Distant shores


Illustration by Tom Jellett

Ian Robert Smith

From: The Australian
September 04, 2010


ON the shores of one of the world’s oldest lakes, I see an elderly man dressed in his underwear. Tanned and fit-looking, with snowy hair, he’s doing squats, touching his toes and performing deep-breathing exercises with exemplary poise. At his feet, lapping water refracts mellow autumn sunshine.

The lake stretches all the way to the smudged cordilleras of distant Albania.

Descending to the cove, I encounter blue-painted wooden boats drawn up on a pebble beach shaded by willows and poplars turning a burnished shade of gold. It’s no wonder, I think as I watch a solitary cloud dissolve, that guidebooks rave about Ohrid, the tourist linchpin of the Republic of Macedonia and its cultural and spiritual heart.

People swim at Ohrid, too, though not necessarily in October. I plunge in to find the water bracing and, for someone accustomed to the sea, surprisingly non-buoyant.

I’m sitting, thawing in the sun, when the man approaches. He has donned clothes. There is a spring in his step. The old question, “Where are you from?” surfaces immediately. When I reply “Australia,” he breaks into a dance. “I lived in Melbourne, Perth. I worked for Yugoslav Airlines.”

The region lies at the crossroads of the Balkan Peninsula, astride its principal thoroughfares linking east and west and the north Aegean with central Europe. Nobody seems to know quite what it is or to whom it belongs.

It was Josip Broz Tito who first conjured a Republic of Macedonia into existence, to reward Macedonians for their sacrifices in the partisan struggle against the Nazis (though some say he wanted to create a buffer against the Bulgarians, who sought the region). Having declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, FYROM occupies hardly more than two-fifths of a greater geographical Macedonia, which embraces a significant portion of northern Greece and extends into Bulgaria and Albania.

Yet Macedonia isn’t just tub-thumping history. The peculiar genius of the place lies in the way the dizzying succession of wars, invasions, rising and falling empires, revolutions and political assassinations have unfolded against a mountainous landscape of extraordinary beauty.

UNESCO-listed Ohrid is a perfect example: spilling down a pine-sheaved promontory to the shores of the lake, cosseted by mountains, its tilted laneways harbour magnificent churches containing some of the finest medieval frescoes in the Balkans.

Looking for churches, I find fishermen. They haunt the waterfront on these brisk early mornings, brewing coffee in the sterns of their boats while spruiking excursions on the lake. The aroma of their coffee infiltrates my nostrils; and as biblical-issue sunbeams lift mist from the lake, unveiling a shimmering expanse of platinum water, the proposition is tempting.

I remain steadfast, ducking into the old town where laneways strewn with fish restaurants, pizzerias and moderately hip cafes enfold me. My goal is St Sofia’s, a massive 11th-century building, its arched upper galleries, open portico and twin octagonal domes dominating a lopsided square. The building was Ohrid’s original cathedral but became a mosque under the Ottomans, who whitewashed over frescoes that, when uncovered in the 1950s, turned out to be among the oldest examples of Byzantine wall painting.

The interior is surprisingly light and airy. Saints and angels trample across lofty vaulting. In garments of plum and persimmon, pale gold and cool viridian green, figures emerge from crowded backgrounds awash in faded indigo. These aren’t the stiff, cartoon-strip characters I’ve seen in other Balkan churches but vigorously painted individuals whose gestures compel attention. Take the 40 martyrs shivering half-naked on their frozen lake. These fellows are, I feel, assuredly in a fix.

Churches and landscape aside, part of the fun of Ohrid is uncovering its layers of history. The town was an important way station on the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road linking the Adriatic with Constantinople and the Black Sea, and has an impressive amphitheatre to prove it. A short stroll away rises the hilltop citadel, built in the 10th century during a spell of Bulgarian hegemony.

The laneways, meanwhile, boast many fine konaks, graceful 19th-century houses with timber-framed balconies that cantilever overhead. Hanging outside to dry, masses of flame-red peppers wait to be made into ajvar, a traditional meze, the closely guarded recipe for which possesses almost mystical connotations.

Mystical, too, is the 13th-century church of St Clement, which stands, picketed with cypress, on a hilltop opposite the castle. I arrive with a group of young Macedonians. We are greeted by a small, dynamic woman, with sunglasses and jet-coloured hair, who ushers us, like children, into the church. A chill rises from the flagstone floor, polished smooth with age. Looking up into the dome, lit by sunlight issuing through arched and recessed windows, I have the sensation of gazing from the bottom of a brightly painted well.

In the stillness that has settled around us I hear the woman draw breath. Then, raising her sunglasses on to her brow to reveal a pair of intense eyes, she begins a passionate discourse in Macedonian of which I understand nothing except the name Giotto, which she repeats several times.

The incomprehensible narrative goes rather well with the paintings. And while I can’t be sure, it is tempting to think the woman is alluding to Ohrid’s influence on the Italian Renaissance. The theory goes that the westward drift of influences from Constantinople — visible in the priceless mosaics in Venice, Ravenna and Palermo — accelerated following the city’s sack by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, when artists decamped to places such as Crete and the Balkans. In novel surroundings their art evolved, shedding centuries of convention, before leaping the Adriatic to inspire the early Italian masters, Giotto among them.

That afternoon I wander through the pine forest on the cape. Here where violet delphiniums line the paths and a resinous tang carries on a breeze that races through the needles, I run into Alex. Clad in a tracksuit, he leads me through the trees, dancing ahead, shadow boxing, laughing.

We pass the house in which he grew up, a solid stone building, then enter the old Turkish quarter where dusty shopfronts, mosques, an outdoor market and unpretentious cafes and grill houses surround the famed Cinar, a gnarled and massive plane tree reputed to be 900 years old.

At a cafe where the menu is scrawled on a blackboard in Turkish, we drink sugary tea out of tulip-shaped glasses and Alex asks me how I’m enjoying Ohrid. He asks if I have been on the lake, and his eyes expand when I admit I have not. He insists I must.

The fishermen are delighted, even though I ask to travel only to the headland at Kaneo, barely 10 minutes away. The sense of watery space is fantastic. Trailing my hand in cold indigo depths, I gaze across at Ohrid and back at forested slopes patched with russet and gold on a palette of greens. Several tour boats materialise, rounding the cape with disco music blaring.

Negotiating a clutch of dinghies moored above their reflections, we put in beneath the 14th-century church of St John perched on the tip of the headland.

The fisherman barely stops his boat as I leap on to a narrow quay backed by a row of houses. A woman is grilling peppers and there are a few tables, all but one of them empty. Soon I’m seated before an expertly grilled trout (not the endangered Ohrid trout but a distant relative) accompanied by salad, fried potatoes and a bottle of local riesling.

Afterwards, I’m lingering over the wine when I notice a movement on the lake. It begins far out but comes steadily landward, a rippling of the waters as if by wind. The odd thing is, there is no wind, only this glittery liquid dancing. I sit back smiling as the first waves slap over the quay, edging towards my sandalled feet.


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