Thursday, December 02, 2010

Low Season

Nobody would ever mistake Macedonia for a top, international, tourist destination. It's only tourist draw of any note is the town of Ohrid and its eponymous lake. The town was once the capital of the Bulgarian empire under Tsar Samuil (although, in true Balkan fashion, official Macedonian texts are highly nationalistic and make no reference to Bulgaria and call him the emperor of Macedonia) and there are many old churches dotted around, some dating back as far as the 4th or 5th centuries. Unfortunately the town, which has tons of potential, on the shores of an azure lake, with windy, cobbled streets hugging hilly contours, but the historic centre has been (perhaps irrevocably) blighted by concrete and the lack of building regulations (or at least their enforcement). Most houses in the old town have been rebuilt extensively in neo-concrete style, and the few that have the original wooden structure are on the verge of collapse with no-one seeming to care.

Winter on lake Ohrid isn't necessarily pleasant, but the moody weather has its own charm. I loved watching the waves crash onto the walkways along the shore.

But it's not about the town. In Ohrid the lake's the star. Even with a leaden November sky the waters were a clear turquoise and the forested mountains dive steeply to its rocky shores creating small rocky coves and pebble beaches. Across on the other side you can make out Albania. And although I didn't go swimming (I actually don't have a pair of swimming trunks with me in a bid to reduce weight) I did a little excursion round the lake to a monastery right on the Albanian border where there are numerous springs. It must be a very popular spot in summer, as the path leading up to it was lined with stalls for 200m, but now they are all boarded up and hibernating awaiting next year's season. It seems like the monks might also have been hibernating as there was no sign of life in the monastery except for a flock of peacocks wandering the grounds. There were signs posted up everywhere warning that peacocks are "harmful for children" (a bit like smoking perhaps?) and I got to thinking that they may be harmful for monks too and had eaten them all in a rabid bird frenzy. Nevertheless, it was a peaceful little place.

The good thing about visiting a place, especially one that is quite touristy, in the purgatory of super-low season is that, although half the places are closed and there is an eerie, sorry atmosphere surrounding everything, the supply of accommodation far outstrips the demand. You therefore don't need to put much effort into finding a place to sleep and can shop around for good deals, playing different sellers off against each other. As soon as I had stepped off the bus in Ohrid I was approached by a guy wanting to rent me an apartment. At €10 it was very good value for money, but you should always shop around; and in the end I was able to get an apartment in a very central location in Ohrid, with enough room to sleep 4 comfortably, self-catering and satellite TV (although most of the channels were from the Balkans) for €7.5 a night. And now a couple of days later I've managed to get a 50% reduction, down to €5, for the place I'm staying in in Bitola by offering I sleep on the floor and that way they wouldn't need to change the sheets (I have a mat and sleeping bag after all).

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