We had arrived the previous evening in the dark – all four of us half asleep – but the next morning, as we left the hotel and rounded the first corner into town, there was no missing it. Lake Ohrid in Macedonia is at least 4-million years old, but I’ll be damned if she didn’t look brand new.
We stood on the road that climbed the hill of the old city and looked out, unable to see the other end of the lake 30-some kilometers away. In the forefront was an ancient theater dating back nearly 2,000 years, uncovered accidentally in the 80s during a construction project. Back in the US, we’re lucky if we can find a nickel in the sand, but here a shovel makes sense.
Later, down by the water, we retraced our steps from the night before, past the places along the waterfront that were then more like pubs than coffee shops. I suppose that’s why the locals refer to them as “coffee bars,” the establishments doing double duty – macchiatos by day, mastika by night.
What the hell is mastika? We’ll get to that, along with the rest of the food and booze, the outdoor adventure, and the culture that lives within the small Mediterranean country of Macedonia just north of Greece. Born in 1991, it’s still just a baby. Funny when a 20-something year-old country can discover a 2,000-year-old theater of a past civilization. In the United States, we find arrowheads.
The Republic of Macedonia, a Balkan country in Eastern Europe (see map below), declared its Independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. By the United Nations, it’s recognized as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) due to a name dispute with Greece, who believes calling the country “Macedonia” creates ambiguity with the Greek Region of Macedonia, which in turn breeds historical and cultural concerns.
Because the largest ethnic group in the Republic of Macedonia is Slavic (not Greek), Greece does not appreciate how they refer to themselves as Macedonian – they see it as a form of identity theft. In all fairness, Greece may have a point. The Republic of Macedonia did in fact adopt Alexander the Great as their ambassador of sorts, building a statue of him in Skopje and donning their airport with his name. Alex was Greek Macedonian, King of Macedon in northern Ancient Greece – an odd choice for a country who doesn’t consider themselves a part of Greece, for sure.
But what’s in name? I try not to get caught up in all that. Call it whatever you want – Lake Ohrid is beautiful regardless, and the country’s landscape will impress people of all descents. The two largest and most popular cities, the capital Skopje and the lake-bearing Ohrid, are both surrounded by mountains, neither more than a two-hour drive from either the ski region or wine country. A favorable conversion rate to the local denar from dollars (48 to 1) or euros (61 to 1) makes these accessible opportunities feasible. As a point of reference, a beer is usually about 85 denar and a shopska salad just over 100, so even though you’ll be tired out from the day, missing out on the food and nightlife is not something I’d advise.
The above paragraph is probably the exact reason why sleep was at a premium on my five-day sprint, getting outdoors during the day and sitting tight at night. We’ll kick off tales of the former next post with some beautiful fall foliage in Matka Canyon, hiking and catching the sunset above Lake Ohrid, and paragliding over Skopje.
Photos of Ohrid: