The autumn sun was already setting over the lake as we made our way down the narrow, one-lane cobblestone street to our apartment; the soft light cast a warm glow over the town. The paper-wrapped, grilled fish that I carried in my hand was growing lukewarm, but I wasn’t all that fussed. Slightly buzzed from the potent combination of Turkish coffee and homemade rakia, I was feeling rather bemused by the random events of the day. It was not how we had anticipated spending our last day at Lake Ohrid, Macedonia – but it turned out to be exponentially better than we could have ever planned.
We had woken early to clear skies and the bright sun peeking out from behind the mountain – and we were determined to make the most of the sunshine. During our two-week stay at Lake Ohrid, we had seen almost everything we wanted to see…almost everything. We had climbed to the 10th century Samuel’s Fortress at the top of the hill. We had taken a guided tour through St. Clement’s Monastery and visited a handful of the other churches in Ohrid. We had watched the sun set over the Church of St. John at Kaneo. We had walked along the waterfront path to cafes and on cliff-edge trails to secluded picnic spots. We had spent an hour on the lake with Captain Zoran, learning the history of Ohrid. However, the one thing we hadn’t done was visit St. Naum Monastery.
St. Naum Monastery was established in the year 905 on a bluff overlooking Lake Ohrid. The original church was destroyed in the 15th century and rebuilt in the 16th century. The ornate iconostasis dates to 1711 and the tomb of St. Naum is on display inside the church. Colorful peacocks roam the grounds and the lake views are nothing short of breathtaking. The Eastern Orthodox complex is 18 miles south of the town of Ohrid and just a half mile from the Albania-Macedonia border on the southeastern corner of the lake – and the best way to visit St. Naum from Ohrid is by boat.
However, our off-season trip to Lake Ohrid was throwing a wrench in our plans. Traveling out of season can be difficult in some places, like Lake Ohrid, that truly shut down outside of the peak summer season. In early November, we saw shuttered doors on boutique hotels and restaurants closed for remodeling. Boat service was sporadic, at best; only extremely motivated captains, like Captain Zoran, offered a quick jaunt around the lake, while the bigger boats only budged from the harbor for scheduled tour groups (of which there were none). The weather was just as fickle. Bright sunshine and warm days could quickly vanish as fast moving clouds and brisk winds rolled in from Albania over the western side of the lake.
After days of choppy water and repeatedly being told that no boats were making the trip from Ohrid to Naum – most likely for the rest of the year – we determined that the second-best way to visit St. Naum Monastery was by public bus. Relying on public transportation presented a new challenge of finding a reliable bus schedule, which didn’t seem to exist. Trusting the word of locals, on our last day at Lake Ohrid, we made our way through town under gathering storm clouds to hop a bus to St. Naum Monastery.
We stood at the bus stop, helplessly looking at signs in Cyrillic. There were no buses and no other people. It started to rain. Frustrated, but determined, I gazed the stretch of the street searching for an approaching bus. The misty rain continued to fall, dampening both my coat and spirit.
Instead of a bus, a taxi pulled up in front of the bus stop and the driver lowered the passenger side window. Still hopeful for a bus, I didn’t move, but Kris engaged the driver in conversation. “He’ll drive us to St. Naum and back for 25 euros,” Kris shouted to me. My body tensed; the bus would be a mere fraction of that cost. But, it was our last day…our last chance to see St. Naum – and it was raining. Feeling defeated, but thankful we were getting on our way, we slid into the backseat of the cab.
Polite conversation ensued on what would be an hour-long drive from Ohrid to St. Naum. Zoran was the name of our driver – the same as our boat captain and the third most popular name in Macedonia, we learned. As a lifelong Ohrid citizen, Zoran assumed the role of tour guide for his foreign passengers.
He proudly relayed Ohrid’s most popular stats – the same ones we had already heard from our Airbnb host, our tour guide at St. Clement’s and from Captain Zoran on the boat. We love to hear local people speak about the place they call home – especially places we know little about, like Ohrid. The lake is 288 meters deep. Because it is mountain water, the lake water is clean; you can drink the water. The trout in this lake are found nowhere else in the world. Albania is on the other side of the lake; only half of the lake is Macedonia’s. He gave the last tidbit of info with a slight sneer. We politely listened and nodded, asking questions and making interjections at the appropriate times.
There are 365 churches in Ohrid – one for each day of the year. Religion is important to the people of Ohrid – St. Naum is the most important religious place. Although we could clearly understand him, he apologized for his poor English skills. “My son says I speak like an Indian,” he said and then burst into laughter, which made us laugh, too.
About 30 minutes into the drive, the drizzly rain had ceased and the sun was threatening to return. Zoran announced he was stopping so that we could ‘make photo.’ He pulled into the empty parking lot of the Bay of Bones Museum. The museum is a reconstruction of a pile-dwelling settlement from 1,200-700 BC. As we took photos of the lake from the parking lot, Zoran lit up a cigarette. “No smoking in car with guests,” he told us with a full dose of seriousness. He truly cared about his ‘guests’,but I suspected our stop was more for a cigarette break than for the photo op.
St. Naum was as peaceful as promised. In the off-season, the gimmicky tourist shops lining the walkway into the complex were all closed. Zoran led the way, pointing out things of importance: the mouth of the River Crn Drim, a large statue carved from a single piece of wood, the St. Petka Chapel set in an orchard of Japanese apple trees and the healing waters that flowed from the rear of the church. We spent about an hour at St. Naum Monastery Church marveling over the iconostasis, putting our ears to St. Naum’s tomb in hopes of hearing a heartbeat, chasing peacocks around the grounds with our cameras and simply taking in the stunning lake view.
Zoran delighted in his role as tour guide, continuously feeding us facts, although, most of his conversation was directed at Kris, not me. Every time he wanted to show us something, he would start by saying, “Kris, Kris,” which he pronounced as “Crease, Crease.” Maybe it was cultural habit or perhaps he just liked Kris better; in any case, I found it endearing.
On our way back to Ohrid, our conversation moved past pleasantries and Zoran began speaking about his life and family, explaining to us, “My son is my pride. My daughter, my heart.” He shared stories about his army days, talked about growing up in Yugoslavia and explained his distaste for Australians – his daughter had dated an Aussie before she married a local boy.
As I gazed out the window toward the lake and the conversation flowed, I asked what fish lived in the lake besides trout. “My daughter works at a fish restaurant. I take you there,” was his response. Apprehensive (we had seen the exorbitant price of fish on menus at waterfront restaurants), but interested, we accepted his proposal. We were more curious about meeting his daughter than tasting the fish, to be honest.
As good as Zoran’s English was, stories filled with plot twists and dramatic endings were getting lost in translation. We often had to ask him to repeat an entire tale from the beginning to make sure we understood. Later when Kris and I rehashed the discussions of the day, our comprehension of some stories differed so vastly that we wondered if we had been involved in two separate conversations.
Back in Ohrid, on a side street near the city center, Zoran parked his car on the sidewalk in front of a row of inconspicuous shops with one store front logo incorporating a fish above the name. Zoran’s daughter exited and greeted her father with a hug and kiss, then showed me inside – leaving the men in conversation on the sidewalk. More of a fish shop than a restaurant, the room consisted of two refrigerated glass cases, a small freezer and an in-the-wall oven. There were no tables. I quickly ascertained that this was where locals – not tourists – bought fish. Guided by Zoran’s daughter, I picked the recommended, highest-priced fish that was caught fresh from the lake that morning. I could take it raw and cook it at home – or, for a small extra fee, she would clean and cook the fish for me for takeaway. The large fish cost 175 Macedonian denar – about $3 USD.
I joined Zoran and Kris outside to wait for the fish to cook, but was informed that they had made plans. Since it would be a half hour before the fish was ready, we were going back to Zoran’s house for coffee. In our travels, we’ve had more than a few coffees and beers with local residents and strangers-quickly-turned-friends, but this was the first time a taxi driver, who we had only met a few hours prior, had invited us into his home.
His house, which he had lived in all his life, was more like a small complex of multiple attached, two story buildings. Located near the city center, the close neighbor’s homes were all built in a similar style. A small convenience store occupied the lower, right quadrant of his home – a family side-business, he said.
Inside, old wood floors creaked under our feet. Like any typical family home, there was a living room with sofas, a coffee table and a flat-screen television (Zoran offered to turn on CNN if we wanted to watch ‘American television’ – we didn’t). The dining room featured a simple, six-seater table and opened to the kitchen. Pots and pans hung from cabinets above the stove and large windows let light into the homey space. Religious images hung on walls and books lined shelves.
Before Zoran busied himself making Turkish coffee, he rummaged through a desk drawer and pulled out stack of photos for Kris to look through. He pulled a photo book from the shelf – one of his daughter’s wedding – and handed it to me.
I flipped through the pages, astounded by the opulence of her satin wedding gown and I wondered how much weddings cost in Macedonia. Pictures showed the bride and groom posing on the lakeside and candid shots of the family at the reception. Kris was looking at pictures that spanned decades and included a much younger Zoran carrying a rifle and donning army attire, as well as pictures from his own wedding.
“Crease, Crease, how about rakia?” Zoran entered the room with three shot glasses of the homemade liquor – to drink while we waited for the coffee, he said. He entertained us with stories of how he learned to drive and of the foreigners he has met as a taxi driver. An hour slipped by as we sipped our thick Turkish coffees. “Let’s go. Leave your cups; when my wife comes home from work, she will wonder what I’ve been up to,” he said with a wink.
We walked outside and a door on the second story of Zoran’s home opened. “My mother,” he whispered to us and began speaking with her in Macedonian. She was inquiring about us, Zoran responding several times ‘Amerikanski’, which was the only word of the conversation we understood. “She invites you to go up and have coffee. I told her we already did,” he explained, smiling. She was still talking as he chuckled and waved goodbye.
Twenty minutes later, we were saying our goodbyes to Zoran. We stood in the street and watched as his car disappeared down the steep drive, baffled by the random events of the day and in awe of the kindness we encountered. We walked down the one-lane road to our apartment, eager to feast on our late afternoon fish lunch.
Our top tips for your trip to Lake Ohrid, Macedonia
Where To Stay
During our visit to Lake Ohrid, we stayed in this awesome Airbnb Apartment. (Not already a member of Airbnb? Use this link to create an account and save money on your first stay!) However, for those who prefer staying in traditional accommodations, there are many hotels to choose from in – or close to – the city center.
Before You Go
- Don’t forget to pack a pair of lightweight and comfortable walking shoes. I (Sarah) have traveled with these shoes by Columbia, Skechers and Reef. Kris prefers wearing these shoes by Merrell and Sanuk.
- We’re certain you’ll be snapping tons of photos during your trip. Rather than relying on your mobile phone to capture the sights, upgrade to an actual camera for higher quality photos. We travel with a Canon Rebel (which takes amazing photos, but can be a bit clunky) and a Canon PowerShot ELPH (which takes beautiful pictures, is slim and lightweight – and the new models are wifi enabled so you can share your trip pics to social media in real time!).
- We think travel insurance is essential! If you haven’t already obtained travel insurance for your trip, travel protected with World Nomads.
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