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New Europe

Day Twenty-seven: Ohrid

On Lake Ohrid 
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Wild skies above Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest, deepest, most revered lakes in the world.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThe plodding Balkan highway, the E852, that enters Macedonia from the Albanian frontier, was once the illustrious Via Egnatia, a hugely important trade route, carrying goods from Italy to Constantinople. It was laid down by the Romans to join their empire with another they'd just conquered, the empire of Alexander the Great. Or as he's remembered here in his homeland, Alexander III of Macedon.

Today there's nothing left of the Via Egnatia or the trade that once must have flowed along it. The E852 connects the poorest country in Europe with the poorest country of the former Yugoslavia. Yet there is something about this first view of Macedonia that has power and presence, that makes you feel that whatever has befallen the country is a temporary aberration. This is a corner of Europe where history is made, not merely suffered.

It's all to do with the charismatic presence of Lake Ohrid. Overlooked in the west by the steep frowning mountains of Albania and by broad forested slopes to the east, it demands respect. Measuring almost 20 miles long and 10 wide, it plunges to a depth just short of 1,000 feet.

There has been a lake here for at least three million years, making it one of the oldest in the world, comparable with Titicaca and Baikal. It's perhaps no surprise that there are believed to be 350 religious establishments around its shores.

Tonight its waters are dark and agitated, sending explosive walls of water bursting against the promenade. Clouds of spray fly over the 'You Are Here' tourist map which, a little sad and damp now, helpfully points out not just the local churches but also where to go for body piercing. On a plinth nearby the sculpted figures of the tenth-century saints Clement and Naum stare out at the troubled waters. They are credited with inventing the Slavic language and Clement, a disciple of Saint Cyril, is thought to have devised a new alphabet, called Cyrillic, which is still in use across Russia as well as here in Macedonia. It's a sign that we're moving away from Central European influences and into the Slav Orthodox countries and the Russian sphere of influence.

There are few people about and the only two who come over to talk to us turn out to be Serbians who complain that the Macedonians won't change their currency. We help out by exchanging euros for the Serbian dinars which they're almost inexpressibly grateful to get rid of.

We find a waterfront restaurant called Dalga in the cobbled Old Town which serves the famous Lake Ohrid trout, but in portions as big as the lake itself, and this after an abundant ordever (hors d'oeuvres) of red peppers, feta, Parmesan cheese, salami and Croatian prosciutto. The walls are covered with photographs of the patron with various high-profile visitors. Mostly in black and white and degraded by time and the weather, they look as if they're all out of FBI files.

Filled to the brim with food and good Macedonian wine, we run the gauntlet of crashing waves along the promenade, coat collars tucked up.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twenty-seven: Ohrid
  • Country/sea: Macedonia
  • Place: Ohrid
  • Book page no: 67

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