My ‘fast & furious’ Western Balkans Trip – 3 Countries in 6 Days (Part 5)
Day Five: Albania – Macedonia (Voskopoja – Galicica National Park – Ohrid)
Sounds incredible, but in the middle of the 18th century, with a population of over 30,000, Voskopoja was one of the largest cities on the Balkans. What is now a small sleepy village was then a thriving center of manufacturing, crafts (like carpet weaving, woodcarving, and textile), commerce, and learning with a printing press, over 20 churches, and a famous icon-and fresco-painting school. At the end of that century, it was repeatedly attacked, burned, and pillaged and never fully recovered from the destruction. Today, only a couple of hundred or so people live here and only 7 churches have survived.
This morning, we took the cobblestone street to one of the remaining churches – of St. Nicholas, to see its interior frescoes. It is usually kept closed, but the Pashuta owners’ son – a young and bright kid who spoke very good English, went to fetch him. The beautiful stone church built in the early 18th century is in a dire need of repair, but the interior frescoes and the ornately-decorated throne are well worth seeing and so is the tall bell tower outside. We also chatted with the priest who told us about the church’s history and its sad current state due to the lack of restoration funds.
We later drove out of Voskopoja and then hiked through the fir forest to a monastery above the village which also had a church, this one even older – from the 1630s, with well-preserved interior murals. The hike to the monastery was easy and invigorating – with all the crisp mountain air, greenery all around, and the sound of bells from cows grazing peacefully on the side of the road.
Continuing with our drive further north, we crossed the Macedonian border (the formalities were quick and easy) and toward the Galicica National Park. Galicica is the mountain separating the Ohrid and the Prespa Lakes and I had read that from one of its peaks, you could simultaneously see both. Needless to say, I was dying to get to the peak despite the obvious opposition of my guide and driver who were clearly not the hiking type. As we drove along Prespa Lake’s shore (shared among Albania, Macedonia, and Greece), we passed several charming little villages and a couple of islands – first Mali Grad (meaning ‘Small Town’) and later Golem Grad (meaning ‘Large Town’), both of which are currently uninhabited but once housed churches and a monastery.
Once in the Galicica National Park, we drove around for a while trying to find the hiking path which would take us to the top of the peak in question (signs and information boards were really sparse) until we finally met a group of friendly Russians (yes, there is such thing) and they pointed us in the right direction. Once we parked, I headed straight up the rocky path followed by my huffing and puffing companions who had decided to follow me rather than face the trouble of me getting lost or twisting an ankle…It took us a good 45 minutes to climb up through the meadows and to the top, but the views over the lakes on both sides from the ridge were definitely worth it.
Continuing with our drive along Lake Ohrid’s eastern shore, we reached the St. Naum Monastery named after his founder – Naum, who was one of the disciples of Cyril and Methodius – the two brothers who created the Slavic alphabet.
Located on the lake shore, the monastery grounds are very well kept and clearly designed to cater to the busloads of tourists coming to visit – with series of souvenir shops near the entrance and restaurants along the shore which were all busy even in October.
The bubbling spring which supplies the water for the Lake Ohrid is also a very popular attraction and there are even boat tours on the lake and the springs. The location was beautiful, but the monastery grounds too crowded and touristy, even at this time of year.
Driving further north along the coast, we finally reached our destination – the town of Ohrid, where a local guide met us for a brief walk around the historic Old Town. The UNESCO-protected Ohrid is Macedonia’s top tourist destination, which again means throngs of visitors, especially in the summer months. Under the Byzantines, it was an episcopal seat and St. Naum later turned it into an important center of learning where religious texts were translated and copied into the Slavic language. It is believed that it once had 365 churches, one for every day of the year. Two of these, near the former lower gate, were used to quarantine travelers for up to 40 days before letting them enter the town in order to avoid the spread of diseases.
Further up, we had a peak into the St. Sophia church the internal frescoes of which are well preserved because the Ottomans whitewashed all the walls before turning it into a mosque thus saving the precious murals.
It was already getting dark when we followed our guide on a path through the woods to see the amazing little St. John of Kaneo church built on a cliff overlooking the lake.
From there, a short boat ride took us back to the Old Town. Our home for the night was the Villa Germanoff where my room was a pleasant surprise. It was actually a spacious and very well-appointed suite with a separate bedroom and living room and a balcony overlooking St. Sophia’s Church.