Balkans 2014 Diary #7; The Time I Went To An Ancient Monastery And There Was A Swastika Mosaic (Ohrid)

Lake Ohrid is a little bit pretty.

Lake Ohrid is a little bit pretty. (Taken from walls of Samuil’s Fortress)

30th September, 12:25
Little Big House, Thessaloniki

Been a bit lax with updates recently. So, with no further ado, my Macedonian adventures went thus…

OHRID (5 nights): One of only 28 places in the world that are UNESCO sites for both natural beauty and culture, it’s a south-western city on a lake, near the Albanian border, about 3 1/2 hours on the bus from the capital city, Skopje. Unfortunately it’s also 3 1/2 hours from Pristina to Skopje, despite there being only 80km between the two, which meant that – including the hour wait at Skopje bus station (not the most welcoming place in the world) – it took 8 hours to get there. This gave me plenty of time to replay a harrowing flashback of a man kicking a dog entirely unprovoked at Pristina bus station as the bus was leaving, and contemplate why there was a bus on fire next to one of the mountainside roads we were travelling on. It was dark upon arrival, but happily a taxi to the hostel was just 100 denar (£1.29).

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Burning bus.

On entering Sunny Lake Hostel, there was no receptionist. Seeing a free computer and football on the TV, I made myself at home, doing all the important things like checking Facebook and, err… checking Facebook again. I should have known that I’d be in line for a mocking from the owner for this given that the WiFi password was “logoutandgoout”, but it still took me by surprise when Gyoko – one of the two brothers who run the hostel – came in and made fun of my internet addiction. However once I mentioned that I loved football, I was pretty much his best friend forever. Every time there was football on in the evening, he would come upstairs and ask if I wanted to watch the match, although he never watched one game at a time, constantly jumping between several games from various countries depending on what he’d bet on.

The hostel's football bantz. Pretty sure they've got Chelsea and Man U the wrong way round though...

The hostel’s football bantz. Pretty sure they’ve got Chelsea and Man U the wrong way round though…

Several other hostellees joined us to watch the game(s) and eat pizza (with yet again more toasted sesame seeds on top – still not a fan): Mike, an affable German; Ming, from Taiwan, who was extremely giggly; Scouser (whose name I never actually found out), who resembled Will from The Inbetweeners if Will were a Liverpudlian who smoked and liked football. A group of Gyoko’s friends also watched, as they too had bets on. Gyoko occasionally bridged the gap between Macedonians and hostellees when he wasn’t being frustrated by AC Milan’s inability to finish off Empoli having already come back from being 2-0 down. Ming had bought bottle of Macedonian white wine and offered it to everyone, but only I was game enough to try it. And a good thing too, because it was the best wine I’ve had.

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Excellent Macedonian wine.

Once we’d finished the anticlimactic Milan game (Gyoko’s accumulator being killed by their inability to score a winner), we belatedly tuned into the epic Liverpool v Middlesborough game, which ended 14-13 on penalties. For some reason, despite being a supposedly dedicated ‘Pool fan, Scouser had gone to bed. He was in the bed beneath me, as I had been condemned to 5 nights in a top bunk with dangerous steps (the bottom one was really far off the ground) that shook a lot. Joy.

View from the port.

View from the port.

One squeaky, shaky top bunk sleep later and it was time to look at all the historical shit Ohrid had to offer. However having already descended a million steps to get to the port, I realised I had no map and no idea where anything was, and decided to renege on my plans so I could successfully navigate the tiny, meandering back streets the next day. The port was pretty though, surrounded by gardens, statues and a selection of cafes and restaurants, while the sunshine made the lake look stunning. That said, when passing through the shade the temperature seemed to drop by about 20 degrees.

As I headed towards the harbour itself, my path was blocked on several occasions by men advertising boat rides. While I did want to take a boat ride at some point – specifically, the one to Sveti Naum, a monastery right on the Albanian border, which would only cost me 600 denar (£8/10 euro) – I was not prepared to do it on my first day. The men weren’t keen to take no for an answer, but when I insisted I’d be back another day they finally let me go on my way so I could take pictures of the harbour, lake, and a little kid turning off his dad’s motorbike next to the lakefront. Well, technically he was running back towards his dad having turned it off already, because I was too slow to get my camera ready. #prayforjen

Heading away from the lake I found the main street, and settled down at a restaurant serving dirt cheap goulash with tonnes of complimentary bread (140 denar/under £2). There was a trend for local restaurants to have a number of whole chickens cooking in an outside cooker, the glass covers of which allowed you to see them spinning round and round on skewers, glistening with grease – both pretty gross and totally hypnotic. It was only one-upped in grossness by the obligatory clouds of cigarette smoke coming from the men smoking and gambling at the table opposite mine; I shudder to imagine the lung cancer rates in the Balkans, because literally everyone smokes here. Literally. Everyone.

St Clement.

Statue of St Clement near the port.

Second-hand smoke-induced lung cancer notwithstanding, I decided to see if I could find a beach. I’ll save you the suspense of wondering if I could and admit that I couldn’t, but I did find a concreted area by the water where people were sunbathing and swimming (a surprise, as I’d heard it was too cold to swim), and joined the sunbathers by staying there until the sun began to dip down. As I went to leave, I indulged in a quick paddle, before noticing a small rowboat approaching the step I was standing on. The old man at the oars began to shout at me in Macedonian, changing language after working out from my puzzled expression that I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. “Where you from?” he asked. “England,” I said. His unexpected response to this was to ask if he could kiss my hand. “Err, ok then,” I replied, nonplussed by this complete non-sequitur. So he did. And guess what? He’d just been trying to lure me in so he could flog me a boat ride. FFS.

Getting bored of pictures of the blue, blue water? This is a gratuitous picture of the concrete 'beach' I found.

Getting bored of pictures of the blue, blue water? This is a gratuitous picture of the concrete ‘beach’ I found.

Rejecting him, completely heartbroken by his caddish ruse (read: relieved he hadn’t pushed me into the water with his oar), I tried to return to the hostel. I say ‘tried to’ because the labyrinthine maze of tiny roads in old town Ohrid is very confusing to navigate when there aren’t really any distinguishing features between them, and I had no map to help me. Frustratingly I knew I was nearby, but that one right turning was eluding me. Eventually a local managed to convey the gist of “Where are you going?” to me, despite not speaking English, so I brandished a hostel leaflet and he chuckled to himself and led me about 100m up the road I was already on and up a little side road nestled away out of sight. Lo and behold, there was a garage bearing the Sunny Lake Hostel banner.

Parkland around the Plaošnik archeological area.

Parkland around the Plaošnik archeological area.

Afraid of getting lost again, I spent the rest of the evening inside, where I was reunited with Maike, one of the Mostar sniper tower crew. We caught up and it turned out she’d been on a similar circuit to me, even staying in the same hostel as I did in Pristina (leaving the day I arrived), but going to Skopje before Ohrid. [This is the sensible route. I only went to Ohrid first because I needed to go back to Skopje to get to Thessaloniki conveniently.] As she was going onto Albania next but had accidentally bought a return student ticket, she sold me the second half of it for 200 denar. Even though I’m not a student, they were hardly going to ask me about it… *fingers crossed*

Church frescoes

Church frescoes

After that it was time to join Gyoko and some of the other hostellees for another round of flicking between football matches on the TV, but tragically I arrived downstairs just too late for pizza, so ended up subsisting on paprika crisps all evening. (To be fair, paprika crisps are one of life’s great pleasures, so it could have been worse on my palate.) The Dutch girl who’d just arrived proclaimed that her 4-cheese pizza was one of the best she’d ever had, a notion poo-poohed by an English guy who had also just arrived. In the fine tradition of British men abroad, he ate like an absolute animal, rolling up his pizza slices so he could stuff them into his fat gob in one go, only taking a breather to complain about how terrible it was as the rest of us stared at him in horror. To distract us all from the carnage of his eating habits, we watched Borussia Dortmund take on Stuttgart, which once again saw the team that Gyoko backed (Dortmund) come back from a 2 goal deficit to draw, and I shared a bottle of gross Zlaten Dab beer with Mike, the German guy I’d met the night before. (Not to be confused with German Maike who I’d just been reunited with.) How can people drink this stuff??

Holy Mary Perybleptos church

Holy Mary Perybleptos church

On Day 3 it was finally time to learn about history and religion and see ruins and do touristy things and stuff. It turned out that the hostel was actually really close to the Holy Mary Perybleptos church, so I turned up, duly paid the 100 denar entry fee and had a gander at all the old, faded frescoes on the walls. Turning down an annex to the right of the church, there was a crucifix, on which was mounted a painted, sorrowful Jesus. The effect was somewhat negated by the fact that he had been adorned with a flowery garland more suited to an 18 year old tripping balls at Bestival.

Jesus and festival-goer garland.

Jesus and festival-goer garland.

Next on the list of historical attractions was Samuil’s Fortress, looking down over the city atop a hill. I thoroughly trolled the poor guy at the ticket office by paying for a 30 denar ticket with a 1000 denar note, because I had fuck-all change having squandered it on a much-needed sugar boost from a Snickers. He eventually managed to drum up the change for me, bless’im, and I was finally free to admire the view/climb the walls/take pictures/whatever else you do at a pile of ruined walls.

Samuil's Fortress.

Inside of Samuil’s Fortress.

Next up: Plaošnik, the archaeological site further down the hill. First was the Basilica, i.e. even more ruins, this time mostly in mosaic form. Not much to see here, so I moved on rapidly. Yeah, I know it’s nearly 2000 years old, but if there’s naught to see or read or hear to give me any context, I’m just looking at a bunch of old tiles. If I wanted to do that for hours I’d play Mahjong with my mum.

Basilica mosaic.

Basilica mosaic.

Second was St Panteleimon, a monastery where the Cyrillic alphabet was allegedly invented. It is possibly the prettiest building I’ve seen (I’m a sucker for two-tone brickwork). As I walked down the path to it, I was accosted by an eccentric-looking man in a pink cardigan. He was very tall and thin, hair plastered to his head with sweat. For some reason, I immediately assumed he was German. He began chattering away at me, asking me to listen to him for a few minutes. What followed in those few minutes was a curious mix of theology and philosophy about how God was not just a father but a mother, as well as a brief history of Ohrid (apparently the city was known as ‘the city of churches’ and that the lake was known as ‘the well of Europe’), which was quite interesting. He abruptly cut off from this to ask if I would pay him. “Errr… ok,” I said, a bit taken aback.

St Panteleimon monastery.

St Panteleimon monastery.

Satisfied, he told me that a terrible earthquake had destroyed the city in the 6th century and that the monastery had been rebuilt, before being replaced by a mosque in the 15th century when the Ottoman Empire conquered the area, and replaced again. [Wikipedia reliably informs me it’s only been excavated and rebuilt in the last few decades, which explains why it was in such pristine condition.]

Seashell mosaic in the monastery.

Seashell mosaic of the monastery, in the monastery.

Then he moved us on to the Baptistry, to the left of the building. Looking at the mosaic on the ground, I saw what was undeniably a swastika. Slave (his name, according to Jane who I met on the bus in Montenegro) gave me some philosophical mumbo jumbo about how we were not the swastika or the ground, but we were the cross (pointing at the mosaic of the cross next to the swastika). I was unable to work out why there was a centuries-old swastika mosaic and what on earth it had to do with Christianity, and Slave was unfortunately unable to provide any insight into this. [If anyone has any ideas, please comment below. I want to get to the bottom of this mystery.]

SWASTIKA MOSAIC

SWASTIKA MOSAIC

This, along with being told on several occasions by my unconventional tour guide that “we all know that <element of Christian doctrine> is true…”, made me feel both amused and awkward as an atheist. Slave was pretty big on his faith and probably would have been puzzled by the notion of atheism. In any case, he seemed to have finished the tour so I gave him 300 denar, not wanting to be rude and underpay him, and he left quite cheerfully to enlighten others.

A very cheesy lasagne and Skype with my gerbils (one of whom tried to gnaw my dad’s iPad) brought Thursday to a muted end, but Jane was due to arrive on Friday afternoon and we made plans to meet up. We debriefed each other on our adventures over a coffee (her) and mulled wine (me) before accidentally getting sucked into conversation with one of the boat ride vendors, who for some reason thought I was Dutch. Jane agreed that I looked Dutch. Do I look Dutch??

Inside the monastery.

Inside the monastery.

We went walking to the left of the port this time, which showed a very different side of Ohrid. There was a knackered children’s playground here, which reminded Jane of Chernobyl. A family were playing in there and spoke some English, so Jane chatted to them to find out about transport options to Tirana, her next stop. It turned out the dad was a taxi driver, so he tried to flog her a taxi ride… nice try, but unsuccessful.

Playground.

Playground.

Then we came across a ghost town of an area: a set of all but abandoned buildings with lakefront views and a series of columns surrounded by weeds, graffiti and general decay. Taking a closer look, the interiors of the buildings were grand too, but neglected, broken and empty. One was possibly a hotel or a disco, another definitely a restaurant, while one was now a dingy exchange office. Jane dubbed the area “1950s Pompeii”, but we agreed it was an interesting insight into the everyday reality behind the more tourist-groomed exterior of the city. [I posted a photoblog about this the other day if you want all the pictures.] We agreed to meet for dinner the next day, once I’d returned from my boat trip to Sveti Naum.

1950s Pompeii.

I yoyo-ed between hostel and restaurant in the evening, returning from my pizza to find a load of Somersby bottles in the hostel; ironic given that I’d just been complaining to Jane about not having had any cider for a week. Obviously I asked Gyoko how much a bottle was, to which his response was, “For you, Jen? Free.” (Told you he was my New Best Friend.) I drank it while watching Casino Royale with a Swedish guy, which led to the following conversation:

Me: This is a good film.
Swede: I’ve never seen it.
Me: I’ve never seen any of the old ones, actually.
Swede: But you’re English!
Me: James Bond is hardly English. If he were a real English guy, he’d be too busy sinking shots in Spoons and banging some munter with his beer goggles on to do any spying. None of that Martini shit, he’d be downing Jaegerbombs.
[Bond crashes his car.]
Me: Now THAT’S how a normal English night out ends.

Just make me head of English tourism or something already.

Cool van.

Cool van near 1950s Pompeii.

The weather had been pretty cold in the evenings, to the point where I couldn’t sleep because my feet were freezing and had had to borrow socks off my kindly American roommate. Boat Trip Saturday dawned bright and warm… right until I sat on the deck of the boat, at which point the clouds gathered and the temperature plummeted to approximately -200°C. Despite wearing my big woolly jumper, which I’ve been wearing to bed for the last week, I was still practically on the verge of hypothermia. The commentary was all in Dutch and despite my apparently Dutch looks, my sole knowledge of Dutch is the word ‘kutkabouter’. I had no idea what was going on and my metaphorical balls were FREEZING.

I'M ON A BOAT!

I’M (FREEZING TO DEATH) ON A BOAT!

After an hour and a half of icicles on my eyelashes and frosted-over eyeballs, we docked at the Sveti Naum port. Seagulls, my mortal animal enemy (although mosquitoes are running them pretty close at the moment) were swirling en masse, but I was too cold to freak out about them and trotted off to the monastery, hoping it would be warm.

Sveti Naum monastery.

Sveti Naum monastery.

It was warm with the heat of religious pilgrims and tourists, all of whom crammed in to have a look, crossing themselves fervently and leaving 10 denar notes everywhere. Standing in a queue, one by one the people in front of me crossed themselves, put down money and made a praying motion. When it was my turn, I put down a 5 denar coin, looked a bit shifty, and scuttled off. #atheistproblems

Gardens around the monastery area.

Gardens around the monastery area.

While the monastery itself was underwhelming and crowded inside, the exterior was pretty – especially the gardens – and the buildings around it featured chandeliers and crazily vivid frescoes. Some of these paintings were a bit bizarre, like the one of a lion eating a human head. There were no swastika mosaics here though.

  

Best of all, there were loads of peacocks. Peacocks are fit and they know it, strutting around with their amazing plumage and whipping their long necks around. They’re kind of dicks (as the signs ‘PEACOCKS CAN DAMAGE YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN, BEWARE!’ signs testified), but they’re still totally badass. They’re the Kanye Wests of the animal kingdom.

Peacock <3

Peacock ❤

After an unpleasantly dry burger but excellent (and cheap) pina colada at a shack near the Sveti Naum springs – a fetching shade of green – and the tiny beach, it was time to go inside. Except we weren’t allowed back onto the boat for half an hour for some unfathomable reason, so me and three old Dutch men shivered on the harbour. One tried to chat to me and then spent the whole time on the boat (this time inside it) winking at me. Ugh.

Sveti Naum springs.

The evening was a bit more eventful than those previously; Jane and I went to an unassuming-looking pizzeria and decided to pig out with some crepes for pudding. I’d seen them advertised across various countries but, as our Last Supper, it seemed a good way to go out. THEY. WERE. AMAZING. Banana, cream, chocolate cream, and chocolate sauce all in one warm crepe – simple yet effective. Complete mouthgasm. I’m salivating a bit even writing about it.

AMAZING CREPE, 11/10 WOULD EAT AGAIN

AMAZING CREPE, 11/10 WOULD EAT AGAIN

We bid farewell for the last time – she was off to Tirana the next day, and I to Skopje – and I expected to return to the hostel, collect my clean laundry (aah), and have an early night. As it was, Gyoko had snuck off to a party and left Scouser in charge of the hostel. Scouser was a bit unnerved by the responsibility, but decided to own it by helping me look for cider in the secret owners’ lounge (tragically it had all been drunk the night before 😦 ) and let me download Java onto the hostel computer so I could play online Countdown.

The beach by Sveti Naum. Looks nice? Remember: IT WAS FUCKING FREEZING. Not quite so nice.

The beach by Sveti Naum. Looks nice? Remember: IT WAS FUCKING FREEZING. Not quite so nice.

Gyoko returned an hour or so later with his mates. “If you want weed, it’s outside,” he told us. The guys in the lounge shuffled outside, thrilled, but I was still embroiled in the far more badass pastime of anagramming. Drugs? Nah, mate, Countdown’s so much more addictive…

Peacock mosaic at Sveti Naum

Peacock mosaic at Sveti Naum

Was he irresponsible? A bit, sometimes. But he was friendly to guests and hugely helpful – no more so than the next day. Maike’s ticket entitled me to get the 12:45 or 3pm bus to Skopje, but not the 11:45 that I’d made plans to get with some Australian girls. Gyoko kindly drove me to the bus stop for the 12:45 only to find it was full, so I reserved a seat on the next bus for 30 denar (less than 50p) and he drove me back to the hostel, telling me about the stolen bike he’d bought from a Swiss guy for 140 euros that retailed new at over 1000. After twiddling my thumbs for a bit at the hostel, he drove me to the bus station again. What a legend – especially in light of the fact that driving through the Old Town (where the hostel was) involved him having to drive backwards for around 5 minutes because the roads are so tiny you can’t turn around.

Stay tuned for the Skopje instalment – coming to a blog near you!

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