Ohrid, a charming town by one of the oldest and deepest Europe’s lake, is the eight largest city in North Macedonia. Located not far from the Greek and Albanian borders, it is considered to be the most romantic place in North Macedonia, nicknamed the Balkan pearl. Ohrid is also one of 28 sites with a mixed World Heritage protection – for its nature conservation values and for its cultural heritage values.
Author: Špela Bizjak
Ohrid is not only a popular tourist destination but a place with huge historical importance. The town was first mentioned in Greek documents from 353 BC where it was called Lychindos – the city of light. It was later renamed Ohrid probably from the world voh ridi meaning in the cliff or on the hill. The town was established around Lake Ohrid, the oldest lake in Europe (three million years old). During the Byzantine period Ohrid became a cultural and economic center and in the 9th century it became the site of the first Slavic universities.
A museum in the open
Lake Ohrid is a natural phenomenon, a rare example of an ancient lake with a rich biodiversity. As a result of its geographic isolation and uninterrupted biological activity, it provides a niche habitat to 1,200 species, with new species still being discovered today. As many as 200 of them, including algae, turbellarian flatworms, snails, crustaceans and 17 endemic species of fish, do not live anywhere else in the world. That’s why the lake is also branded as the Museum of Living Fossils, a Theater of Evolution and the Balkan Galapagos. The natural beauty of the lake is, however, vulnerable, particularly due to changes in water quality, and there is evidence of growth in nutrients that threaten the oligotrophic ecology of the lake.
Jerusalem of the Balkans
Settled on the lake’s shores is town Ohrid, one of the oldest human settlements in Europe. Ohrid’s architecture represents the best preserved and most complete ensemble of ancient urban architecture of this part of Europe. The town was nicknamed Jerusalem of the Balkans because of the 365 churches and monasteries, including the oldest Slav monastery, that are scattered in and around Ohrid. The churches where built during the Byzantine era and in the Middle Ages and are home to more than 800 Byzantine-style icons of worldwide fame, dating from the 11th century to the end of the 14th century. Monastery Saint Naum of Ohrid, named after its founder who is buried in the church, is located just above the cliff above the lake, close to Albanian border. In the 16sth century it was also a Greek school. Church of St. John at Kaneo is overlooking the lake, providing visitors with magnificent views. Built at the end of 13th century, the church is a mixture of Armenian and Byzantine architectural styles. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in North Macedonia as well as in the whole region. The whole town is like a museum in the open, surrounded with ancient walls and gates.
Narrow streets and squeezed houses in Ottoman architecture with small yards feel like travelling back in time. Ohrid was always a cultural and religious center but never an important trade center. It is evident in the size of its bazaar – small and simple, along a single street. It starts at a small square where a thousandyear- old tree has made home, ending at the main square. Up on the hill above the town lies King Samuil fortress with great views over the lake. The fortress was heavily restored in 2003 with the addition of entirely new battlements where none had survived.
The Pearl of the Balkans
The pearls, protected with a Designation of Origin, were gifted to the late Yugoslav president Tito whenever he visited Ohrid.
Amongst Ohrid’s many nicknames, Pearl of the Balkans is the least obvious one. The name is not due to its cultural and historical importance. And there are no oysters in the lake, either. But there are pearls in Ohrid. And they happen to be Ohrid’s trademark. The pearls come from an endemic fish species that only live in lake Ohrid waters… kind of. The pearl is made using the scales from the fish to create an emulsion, covering the surface of the pearl which is made from ground shells. The emulsion gives the pearl a beautiful colour and shine, but how the coating is exactly made remains a secret. Indeed, only two families in Ohrid know the “recipe” – Talevi and Filevi families.
Since 1961, North Macedonia’s most important music and drama festival has been held in Ohrid during the months of July and August. The international festival attracts artists and performers from over 40 countries. Though no longer the practice, concerts used to take place inside the old churches. Indeed, the festival’s first concert was held in the church of St. Sophia.
Ohrid also attracts visitors during the Swimming Marathon where the best swimmers from all around the world participate to swim a 30km route from the St Naum monastery to the lake’s shore. One of the most exciting and colorful events is the Balkan Folklore Festival featuring folk dances and music from different countries. A festival offers the possibility for participants to present their culture, tradition and cultural diversity through dance and traditional clothing.