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…..

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Ohrid, the Heart of Slavic Macedonia: Part 12 of The Balkans

Ohrid began life in the 4th century BC under the name Lychnidos (City of Light) perhaps because of the reflections from its clear, blue lake. When the Romans replaced the Macedonian Greeks Lychnidos’ position on the Via Egnatia ensured its continued prosperity. The Slavs arrived in the seventh century and renamed the city Ohrid (city on a hill) which is accurate, but lacks poetry.

After a leisurely breakfast we strolled in warm sunshine along the lakeside promenade to the square at the foot of the hill on which the old city stands.

The lakeside promenade and the old town of Ohrid
We followed the old streets across the face of the hill and then upwards….

Through the streets of the old town, Ohrid
….until we reached the Upper Gate in the curtain wall of Car Samoil's castle which dominates the old town.

The Upper Gate, Ohrid
We started our tour by descending a short way along Klimentov Univerzitet.

In 862 the brothers who were to become the Saints Cyril and Methodius were dispatched form Constantinople to evangelise the Slavs in central Europe. They travelled at the request of Prince Rastislav of Moravia who was less concerned about his people being pagan than about the growing power of the Church of Rome.

Catholic liturgy was in Latin, then still the language of the Western European elite, and Cyril and Methodius realised the Slavs needed a liturgy in their own tongue. Unfortunately the Slavs were illiterate and their language unwritten so the brothers developed the script that became known as Glagolitic and used it to write a liturgy in what is now known as Old Church Slavonic (Modern Church Slavonic is used in services in most Eastern orthodox churches today.)

Ohrid and its lake are in the southwest corner of Macedonia
The success of Cyril and his bro was based on the careful training of disciples and two of the foremost were Saint Kliment of Ohrid (we met him outside the new cathedral of St Kliment in Skopje) and St Naum (see next post). These two eventually returned to Ohrid and set up the first university in the Slav world where they developed the script named after St Cyril, now used throughout eastern Europe and central Asia*. The street name commemorates Kliment’s university; Ohrid's 'University of Science and Technology' in the modern town was founded in 2009 and is a rather different institution.

We were in Klimentov Univerzitet looking for the entrance to the 13th century church of Sveti Bogoridica Perivlepta where the bones of St Kliment were once kept. It should have been easy – we could even see the church - but the entrance to the small courtyard was not where the signs pointed. Eventually we found the ticket office, paid our 100 denars (£1.10) and swiftly wished we had not. It was Sunday, a service was in progress and the church was packed - it is small so that required a little more than a dozen people. To enter we would have to walk over the upturned feet of the kneeling worshippers, and you should not trample on people’s soles on a Sunday.

Sveti Bogoridica Perivlepta, Ohrid
We missed the promised ‘vivid biblical frescoes’ but settled for visiting the renowned icon gallery across the courtyard.

A large woman barred our entry demanding another 100 denars. We showed her our tickets, but that was not good enough, the icons required a separate ticket. I sometimes come over all mean when I feel I am not getting value for money, but Lynne was having none of it, forcibly** extracting the notes from my scrooge-like grip. I am glad she did, not so much because of the icons, which were fine enough, but for the language used to describe them. We had seen the huge painting of Christ Pantocrator at St Kliment’s in Skopje, but here we encountered Jesus and Mary variously painted as ‘psychosostria’ (saviour of souls), ‘peribleptos’ (admired) ‘episkepsis’ (questioning) and ‘hodigitria’ (showing the way). Lynne made a note and we looked the words up later. Perhaps I am a little odd, preferring the words to the pictures, but then I have always preferred the words to the music as well.

Returning to the Upper Gate and walking a short distance in the other direction took us to the city's amphitheatre. There are four such theatres in Macedonia and this was our third in three days, but whereas the others are Roman, Ohrid's is Greek in origin. The Greeks used it as a theatre but later the more bloodthirsty Romans held gladiator shows and executions. It was then covered up and forgotten until its accidental rediscovery in the 1980s. Only the lower tiers remain, but it is again being used for performances; during Ohrid's Summer Festival it has hosted the Bolshoi Ballet and José Carreras, among others.

The amphitheatre, Ohrid
Returning, again, to the Upper gate we had problems with more dodgy signs before we located the road up to the castle entrance.

Up to Car Samoil's Castle, Ohrid
The First Bulgarian Empire lasted from 681 to 1018 and ruled a considerable area to the north of the Byzantine Empire. The capital moved several times and in 982 it arrived in Ohrid which had long been the cultural and military centre of south west Bulgaria - the distinction between Macedonian and Bulgarian is a recent invention.

Car Samoil (Csar Samuel) the last ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (there was a Second from the 12th to 14th century) built the hilltop fortress over an earlier fortification possibly constructed by Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great.

Car Samoil's Castle, Ohrid
There is little to see inside the castle,

Inside Car Samoil's Castle, Ohrid
....the main attraction is to climb the steps onto the walls and see the view over the city of Ohrid.....

Ohrid from Car Samoil's Castle
..... and across the lake.....

The Northern tip of Lake Ohrid, from Car Samoil's Castle
Much of Car Samoil's reign was taken up by war with Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire won a decisive victory at the Battle of Kleidon in 1014 and captured 15,000 Bulgarian soldiers. The Emperor Boris II (Boris the Bulgar Slayer) blinded his captives leaving 1 man in every 100 with one eye so he could lead the others home. When Samoil saw his returning army he died of a heart attack. He is buried beside Lake Prespa, his grave being on what is now the Greek side of the border. While medieval warfare was undoubtedly barbaric, this is a case where history was, for once, written by the losers not the winners. The mass blinding was probably Bulgarian propaganda and never actually happened.

We drank our morning espresso at a café outside the castle gates and then followed a forested path downhill to the Church of Saints Kliment and Pantelejmon, a shiny new building which sits behind the remains of a 4th century basilica.

Fourth century basilica, Ohrid
When Saint Kliment returned to Ohrid after his travels with Saints Cyril and Methodius he was given a small church on this site. He had it rebuilt as a much larger church and dedicated it to Saint Pantelejmon, personally designing the crypt where he was later interred. Under the Ottoman Empire it became a mosque and then a church again, undergoing many further changes over the centuries, some constructive, some destructive. The current structure was started in 2003 by the archaeologist Pasko Kuzman. It has been hand built as close to the original design as possible using as much of the historical material as was available and has been re-dedicated to both St Kliment and St Pantelejmon.

The Church of St Kliment and St Pantalejmon, Ohrid
Inside are more icons and we were invited to peer into the glass covered crypt to see the relics of St Kliment, which are taken out for an annual parade. It was too dark down there to make out much, and I have never understood the fascination the Catholic and Orthodox churches have with body parts of the saints - or Buddhists with bits of the Buddha. After a millennium of upheavals, changes of regime, mayhem and destruction it is an act of faith to believe these really are bits of St Kliment not randomly collected bones.

A further descent along a pine fringed path took us down to the lake side at Kaneo, once a fishing hamlet just side Ohrid, now a stony beach with a few pleasure craft and a couple of restaurants on the edge of the city. On a headland above the beach is the 13th century church of St John containing a fresco of Christ Pantocrator that has only recently been rediscovered.

St John's, Kaneo, from above
It is the setting of the church which makes it so beautiful whether viewed from above, or from the beach - or more precisely the decking of the Letna Bavča restaurant, which stretches out over the water.

St John's, Kaneo, from the deck of the restaurant
Seduced by the scenery, the sun on the clear blue waters and the promise of fresh lake carp and eel we found an empty table and relaxed after our morning’s exertions.

We ordered glasses of mastika. It had taken us a few attempts to work out how best to drink this nectar which looks like ouzo but is in some ways closer to pastis. We had expected it to arrive with a carafe of water, but discovered that it is not served with water but with a glass of small ice cubes. You drop as many as you like into your glass and drink it as the ice melts and mastika goes cloudy - in warm sunshine it works magnificently.

Lynne's carp was a steak across a large fish, the flesh well-flavoured and beautifully cooked. Carp can be muddy, but this was not, the limpid waters of Lake Ohrid do not do mud. My eel was delightful, the flesh sweet and the fat running.

Lynne eats lake carp beside the lake, Kaneo, Ohrid
A bottle of Zupljanka from Tikveš (inevitably) had the acidity to cut the fat and was an excellent accompaniment. I thought it was a new grape to me but have since discovered Zupljanka is the local name for the more familiar Chasselas. It was a long lunch, sitting in the sun, sipping wine and reflecting upon what a lovely place we had stumbled upon.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the sun drenched decking, but after a good strong coffee we paid the surprisingly modest bill and made our way up hill from the cove, along the hillside and then down to Saint Sophia's, though we suspected we had probably seen enough churches for the day.

Founded in the 9th century most of it dates from the 11th and the frescoes, which were painted over the next two hundred years, are of international importance. The walls of almost every church in Macedonia are covered with medieval frescoes and we were beginning to feel a little frescoed out.

Saint Sophia's, Ohrid
We followed the road as it dropped through the delightful old town and then wandered slowly back along the promenade.

We did not feel the need to eat anything else that day, but in the evening we wandered along to the bar-lined street that runs inland along the base of the hill, sat at one of the pavement cafés and enjoyed a leisurely beer (or two). There were plenty of bars to choose from, Ohrid is not only the spiritual heart of Macedonia, its situation beside the country’s biggest lake makes it also the largest holiday resort – a strange mixture of Blackpool and Canterbury.

Pop-up Church, Ohrid
But even here we could not get away from frescoes and icons. Just across from where we were sitting was a pop-up church, the open doors of a market stall revealing an impromptu iconostasis. Throughout the evening, in a street otherwise given over to hedonistic pleasure, a steady stream of people stopped by the icons, crossed themselves and offered a brief prayer, many of them also dropping a few denars in the box and lighting a candle.

*In fairness I should point out that Preslav in modern Bulgaria makes the same claims.

**I would like to make it clear the ‘force’ applied was purely verbal. There was no unseemly scuffle in the precinct of Sveti Bogoridica Perivlepta.

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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