After telling my mum that I’ll treat her to dinner by the lake, I start to panic. She picks out a low-lit waterside restaurant where the tables are dressed in white linen, the waiting staff sport bow ties and waistcoats, and lobster is on the menu…
And when the bill comes, my eyes do widen in disbelief – three courses each and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon rings up at just £56.
This turns out to be typical of Lake Ohrid, a little-known spot in landlocked North Macedonia.
The value for money is just one of a long list of its lures.
The Balkans destination – largely overlooked by UK tourists – is swimming in history, pin-up pretty, and a surprising rising star of the wine world.
Sarah Holt travels to Lake Ohrid, a little-known spot in landlocked North Macedonia
Its main town – also called Ohrid – is fascinating. My mum and I join a walking tour that overruns by two hours because our guide, Vlado, has so much to say about its history.
He shows us the city gates that were originally built in the 4th Century BC; he tells us about the 14th Century ‘hospital churches’ where plague patients were quarantined; he introduces us to the 18th Century townhouses that were built in inverted pyramidal shapes to give their inhabitants extra space; he takes us to the Hellenistic amphitheatre that was discovered accidentally in the 1980s; and he guides us inside the 13th Century Church of Our Lady Most Glorious, nicknamed the Sistine Chapel of Macedonia for its intricate ceiling frescoes.
We’re staying at the 130-room Unique Resort & Spa, a 20-minute lakeside walk from the Old Town. Backed by fir-fuzzed mountains, it’s in a pin-drop quiet part of Ohrid, yet close enough to the bustle of the centre to keep things interesting. It’s fully booked during our stay, but we never struggle to find a sun lounger by the pool.
The lake’s main town – called Ohrid (above) – is ‘fascinating’. Sarah writes: ‘My mum and I join a walking tour that overruns by two hours because our guide, Vlado, has so much to say about its history’
Prehistoric: Sarah sails past the Bay of Bones (above), a replica of a stilted, over-the-water settlement that existed in prehistoric times
Our history lesson continues the next day, during a boat trip along the east shore of the lake. We sail past the Bay of Bones, a replica of a stilted, over-the-water settlement that existed in prehistoric times, and visit the hilltop Monastery of Saint Naum where murals depict the miracles performed by the 10th Century missionary.
It’s during this boat trip that mum and I comment on how untouched much of the land around Ohrid is. The entire south-east shore of the lake is edged by the Galicica National Park – an 87 sq mile ellipse of forest that’s latticed with walking trails.
Novice walkers might feel more confident taking a guide to explore this landscape, as the trails aren’t all well signposted, but more experienced hikers can navigate tracks that lead to 5,900 ft mountain peaks and unpeopled plateaus that are perfect for wild camping.
Sarah visits the hilltop Monastery of Saint Naum (above) and finds that it’s embellished with murals
A beautiful mural in the Monastery of Saint Naum
As pretty hopeless hikers, we find another way of getting out into the greenery of Lake Ohrid – a visit to the Monastery Winery. Set among the hazel, fir and beech trees at the end of a narrow track, it is exactly as its name suggests – a monastery that produces wine and offers tours and tastings.
Sitting beside the purring stream that is used to cool the wine tanks in summer, we try a floral muscat, a semillon with a hint of pear, and a chocolaty vranac and graze on a platter of cheeses, meats and traditional dips such as ajvar – made from smoked red peppers and aubergine.
Later in our trip, keen to find out more about the country’s wines, we venture to Villa and Winery Mal Sveti Kliment, a winery and bar in the Old Town. Run by experts Almir and Elena – of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust regulatory board – this place is a library of North Macedonian wines.
Holy water: One morning, Sarah takes a stroll to the 13th Century St John’s Church (above), which overlooks Lake Ohrid
Sarah stays at the Unique Resort & Spa (pictured), which is a 20-minute lakeside walk from Ohrid’s Old Town
The pair introduce us to a crisp new sparkling from the Vardar River Valley region as well as the winery’s own salmon-pink rosé, which is made from the ancient pamid grape variety in clay amphora pots underground. It tastes like a delicious bowl of summer strawberries.
To clear our heads the following morning, we follow the boardwalk that clings to the cliffs by the side of the lake, just beyond Ohrid’s centre. We trace the wooden walkway up to a hilltop where cigar-shaped cypress trees stand sentry over 13th Century St John’s Church and take a rest on a picnic bench looking out over the 138 sq mile lake.
We can see Albania in the distance. I muse that Lake Ohrid may not be at the forefront of the minds of most UK tourists just yet, but the experiences we’ve had ensure it’s been indelibly inked into mine.