove us to press onward. Unfortunately further up the saddle path, we were stopped by snow. It just wasn’t manageable to hike in several feet of snow, especially since we didn’t have the proper mountaineering gear or waterproof clothing.
Our hike wound up taking us back the way we came…back down the saddle along the ridge and down the several kilometers of switchbacks, forest and farmland. Obviously, the trek downhill went much quicker and we made it back to Elshani in time for the 4 p.m bus home where Nico had a whole case of cold beer waiting for us.