Friday 16 September 2016

Overwhelmed in Ohrid

I left you in Kotor wondering if I was going to get out of there, and whether a bus would arrive. The suspense was maintained for at least another half hour, before it turned up; clearly late because it had come straight out of the 1970s. Comfort, style, fashion - all of those buses were going elsewhere. Still, there were no annoying chaps, it was quiet, clean and I was on my way. I'd actually had a very pleasant time in Kotor, a lovely lady called Tracy had given me use of her shower so I was fresh for the 10 hours. We'd shared a beer and compared Balkan notes so it just goes to show that delays whilst travelling aren't necessarily all bad. 

All things considered the journey wasn't bad. Not for the faint hearted, delicate, or easily tired. Which is why I arrived in Ohrid feeling like a teddy bear which had been through a spin cycle. My first experience of Albania was endless curling mountain roads, a bright moon, a dark sky and cold which froze the breath. On a 2am comfort break, one touching episode was the kindness of people on the bus to a polite dog; clearly famished, quivering and nervous he hoovered up every crumb of bread offered. The other memorable episode was the kind Singaporean promising to hold the bus for me as I was last in the queue for the loo - the sympathetic look he gave me when he came out of there told me everything about the cleanliness. Character building...and germs are good, right?! 

My presence on the bus was clearly a matter of some debate and I'm not sure if a bet was won or lost. A lady, who was returning to Ohrid from a holiday in Montenegro asked me where I was from, and a number of people said 'aaaah' in that relieved 'we would never have guessed' way. My new colouring is confusing everyone, not to mention an ability to be friendly. Not a normal Brit apparently. Ok so my warmth didn't extend as far as hugging the guy at an Ohrid garage/service station, but the open and clean toilet was incredibly welcome. 'Gdje je WC' is pretty much the best Croatian/Macedonian I've ever learnt. 

Where was I? Ah yes Macedonia.  Don't be fooled by the Albanian excursion, it's better than coming to Macedonia via Kosovo, so I'm told. It was 5am by the dark deserted bus station, on a wide main road in a strange country. I had no idea where I was going and I was being pestered about a room by an elderly man on a bicycle. Armed with my best 'ne hvala, imam sobi' and google maps I headed into the old part of town. Inevitably the winding roads on the map translated into a steep climb, and a walk through a quiet park. I paused at the top; the pink light was coming over the hills and a call to prayer sounded up from the new town. I was later to discover that these three-hundred-year old mosques were mere new comers to the religious mix of the town. The dreamy atmosphere of the place would have been very much in evidence, even without the sleepless high I was experiencing. 

I entered the town through the ancient and very narrow stone gate, and the fortress rose up to the right of me. A man sweeping the streets looked as if he knew the area and I asked him the whereabouts of 27a ulica ilidenska... again I thanked the language fairies for being able to understand his answer. My host was thankfully waiting for my message as I was arrived and he welcomed me and made coffee. This was the start of a firm friendship, once again, the warmth of people was to leave me totally charmed. After promising me a tour of the city, and pointing out the 4th century basilica mosaics unearthed at the end of his tiny street, he left me to fall face down on the biggest bed I've ever seen. 

The sciatic nerve which had been brewing a storm for a few days finally broke that morning and it has made anxiety of the non-arrival of buses fade into the background. In short, it's been agony for the past 24 hours, leaving me enjoying ibruprofen inspired sofa rest all yesterday morning. I was supposed to be in Durrës but frankly I was going nowhere. My kind host wouldn't let me stay on my own in misery, and after a trip to the colourful food market for fruit, invited me to make myself as comfortable as possible whilst he mended a load of iPhones. I chortled at him as he performed delicate operations on dead technology, saying he was destroying my illusions of what was inside my phone. Surely it's all witchcraft, not shiny odd shaped parts?

However for that first day, it didn't stop me from enjoying a slap up brunch with mandatory homemade rakija, walking all around the captivating little town, getting a proposal of marriage from an elderly guy in speedos on the beach, climbing King Samuel's 10th century fortress, talking opera and Prodigy in the ancient amphitheatre, admiring the truly astonishing newly cleaned frescos in St Mary Peribleptos, and boggling over the recently unearthed mosaics from the early Christian era. 

All I can say is, if you enjoyed Pompeii, Macedonia has its very own smaller version and it's just as impressive and well worth a visit. Finally hunger and thirst caught up with us, and over beer (for me) and Italian brandy (for him) I said I felt guilty for keeping him out site-seeing all afternoon. Apparently he doesn't have many guests that are art history- music- archeology- culture- foody- nuts  so he was just happy to see someone fall for the town he also loves. 

That evening was unwisely for my back  - in hindsight  - spent on a high stool in a cool bar. However nothing can detract from the feeling of this place; the ancient spirits of nature have been here for thousands of years. The classical mosaics whispered of the wild and domestic animals that lived here and were a part of everyday life. The goats, pigeons, pheasants, wild cats, horses, deer, and of course, the fish. Although the landscape has seen such terrible human struggles, still the mountains and water teem with life that is as familiar today as it was then. Everyone should experience the sun setting over Lake Ohrid just once in their lives, and just say thank you for the experience. That's clearly why there are so many churches here... 

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