Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

You won’t find any amusement parks in Ohrid. Nor will you find a wild party scene. You can windsurf on Lake Ohrid, but this isn’t the adventure capital of the world, either. There are no aggressive in-your-face touts littering the town’s main square and even the handful of vendors selling Ohrid’s famous pearls along the lakefront promenade sit back in the shade of trees, waiting for potential customers to ask for help.

Maybe Ohrid is this way because the city fathers are smart. Or maybe it hasn’t yet been discovered by mainstream tourism. I had never heard of it before I arrived in Skopje, Macedonia, but shortly thereafter people began suggesting, always in voce sotto, as if it was a secret not to be shared indiscriminately, that I must go to Ohrid.

The crystal clear water of Lake Ohrid, in Ohrid, Macedonia

The crystal clear water of Lake Ohrid, in Ohrid, Macedonia

With no itinerary and a nose for sniffing out off-the-beaten-track destinations, I was only too happy to oblige. I made a reservation for three days at a local guest house and hopped on a bus. A week later, I was still there, trying to tear myself away in order to complete my tour of the Balkans before cold weather set in. I was too content. I worried that the first snow would have to fall before I finally decided to move on. Read More

St. Clement and Panteleimon Church sits high on a bluff overlooking Lake Ohrid in Ohrid, Macedonia. It was built in 893 on the foundation of the early Christian basilica known as Plasonik

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: St Clement and Panteleimon Church sits high on a bluff overlooking Lake Ohrid in Ohrid, Macedonia. It was built in 893 on the foundation of the early Christian basilica known as Plasonik.

Fishermen cast lines from a wooden boardwalk that follows the cliffs surrounding Ohrid Lake in Macedonia

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: Fishermen cast lines from a wooden boardwalk that follows the cliffs surrounding Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. I had never heard of this destination prior to my arrival in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, but from the moment I arrived, everyone insisted I must go to Lake Ohrid. I was so glad I did, as it turned out to be probably my favorite place in the Balkans. I originally planned to spend three days, but simply couldn’t tear myself away for more than a week. Definitely an undiscovered gem.

I desperately needed a break from the city. My travels for the past few months through the Balkans had been fascinating but exhausting – just trying to wrap my brain around the convoluted history of the ex-Yugoslavian countries made my head hurt. Fortunately, Matka Canyon was an easy day trip from Skopje.

I’d learned about the canyon on my very first day in Macedonia. Posters showing gorgeous photos were plastered over the walls of my hostel, and the owner urged me not to miss it. So, after several days of wandering around the squares and sights of Skopje, I hopped on the number 60 public bus, paid my 60 cent fare, and settled back for a relaxing 45-minute ride to the end of the line.

Access to Matka Canyon begins along the Treska River, below a dam that provides hydroelectric power to the city of Skopje

Access to Matka Canyon begins along the Treska River, below a dam that provides hydroelectric power to the city of Skopje

The bus dropped us off below the dam on the Treska River, where I followed a dirt road up past the hydro-power plant. At the dam, the path narrowed to a stone-paved trail carved into the face of soaring cliffs that bracket Lake Treska, said to be the world’s oldest artificial lake. Half an hour later, I rounded a bend and stood before the Monastery of St. Andrews. Built in 1389, it is one of several historic churches, monasteries and old fortresses that can be viewed along the trails. I ducked inside for a gander at the ancient frescoes that adorn its walls, astonished by the deep blue pigment and the remarkable details that have been preserved. Read More

Vrelo Cave on the Treska River in Matka Canyon, near Skopje, Macedonia. Some speculate that it is the deepest underwater cave in the world.

Click on title of post to view photo in large format: Matka Canyon is easily visited during a day trip from Skopje, Macedonia using public transportation. It offers miles of hiking along the deep river formed by damming of the Treska River, as well as trails to three historic monasteries. A restaurant and hotel offer additional amenities, including boat trips to Vrelo Cave, purported to be the deepest underwater cave in the world.

Some mornings, it takes me a moment to remember where I am. It’s a hazard that comes with full-time travel, where every few days I’m in a different city, a different hostel, sometimes even a different country. But after a few moments, the cobwebs dissipate and I’m clear-headed. In Skopje, Macedonia, however, I had a constant feeling of déjà vu.

Neo-classic Roman government buildings on Dimitar Vlahov Walk along the Vardar River in Skopje

Neo-classic Roman government buildings on Dimitar Vlahov Walk along the Vardar River in Skopje

My first explorations took me along the banks of the Vardar River, where a string of government buildings have been constructed of glistening white marble in neo-classic Roman style, right down to their Corinthian-capped columns. Two bridges over the river, the Art Bridge and the Bridge of Macedonian Civilizations, strongly resemble the Charles Bridge in Prague. On the main pedestrian avenue, a giant brass bull sits in front of a shoe shop rather than a stock exchange. A block away, the Porta Macedonia Arch is strikingly similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Read More