There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 1 June 2015

Ohrid to Albania, The East Coast of the Lake: Part 13 of The Balkans

Breakfast in Ohrid, like everywhere else except the Popova Kula winery, was eggs usually boiled sometimes scrambled and a selection of cold meats and mild cheeses. Macedonian bread, white and brown is pleasantly chunky but it all becomes a bit repetitive after a while though the olives - big, juicy and full of flavour - were a redeeming feature.

After a leisurely start we set off beneath a blue sky, driving south round the lake shore. After 10 km a side road took us into the hills of the Galičica National Park. Roads only graze the edge of the mountain wilderness and we ventured no further than the village of Elšani perched on a ledge above the lake. After dark in Ohrid we had seen lights twinkling from a gap in the forest, high on the mountainside - that was Elšani (probably).
The post covers a short drive from Ohrid down the east coast of the lake to the Albanian border
The village was further than we expected, several kilometres from the cluster of dwellings around the turn-off. We parked in the square and walked back in search of the church which is reputed to have a fine view of the lake. Like many local villages there is much building work, the new houses looking large and prosperous. Ironically, Elšani was the only place in Macedonia we saw a working animal, a donkey laden with twigs.

Working donkey, Elšani
We walked up the hill in search of the church, but all we found was a view of Lake Ohrid lying below us, placid and blue and still bathed in sunshine, though the clouds were gathering. At the edge of the village the dwellings looked sad and dilapidated, but we were unsure whether or not they were occupied.

Lake Ohrid from Elšani
We found the church as we left the village. It was lower down than we had expected, the view was no better than we had already seen and the building was locked.

Returning to the ‘main’ road, though it is hardly big enough to justify that name, we continued south and soon passed through the small village of Gradište. On its southern edge, overlooked by the earthworks of a small Roman castellum, is the overdramatically named Bay of Bones. A stilt village on the lake existed here from the early Bronze to the late Iron Age. The site has been the centre of much underwater archaeology, which has including the bringing up of the remains of some of the former inhabitants - hence the name.

'Bay of Bones' stilt village, Gradište

The small museum has retained some interesting artefacts from the old village, but the new tourist development is the rebuilt ‘ancient village’. We were not the only visitors but it was hardly crowded; maybe we were too early in the season.

As we crossed the bridge to the village the gathering clouds decided it was time for rain. We sat in one the wattle and daub huts, pleased that the new thatch was doing its job effectively. The original inhabitants must have often listened to the pattering of rain on thatch – and also to a loud and persistent honking noise from a little further away.

Waiting for the rain to pass in Bronze Age luxury, Gradište
When the rain stopped we went to investigate, pretty sure we knew what the noise was, but uncertain if we would be able to see the perpetrators. In fact they were obvious, liberally dotting the surface of the lake. The honking of Lake Ohrid's frogs is renowned and they were living up to their billing, the males lying in the water and puffing out their cheeks. I do not think it's a good look, or a good noise, but then I am not a female frog.

Lake Ohrid frog in amorous mode
Picnic tables, each with their own thatched roof, had been set out on the slope between the car park and the museum, and as we had acquired the wherewithal for a picnic yesterday evening in Ohrid, we decided to eat in the dry.

After lunch we drove on to the next village. Trpejca, apart from being almost unpronounceable, is a traditional lake side village, though inevitably tourism is changing its face. The passing shower had moved on to bother someone else by the time we parked in the village square and walked down to the lake through streets free from cars - their narrowness dissuades drivers, but the street's habit of occasionally turning into steps is a clincher.


Without tides or large waves lakeside fishing villages get much closer to the water than seaside villages would ever dare. Trpejca has a narrow shingle beach on which boats were pulled up. I took off my sandals and paddled in the warm crystal clear water, but the shingle was extraordinarily painful to stand on.

The waterfront, Trpejca
The village was very quiet and the restaurants along the front were empty. It was warm and sunny now the rain had passed, but the season had clearly not yet arrived.

The water is clear and warm - the pebbles are sharp
Lake Ohrid, Trpejca
A further 7km on is Ljubaništa, the last village in Macedonia some 4km from the Albanian border. Turning off the road after two of those four kilometres took us to the monastery of Sveti Naum. This is the end of the road and the main tourist attraction on this coast. The car park was busy, but far from full.

We walked down a path through a line of souvenir stalls, past a couple of restaurants that were doing good business and found what appeared to be the entrance to the monastery, which in part also seems to be a hotel.

The monastery was founded in 905 by St Naum of Ohrid, who is also buried here. He was a Bulgarian/Macedonian monk (the distinction is more recent than most Macedonians are willing to admit) and a disciple of Saints Cyril and Methodius. He accompanied them to Bohemia and contributed to the development of the Glagolitic script. On returning to Ohrid, he assisted in the development of a Slavonic liturgy to replace the existing Greek liturgy and so establish Bulgarian cultural independence from Byzantium.

He died in 910 and is buried in his own church which, with the usual Macedonian reluctance to sign anything, we eventually found in a courtyard of the monastery/hotel.

The Church of Sveti Naum in the monastery of the same name
between  Ljubaništa and the Albanian border
It is a beautiful old building with the usual medieval frescoes and icons. Near the door is the tomb of Sveti Naum himself, and legend says that if you put your ear to the tomb you can hear his heartbeat. We diligently knelt on the floor, and laid our ears just about where his heart should be, listened hard and heard.....nothing. I was mildly disappointed, but hardly surprised.

The Icononstasis
Sveti Naum, between  Ljubaništa and the Albanian border

Like all Macedonian churches the walls are covered in frescoes and as the aged monk selling tickets stayed in a booth outside I ventured a photograph or two. I particularly liked a painting appearing to show horses attempting to pull a cart in several directions at once. Lynne, with her biblical knowledge, assured me it was a depiction of the assumption of Elijah and the horses are all working together to pull his chariot upwards into heaven.

Elijah being carried up to heaven - though it looks more likely they will pull the chariot apart
Sveti Naum, between  Ljubaništa and the Albanian border
Leaving Sveti Naum we walked back towards the car park, with large blue lake Ohrid on our left and a smaller darker looking lake on our right. What all visitors to Sveti Naum should do, once they have failed to hear his heart beat, is seek out what may be the source of the Black Drin River.

A man was just rowing his previous clients back to the landing stage, and as there was no one else about he fixed his beady eye on us. We settled a price (in Euros) climbed aboard his boat and he rowed us off across the black waters of the lake to its farthest shore.
Rowing to the source of the Black Drin
Although black, the waters are unbelievably clear and clean, and kept that way in part by a ban on motors - hence the rowing. We could see fish, the inevitable frogs and a just a few of the many birds living among the reed beds, but the most remarkable sight was the source itself, water bubbling up through the sandy bottom of the lake. Several more conventional springs surround the end of the lake.
Underwater springs, the source of the Black Drin (maybe)

After our boat trip we walked to where the waters of the black lake discharge into Lake Ohrid. There is a considerable drop from one to the other, and the water rushes through at the sort of pace that you might imagine would empty the smaller lake. Of course it does not; the springs beneath and around the lake must be pumping out far more water than it would appear to the casual observer.
Reed beds near the 'source of the Black Drin'
The official source of the Crno Drin (Black Deer) River is at Struga where it leaves the lake. The name is often half translated as Black Drin, which is inconsistent, but makes it sound dark, mysterious and slightly dangerous. What we had seen is touted as being the river’s source, but whether it can really be described as the same river is doubtful, though it is claimed the water forms a definite flow through the lake.

Where the Back Drin enters Lake Ohrid
Leaving Sveti Naun we returned to Ohrid.

In the evening we went to a restaurant with the Cyrillic name of сун, which should be transliterated ‘sun’ but the management had taken the unfortunate decision to write CUN in large letters over the door.

At seven thirty the place was filling with diners, most of them foreigners. Ohrid is a major holiday resort, but largely for Macedonians. Finding so many foreigners gathered at this one restaurant was maybe related to it being unequivocally a restaurant, most other establishments were bar-restaurants and Macedonians tend to drink out rather than eat out.

Over a glass of mastika we perused a menu dominated by skara (grilled meats). I ordered calves liver while Lynne chose dolma. The wine list was laid out by winery, and we plumped for a vranec from the Stobi Winery we had passed at Grasko. The waiter shook his head, saying the vranec from Popova Kula (the winery we had stayed at in Demir Kapija) was far better. Cynics might wonder if his enthusiasm for Popova Kula was based on it being 150 denar more expensive, but I let him talk me into it. The wine’s dark smoky depths went so well with the succulent slices of liver lightly charred on the grill, and with the dolma, that the waiter’s opinion was entirely vindicated.

I am a fan of Vranec which produces most of the best red wines of Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro (and probably of other nearby countries of which I am yet ignorant.)  At its best, as here, it is a dark red wine with a rich smokiness, grippy tannins, ripe plummy fruit and balancing acidity. It has fruit, complexity and structure, all the things wine buffs bang on about, so why then, I wonder is it unknown outside the Balkans?
We just had enough space to share a couple of desserts; ice cream and Ohrid cake. The local cake is on all menus, and although the cake itself is nothing special it comes steeped in syrup, making it irresistible.

A complimentary glass of Rakija, Macedonian brandy, rounded off a very pleasant evening.

The Balkans 

Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)
Part 3 Mostar

Croatia (May 2012)
Part 5 Korčula

Macedonia (May 2015)
Part 8 Skopje

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