The Balkans’ Great Lake


‘Macedonia is Greece!” blares a sign scrawled in red paint across plazas in Thessaloniki, Drama and other towns across northern Greece. “Makedonia e Bulgaria!” screams the Bulgarian equivalent, just as fervent, in graffiti along that country’s southern highways.

Then there is Macedonia itself: officially F.Y.R.O.M., the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a scrappy, fledgling nation perpetually at war with Greece over its own name. That name refers to a historical region that spreads across all three borders — home to a proud Slavic culture, terrific red wine and sunny lakeside retreats.

On the road through fertile green plains and snow-capped mountain landscapes to Lake Ohrid, in the far west of Macedonia, I could understand why three countries fight so passionately over this land. If there’s one thing they can all agree on, it’s the awe-inspiring beauty and palpable heritage of a place like Ohrid, the major city on the world’s second-deepest lake and a favored Balkan resort town for more than 1,000 years.

Like so many of the lovely, shockingly inexpensive beach destinations I’ve visited recently in this region, Ohrid is almost totally unknown to Western travelers. That’s partly due to Yugoslavia’s lingering wartime aura — but also to the area’s relative inaccessibility.

To get here, you first have to fly to an airport a good two to six hours’ drive away. Skopje, Macedonia’s has the closest one, at 2 ½ hours east, but flights are limited; Jewish travelers might enjoy at stop at the city’s new Holocaust Memorial Center of Jews from Macedonia, which opened in March with a permanent museum exhibition on Balkan Jewry. Skopje itself has little else to see, and its Jewish population was virtually decimated during the Holocaust, but the 250-strong remaining community dedicated a rebuilt Sephardic synagogue in 2000.

Otherwise, you can drive northwest from Thessaloniki, a city rich in Jewish intellectual and cultural heritage, or west through the Rila Mountains from Sofia. It helps if you value the journey itself, because travel here is slow: Macedonia is still a poor and somewhat isolated country, so its infrastructure is notably more rickety than those of the surrounding European Union countries.

Driving these single-lane, pockmarked roads can feel interminable if you get behind a slow-moving truck (or a donkey cart). On the bright side, roadside fruit stands are a ubiquitous and delicious reason to stop altogether: sun-warmed local cherries, figs, pomegranates, peaches and strawberries – straight off the nearby trees – sell for well under a dollar a pound.

Then there is Ohrid itself, a deeply spiritual, historically multi-ethnic city of about 40,000 along the eastern shore of the eponymous lake. The 18-mile-long lake forms a natural boundary between Macedonia and Albania, and was a pearl of Yugoslav tourism during Communist times. Today, locals are as likely to speak Albanian as Macedonian, which itself sounds similar to Bulgarian, and Serbian, Turkish and Gypsy tongues are heard as well. Ladino was the language of Ohrid’s Sephardic Jews before World War II, but only a handful of speakers remain, and there are no regular worship services.

But for Orthodox Christians, Ohrid has long been colloquially referred to as “Jerusalem” – and after a day wandering the quaint, cobblestone streets of the medieval Old Town, you’ll understand why. At one time, there were rumored to be as many churches as days of the year in Ohrid. Important saints, including St. Climent – father of the modern Cyrillic alphabet – left their mark on the city; perhaps the most impressive of these Christian buildings is the Monastery of St. Naum, a massive 10th-century complex atop the lake’s rocky cliffs just south of Ohrid proper.

In Ohrid, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, history is literally around every corner – and while that might not seem unusual in a region with such a long and complex history, it is all too rare in the Balkans, where war and empire have erased so much of that culture’s visible face.

The city’s apex was just over 1,000 years ago, when Ohrid was briefly capital of the erstwhile Bulgarian Empire. Fittingly, the most imposing sight in town dates from precisely this period: the Fortress of Samuil, whose ridged 10th-century turrets loom over the hilly, red-roofed old town, offering incredible lake views.

Further down, Ohrid has maintained much of its Greek amphitheater — circa 200 B.C. — for open-air concerts and plays. For a look at Macedonia’s more recent past, you can tour the Robevi Family House and Museum, a prime example of 19th-century architecture and a former military bunker; exhibits run the gamut from ancient archaeological findings to wood carvings and icon paintings in the local style.

Most visitors to Ohrid, however, come for the lake itself. Ohrid residents complain that tourism isn’t what it was before the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, especially now that their former Eastern-bloc neighbors have the freedom, and the means, to vacation farther afield.

But for many Bulgarians and Serbians — the latter newly landlocked, having lost Montenegro — Ohrid is a favored weekend trip. It’s a cheap way to stretch out on a pebbly beach and dip into fresh, cool water that is far more refreshing than the steaming-hot Aegean and Black seas.

As is common across the Balkans, locals rent out private rooms, often with private bath and hotel-like amenities, in prime locations across the old town. For $10-15 a night, you can sleep amid the ghosts of vanished Balkan empires, park wherever you want (this is a particular thrill for any New Yorker) — and lounge on the shore of a lake with waters nearly 1,000 feet deep, a cool refuge in an out-of-the-way corner of Southern Europe.