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New Europe

Day Twenty-eight: Ohrid

Michael Palin - New EuropeSlight feeling of déją-vu this morning when I discover that our hotel is located on Quay Marshal Tito. The great man clearly had a thing about lakes for he had a palatial summer home here, to match the one at Bled in Slovenia, Ohrid and Bled virtually marking the eastern and western limits of his Yugoslavia.

For good measure, there's a formidable fortress overlooking the lake here too. Its sandy-brown walls girdle nearly 2 miles of hilltop. It was built by Samoil, a Bulgarian who, after his armies wrested his country away from Byzantine control, was crowned king of Macedonia with Ohrid as his capital and borders that stretched over most of the Balkans. It proved to be one of the world's least resilient empires, lasting a mere twenty years before the armies of Byzantium won their land back. After their defeat in battle, Samoil's army was systematically blinded on the orders of the Emperor Vasilius, leaving one eye for every hundred men, to enable them to find their way back home.

I meet up with Kaliopi Bukle, an Ohrid-born singing star of the former Yugoslavia now married to an elfin-slim, and much younger, actor called Vasil.

She's sensible and down-to-earth as big stars go, mid-thirties, attractive in a homely sort of way, but concerned enough about her looks to have a make-up artist in tow. When I ask her if there are things she misses about Yugoslavia, her brow furrows in concentration then clears almost instantly.

'Smells!'

She doesn't immediately elaborate so I'm left wondering if this is literally what she misses or some kind of metaphor.

'I'm missing the smell of the old time in Yugoslavia. When I think about the things I love in my life, everything has his smell.'

She laughs rather sweetly and apologises for her English. (Why should she?
I know only one word of Macedonian: zdravo, hello.) When she goes on she's thankfully off the smells and onto more pragmatic ground.

'It was a different thing singing for twenty million people then, and two million people today.'

This is the same nostalgic refrain I'd heard from Lado in Slovenia and the Croatian captain on the boat from Dubrovnik to Durrės. And I don't think it was just about making money, but more an assertion that whatever might have been wrong with Yugoslavia, it was artistically and culturally a better place then than now.

We walk around the Mesokastro, the Old Town, beginning at a gnarled and stooped old plane tree which has supposedly been hanging in there for 900 years. They know it as the Cinar tree and it's the symbol of the city of Ohrid. Up the hill, past a few well-restored old houses with storeys attractively cantilevered out one above the other, is the amphitheatre, not as big as the one in Durrės, but impressive enough to show how important Ohrid was to the Romans. Once we've done very old things there isn't a lot to see. Modern Ohrid is undistinguished and scarcely does justice to the beauty of its situation.

We end up at a taverna by the waterfront.

My eye is drawn irresistibly to the lake. It's magnetically attractive, especially today when fast-scudding clouds and wind-rumpled water combine to create a shimmering, constantly changing play of light and shade.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twenty-eight: Ohrid
  • Country/sea: Macedonia
  • Place: Ohrid
  • Book page no: 67

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