You’re sitting at a little table set up on a lakeside promenade. Church bells ring in the distance. Two Ferruginous Ducks paddle over to check you out. An empty cup of espresso, as well as a half glass of Vranec, sits in front of you. You stopped for a quick coffee. More than an hour ago. But between the calm, blue water to your left and a hillside full of red, terra-cotta roofs to your right, you’re pretty content. Though you should have just ordered a carafe of wine.
This idyllic location could easily be the Italian Lake District. Como, Lugano, or Maggiore. The stone houses could be on the Croatian coast. But the crowds–or lack of–prove otherwise.
You’re in southwestern Macedonia, a small, landlocked country in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula. Lake Ohrid, which sits on the border of Macedonia and Albania, is one the continent’s oldest and deepest lakes. The town is also one of the oldest settlements in Europe. In the 17th century, Ohrid was considered the Jerusalem of the Balkans for having 365 churches, one for each day of the year. Only a handful have survived, but those still standing will amaze even the nonbelievers.
Start at St. Sophia, a church built during the First Bulgarian Empire and converted into a mosque during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Frescoes from as early as the 11th century have been preserved within the Medieval architecture. Visit the Ancient Theatre of Ohrid, an open-air performance space still used during the summer. Walk the ramparts of Samuil’s Fortress for views over the lake. Don’t miss the Church of St. John at Kaneo. Some people visit the small, cruciform-shaped church, which sits on a cliff over Kaneo Beach, to see the frescoed dome. More come to watch the sun set over the water, though. Return to the city center to wander through the Ohrid Bazaar near the clock tower. You’ll probably walk away with Ohrid pearls–they’re made from fish scales.
Tomorrow, you’ll visit the Bay of Bones Museum to see recreated stilt houses. Then you’ll hike through the National Park of Galičica, from where you can see both Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa at the same time. But that’s tomorrow. Right now, you’re heading back to the waterfront for another glass of Vranec and maybe a seafood dinner. There’s a little table calling your name.