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…..

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Struga and Ohrid Trout: Part 14 of The Balkans

After a leisurely breakfast we set off for Struga. The town, about half the size of Ohrid is 15km away at the northernmost tip of the lake. We could have followed the main road, but despite the by now expected lack of signs we managed to follow a minor road which hugs the coastline for most of the journey.

Ohrid to Struga and on round the western shore to the Albanian border
Struga is considered a downmarket resort in comparison with Ohrid. Its main attractions are what are described as its two ‘sandy beaches'. The cafés certainly struggle to give the right impression…..
One of Struga's beaches

…and the water is reputedly clean and undoubtedly warm, but on close inspection the beaches are neither sandy nor particularly attractive. Over 40% of Struga's residents are Albanians, and in accordance with their Muslim sensibilities the two beaches are called the 'male beach' and the 'female beach.' My photographic evidence suggests they are not actually (or no longer?) segregated, though for a warmish morning in early June there were surprisingly few people about.
'Sandy' beach, Struga
Between the two beaches is the official source of the Crna Drin (Black Deer) River. We had seen an alternative source the day before on the other side of the lake but although there are claims of a discrete flow through the lake, I find it hard to believe that the stream from springs thirty kilometres away is really the same river. There is a marked drop in level between the lake and the river and the water rushes through in dramatic fashion.

The waters of Lake Ohrid pour into the Crna Drin River, Struga

Struga was not always a down at heel backwater. In the 19th century it was the birthplace of the brothers, Dimitar and Konstantin Miladinov, poets who thought of themselves as Bulgarian but jointly created the modern Macedonian literary tradition. Konstantin Miladinov wrote Tăga za Jug (Longing for the South) in 1860 while in exile in cold, dark Russia. It is one of Macedonia's best known and most loved poems and one verse name checks both Struga and Ohrid.

                              No, I cannot stay here, no;
                                                      I cannot look upon these frosts.
                                                      Give me wings and I will don them;
                                                      I will fly to our own shores,
                                                      Go once more to our own places,
                                                      Go to Ohrid and to Struga.

Since 1966 an annual poetry festival has been held in Struga in memory of the brothers and has attracted an impressive guest list that includes Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda and Ted Hughes.

We walked beside the river which is lined with cafés to the main pedestrian thoroughfare through the town. This, too, offers plenty of places to pause for a refreshingly cheap espresso, so pause we did.
Pedestrian street, Struga, looking modern and western (despite my lurking presence on the edge of the picture)

It is surprising how different the same street can look depending on the people you catch in the photograph.
Pedestrian street, Struga. The same street from almost the same place a few moments later looking distinctly eastern
There was little else to see in Struga so we strolled back to the car which was parked near the War Memorial. It is an extraordinarily ugly piece of concrete that looks unloved and uncared for. War memorials in the Balkans are problematic: though happy to celebrate the defeat of fascism, Macedonians are less happy to celebrate the victory of Marshall Tito's partisans which ensured Macedonia remained a part of Yugoslavia until the country unravelled a decade after Tito's death.

War Memorial, Struga
From Struga we drove south and west, keeping to the minor road that hugs the coast until we reached the sizable fishing village of Radožda, the last settlement in Macedonia and the end of the road.

'Sleepy' is an overworked adjective for such places, but it seemed to fit here. Old men dozed on benches outside their houses or chatted with their neighbours across the street, raising their voices above the honking of frogs in the lake. Women busied themselves with a little desultory sweeping using brooms shaped like garden rakes.

The village sits between the lake and a rocky cliff up which a set of metal steps leads to the Church of St Michael the Archangel, the finest of several 13th century cave churches in the area.
Lynne starts up towards the Church of St Michael the Archangel, Radozda
The climb was hard work in the warm sunshine, but we were rewarded with a good view over the village. The headland on the right of the picture is well inside Albania.

Radozda from the steps up to the church
The church, like many other Macedonian churches, has some impressive frescoes. Sadly it was locked, but paintings on the outside have survived several centuries of Macedonian weather remarkably well. It was a peaceful place, though even up here we could still hear the frogs in the lake below.

St Michael the Archangel, Radozda
There was also a small external chapel where Lynne lit a candle. Payment for the candles, 5 or 10 dinars depending on size, is left to trust, as is the tray containing the money. I find this a refreshing sign of people’s expectations in this out of the way place.

Lynne lights a candle, St Michael the Archangel, Radozda
A candle lit, we retraced out steps to Ohrid. The sun had been pleasantly warm, but as we drove back the clouds began to gather and the temperature dropped as a rain sprinkled down.

Salmo Letnica is a species of brown trout endemic to Lake Ohrid and related rivers. Unfortunately (for the trout) it is delicious and overfishing has brought it to the edge of extinction. Fishing is now banned in the breeding season in Albania  and completely in Macedonian waters, but this protection is not enough and stocks continue to dwindle. Ohrid trout no longer appears on menus, but Ohrid-style trout does, though this seems to mean little other than grilled brown trout - which is a fine thing in its own right. We decided to dedicate lunch (and most of the early afternoon) to the bounty of the lake.

We chose a restaurant on the lakefront in the old town, sitting on the terrace over the water, behind a perspex screen to shield us from the by now unnecessarily chilly breeze. Lynne ordered the trout but I went for plasica, tiny lake fish dusted with flour and gently fried - in other words whitebait.

We started, as had become our practice, with a glass of mastika. Lynne's trout was simply grilled and served with chips, a lettuce leaf, some beautifully sweet onion slices and a couple of pieces of shredded carrot - largely for decoration. Macedonians are keen on salads but appear to have no interest in vegetables. My plasnica came just with lemon and high quality chunky bread, which was all it required.
Trout and small fishes, Ohrid
The wine list was confined to the produce of a single winery and at the waiter’s suggestion and against my better judgement we opted for a Chardonnay/Riesling blend. For the second day running we had encountered a waiter who knew his stuff, it was a fine match.

Lynne likes her fish 'not messed about with' so the trout was exactly how she likes it. The plasica was good, too, treated much more sympathetically than the heavy handed ‘batter and deep fry’ usually encountered in pubs at home.

At the end we had room for dessert and both chose baklava. The simple nuts and honey in pastry lacked the texture and subtlety of Greek/Turkish baklava, but it was still very enjoyable.

After lunch we poked around the market buying presents to take home and a picnic for our travels tomorrow. We had enjoyed our four days in Ohrid - it is a town which was well worth that much time, if not more.
Ohrid at dusk
We felt no need to eat again that day, but we did wander out in the evening to sit in a café, sup a beer and watch the world go by - and also to take a pleasing picture of Ohrid at dusk.

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