Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Macedonian Town of Ohrid, Where Time Stopped

When asked about Ohrid, people from other parts of Macedonia tell the following story. After God created the world and lay down to rest, the Devil got to work and set up Ohrid with all its beauties: the splendid lake, the steep mountains where the Galičica National Park is now located, a moderate climate and a fertile soil. God woke up and looked around in astonishment. “What have you done, Devil?” he asked. “Your deeds are supposed to be evil!” “Oh, just wait, God!,” Satan replied. “You haven't seen Ohrid's citizens yet.”

The only fault that foreign tourists will find with Ohrid's citizens, however, is their proclivity for inflating prices. Yet a dinner of the famous Ohrid trout with generous amounts of zholta, or yellow, rakiya in a restaurant in the old city amidst the dozens of Revival Period houses and medieval churches is not so costly. Landmarks cause prices to rise all over the world. In this case, they include Robevci, or the Robevs' House, and the St Sophia and the Sveta Bogorodica Perivleptos, or St Mother of God the Most Glorious, Churches with their magnificent 11th-14th Century murals.

Situated on the northeastern shore of Lake Ohrid, this is the best-known town in the republic – despite the fact that the CIA has failed to include it on its website map of the former Yugoslav republic. About 50,000 people live there and they are all convinced that Ohrid is the best developed, the richest and the most European town in the country.

Ohrid is said to have 365 churches, one for each day of the year. In reality, they are fewer, but the number is certainly large – a remnant from the time when the place was the residence of the Ohrid archbishops. Theoretically, they were under the authority of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. In fact, however, they acted in such an independent way that in 1676 the Ottoman sultan abolished the archbishopric at the patriarch's request.

Earlier, something far more interesting had happened in Ohrid and because of it you now have problems reading any road sign written in Cyrillic. What appears to you to be the enigmatic alphabet of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Russia was invented here by St Clement of Ohrid. He was one of the students of Cyril and Methodius, the brothers who created the first Slavonic alphabet, the Glagolitic.

Clement, who established an educational institution and a literary school near Ohrid at the invitation of Bulgarian Prince Boris I, soon realised that the complex symbols of the Glagolitic were too hard to learn. So, he changed most of the letters for Greek ones and called the new alphabet the “Cyrillic”. Fifty years later, it established itself as the main writing system and the Monastery of St Clement at Plaošnik – up the hill from St John-at-Kaneo Church and under Samuel's Fortress – is now a major tourist attraction in Ohrid. Its church has been recently restored and the remains of the monastery are undergoing archaeological excavations.

Outside the town, on the south bank of the lake and nearly at the Albanian border, lies a more well-preserved monastery. St Naum boasts a miniature church with medieval frescos and a well maintained yard, which is the favourite walking area for tourists and peacocks.

Ohrid is home to more than just “church tourism” and there are well over a dozen places where your eyes can rest from the views of domes and medieval red bricks or white stone walls. The easiest thing is to intentionally get lost in the maze of narrow lanes between the city centre and the hill with Samuel's Fortress. While in Ohrid's old part everybody is desperately trying to conserve the Revival Period and medieval past because of the tourists, here a different type of past has managed to survive without any particular effort.

You'll see more children riding bicycles in the streets than adults driving 1960s cars. The air carries the scent of freshly hung washing and the meals that housewives are cooking for supper. Each empty piece of land is occupied by parked Zastavas, the triumph of Communist Yugoslavia's industry. Judging from the flat tyres and tatty seats, these cars will leave their place among the weeds to set off on one last journey – to the scrap yard.

Ohrid's citizens are down-to-earth people and have retained their Communist-era hotels, just like they keep their Zastavas. Most of these establishments have simply had their curtains and names replaced by “more prestigious” ones and are still functioning. The “prestige” that the Palace, Slavia, Park, Metropol, Bellevue, Granite and the “Zastava” Hotel-Sveti Stefan (sic) exude, however, is redolent of Communism.

Locals say everything in Ohrid is as it used to be a century ago, and changes happen very slowly. As if to show this, a 800-year-old plane tree stands in the middle of the cobbled square by the old market and the Ali Pasha Mosque. The only difference between now and 100 years ago is that the hollow in its huge trunk is no longer used as a barber's shop or a café; now, it is filled with cement.

This article is courtesy of the Bulgarian magazine Vagabond.

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