Ohrid Travel Guide. Part II: The Old Town

After taking together the road to Ohrid, we have finally made it to this beautiful Macedonian town. If we were to follow the logical sequence of events, I’d now have to write about the next thing we usually do when we get to a destination, which is finding accommodation. However, before all that, I’d like to charm you with the beauty of the place and only after to bore you with the logistic details (accommodation, food, clubs etc). So the second part of this little Ohrid travel guide will lead us through millenia of continuous civilization, overlapped on what we now know as the old town. Let’s start, thus, the tour of the town, and I’ll be your guide for its whole duration.

First step is to arm ourselves with a map of the town. Because I’m a big fan of maps I find on the internet, I recommend you to print this map and take it with you. In Ohrid I identified four main attractions that you shouldn’t miss: the old town (situated on a hill), the port, the Riviera (a low, asphalted waterfront) and Carsija (the main walking & shopping street). All four unite, according to the map, at the entrance in the harbour (the central area of the city), where we’ll start climbing to the old town. Don’t forget to bring comfortable shoes, something to cover your head and a bottle of water (if you’re visiting during the summer), your camera for taking pictures and your attention to listen to the history and legends. 🙂

Ohrid Old Town seen from the Riviera

Ohrid Old Town seen from the Riviera

Ohrid is a town both old and new, as the archaeological diggings brought to the surface proofs that it existed as a town ever since the 4th century AD. Active life never ceised to exist until today, when we find inhabited dwellings all over the perimeter of the old town. At the end of the 3rd century – beginning of the 2nd century, the Roman domination was installed here, in Lychnidos, as the town was called back then. Two sets of walls were built to defend the town, as it was included on the Via Egnatia route which connected the Roman Empire to Byzantium (it stretched between nowadays Albania and Turkey). The first stop of our route is made exactly on the spot where in Roman times was the first access gate (the Lower Gate) to the town. Here we can see, through a whole in the pavement, covered by a grate, a portion of Via Egnatia, as it was brought to light by archaeologists. It is said that visitors of the town were stopped at this gate, controlled, and then from here were sent to a nearby church (still visible today), where they were held in quaratine for some time. If they survived the quarantine, it meant they were healthy and could, thus, enter the town.

Ohrid port

Ohrid port

We continue our stroll through narrow, picturesque streets, in an area with many welcoming bars and boutiques, through passages where we have to beware of cars (I told you the old town is inhabited, so we’ll receive throughout our journey evidence that we’re visiting a living town). We get to the Archaeology Museum in Ohrid (house of the Robevi family), next to which is the National Workshop for Handmade Paper. Here you’ll be shown the process through which the paper is created exclusively from water and certain wood pieces (without any chemical products), from the angle at which the tree must be cut to how the final product is pressed and dried. In the same workshop you can see a copy of Gutenberg’s press and you can buy various souvenirs (Ohrid drawings, post cards, photo albums, paper bags etc). As everywhere in the old town, here too one can pay directly in euro.

As we get out from the paper workshop, exactly in front of our eyes lies a house with a special architecture. The lower side (the ground floor) is narrower, usually dressed in brick, while the upper floor is wider, being painted in white, with contrasting, dark windows. The reason why this type of construction was used here couldn’t be any more practical. As families inhabiting these houses grew larger, they needed more space, but they couldn’t widen the base of the house so that they wouldn’t disturb street circulation, so they enlarged the surface of the first floor. This architectural style, typical for Ohrid, is under UNESCO protection since the ‘80s, so all houses build in the town since town fall under the same pattern.

Traditional architectural style

Traditional architectural style

A local legend says that, in the Roman period, in Ohrid were 365 curches, one for each day of the year. Though nowadays there aren’t so many left, I still couldn’t see all of them in one holiday, so I had to come back (this is how I trick myself into returning to Ohrid, and it has functioned so far, as I’ve been to this beautiful town four times until now, once per season). Jokes apart, the reason why there aren’t so many churches left is the Turkish occupation (starting the 14th century), which destroyed them or turned them into mosques. The most impressive surviving church is St Sophia Cathedral, dating from the 10th century, the oldest church in Ohrid. The Ottomans transformed it too in a mosque and covered many of its icons with white paint. After the departure of the Turks and the religious edifice was turned back in a church, part of the initial paintings were brought back to light. Among these painting, we remark a unique, special icon, which shows baby Jesus inside an egg, in the arms of Virgin Mary. But there are more impressive stories connected to this cathedral. In time, one of its walls inclined very prominently, risking to collapse. So that the icons on the wall won’t be destroyed during works at the wall, the paintings have been removed from it and glued to some sort of canvas. The wall was successfully straightened, but the canvas is now placed in front of it (not bound to it), so that if you touch it with your hand, you’ll feel it moving.

Next stop is at the Ancient Theatre, but till then we have to pass through an enduro test – a pretty hard climb on cobblestone streets. We’ll experience first hand the agony of the soldiers of Tsar Samuil when they built the fortress that looks over the town. As they had to carry large stones for the fortress from the base of the hill to its top, they used to cry – Oh, what a hill! – Oh, hill! As hill in Macedonian is rid, their cry – Oh, rid! gave the name of the town as we know it. But it’s definitely worth the effort, as once you get to the Ancient Theatre you can rest in its tribunes. The theatre is of Greek origin (semicircle shape, rows in front of the scene, used for artistic purposes), and it shouldn’t be mistaken to the Roman amphitheatre (tall building, circle shaped, rows around the arena, used for gladiator fights, like the Colosseum). The Ohrid theatre was built around 200 BC for theatre, music and poetry shows. However, during the Roman occupation, it was used for gladiator fight, then becoming the place were Christians were executed. Once the Romans left the area, the locals covered the theatre with earth in an attempt to bury and forget their long sufferings. It wasn’t until 1980 that the theatre was found and unearther, being given back to the artistic circuit.

Ancient Theatre in Ohrid

Ancient Theatre in Ohrid

Nearby you can also see the town’s Upper Gate, where important archaeological artifacts were found. Close to the gate is an impressive monastic complex which includes an icon gallery, the church of Holy Mother of God Peribleptos (built at the end of the 13 century, which holds interior frescoes by important Byzantine painters), a bell tower, the Museum of Slavic Culture and several other churches.

Upper gate

Upper gate

As we’re already high above the town, we start seeing the lake at our feet, through houses and trees. We reach the archaeological site of Plaosnik and St. Clement Church, where we hear stories of the Slavic culture. In the beginning, Orthodoxism was disseminated in Greek, Latin or Hebrew, three languages hard to learn by the local population, occupied by the slaves in the 6th century. In the 9th century, in Thessaloniki were born the brothers Cyril and Methodius, later important Christian missionaries, who created the first Slavic alphabet (Glagolitic). They had several apprentices, two of whom, Naum and Clement, reached Ohrid. Here, the latter perfected the alphabet of his teachers and created the Cyrillic alphabet, named like this in honour of St Cyril. Beside his works of Christianizing the Macedonians, St Clement translated the Bible and started the first university in Ohrid, where more that 3500 people were taught. Many of these became Christan missionaries and reached the Balkanic Peninsula and Russia, where they introduced the Cyrillic writing. St Clement asked to be buried on the site of his university, and this s how the church bearing his name was built. In the Ottoman period, the church was destroyed to make place to a mosque. The remains of St Clement were moved to a different church in order to be saved from destruction, but, on the way, people responsible for moving them stole the saint’s bones (whom they believed was a miracle-maker), leaving only bone from a hand and a bone from a leg. In the same time, the Turkish pasha who was in charge with destroying the church regretted having to demolish a religious sanctuary to make place to another so, in order to pay for his sin, built next to the mosque a kitchen for the poor. His tomb can still be seen inside the church’s courtyard. At the end of the Turkish occupation, the church was rebuilt and the remains of St Clement were brought back. During excavations in the area, other descoveries were made: 3 Christian basilicas and human remains that prove the existance of a hospital in Clement’s time. Stop for a second at the souvenir shop and enjoy a Turkish coffee (with a bonus cube of Turkish delight) on its terrace.

From Plaosnik we climb to Tsar Samuil’s Fortress. Don’t expect to see castles or other sorts of constructions. The fortress only means the walls of the fortress, which offer you an excelent view over the old town and the lake. Bring your oxygen tanks up as you’ll probably be left breathless! While you’re up on the walls, here’s another legend – a scary one – about Tsar Samuil of Bulgaria, the one who managed to hold his state far from the Byzantine threat for half a century. In 1014 took place the battle of Kleidon (Clidium), where Bulgarians suffered a crushing defeat in front of the Byzantines. Over 15,000 Bulgarian soldiers were captured and Basil II of Byzantium ordered that they were blinded. He allowed only 1 in 100 soldiers not to have their eyes pulled out, so that they could lead the others home. At the sight of his soldiers, slowly walking towards home, holding their elbows, Samuil guessed what happened and suffered a heart attacked.

Inside Tsar Samuil's Fortress

Inside Tsar Samuil’s Fortress

Horror stories apart, we start our descent through the forest, on the path, until we reach St John Caneo Church, one of the most beautiful in Ohrid, excellently situated on a cliff, at the edge of the lake. It’s the first result in Google Images search for Ohrid, so I won’t tell you any more info on it, except for the fact that the name Caneo comes from the fishermen village nearby, which we cross on our way back to the port. We’ll also cross a small, narrow and picturesque beach, the perfect option for a relaxing day. After taking several winding streets, we get back to St Sophia Cathedral and then to the port. If you’re thirsty (or exhausted), I recommend you to stop in one of the bars on the edge of the lake, close to the harbour. And then we’re back where we left from!

*There are fees for entering St Sophia Cathedral, Tsar Samuil’s Fortress and St Clement Church. I don’t remember the exact costs, but they’re around 100 denars per person (a total of approx. 5 euro for all).

I hope you liked my tour of the old town and I advise you to make it accompanied by a local guide (I can recommend an extremely nice one). Until the third part of this travel guide, start dreaming of Ohrid! 🙂

Other useful articles from my Ohrid Travel Guide series:

Ohrid Travel Guide. Part I: The Road

Ohrid Travel Guide. Part III: The Lake


3 thoughts on “Ohrid Travel Guide. Part II: The Old Town

  1. Pingback: Ohrid Travel Guide. Part III: The Lake | Dana's Boots

  2. Pingback: Ohrid Travel Guide. Part I: The Road | Dana's Boots

  3. Pingback: Ohrid Travel Guide. Part IV: Saint Naum | Dana's Boots

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