A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Free Alcohol And Other Reasons Why Ohrid Is Europe’s Last Great Unspoiled Place

On a frigid day in January 2003, on the Feast of the Epiphany, dozens of men and boys were waiting to jump into the icy waters of Lake Ohrid. As hundreds of onlookers stood on the shore in Ohrid, Macedonia, an Orthodox priest threw a large cross into the water and the swimmers tore after it in the belief that capturing it would bring them a year of good luck.

One of the great joys of life in the Foreign Service is how it enables you to discover places you’d ordinarily never make it to, not as a tourist but as a local. I had never even heard of Ohrid before joining the Foreign Service, but over the course of a two-year tour in Macedonia, I visited the enchanting lakeside town more than a dozen times. On each visit, I’d make a new discovery – a church I hadn’t noticed before, a different vantage of the lake, a beach club – that kept me coming back to the place that got under my skin more than anywhere else in the Balkans.But it was that first visit in the depths of winter when my wife and I felt certain we were the only foreigners in town that I will always cherish. I had lived in Skopje for three months but both my car and my wife had just arrived in country. We were married twice in the previous nine months – once to get my wife on my travel orders and once for real, but had been living apart, me in Washington and then Skopje, and my wife in Chicago, where she was finishing a graduate program in public health.

We were finally together and I wanted to take her to Ohrid, the place every local person insisted I had to visit. Skopje may be the capital of Macedonia, but Ohrid is the country’s heart – the city that holds a place in every Macedonian’s heart. I was happy to see my old car again, even if it did seem odd that it now had a peculiar looking CD diplomatic plate on it. And the ride along the winding, mostly two-lane road from Skopje to Ohrid was a neat introduction to Macedonian driving culture for both of us.

“People pass on blind curves,” my wife said. “Don’t they care if they die?”

We drove straight to a lakefront promenade just beyond the city’s historic core, with no clue that it was an Orthodox feast day, and saw all the spectators and cross swimmers in their speedos. The competition to get the cross was fierce and the young man who emerged from the water with the prize clutched it like a baby, kissing and fondling it, as friends and relatives swaddled him in blankets and hailed him as a conquering hero. He was the King of Macedonia for a day.

We followed the departing crowd and the trail of gypsy music toward the center of town and found a crowd of people around a huge, bubbling hot cauldron of rakija, a brandy that is the country’s national beverage of choice. A jovial middle-aged man with coke-bottled glasses was ladling out plastic cups of the delicious stuff that warmed our chilled bones. I pulled out my wallet to pay for the drinks but the man waved us off.

“Gratis,” he said.

At first I thought he was buying us drinks because we were foreigners, but I quickly realized that no one was paying. A free, hot alcoholic beverage was flowing on the ancient streets of Ohrid and as the crowd warmed up, people began to dance in tight circles to the live gypsy band. Half drunk men in funny little caps wanted to get to know us, despite the language barrier and the party was on.

“In the U.S., there’s no way anyone would be giving out free alcohol at something like this,” I remarked. “Plus, everyone would have to show I.D., get wristbands, and the whole thing would be sponsored by Miller Lite or Best Buy.”

It was a beautifully organic, free little celebration and I still can’t recall a more convivial scene in my life. After the band and the revelers dispersed, hours later, we visited a host of stunning medieval churches with frescoes that were still vivid and beautiful, despite their antiquity.

Lake Ohrid is said to be three million years old and the town itself is one of the oldest inhabited settlements in Europe. Ohrid’s churches contain some 800 Byzantine style icons dating from the 11th to 14th centuries, and Sveti Jovan Kaneo, perched dramatically next to the lake, is one of the most stunningly situated places of worship in the world. Locals say that Ohrid has 365 churches and is the birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet.

The streets of Ohrid are a joy to get lost in – we climbed up and down steps in every direction, not knowing or caring where we were going and sat for ages watching children play soccer in the courtyard of an ancient church.

Late in the day, we drove outside town to Sveti Naum, a tiny, ancient church right near the Albanian border. I doubt that more than a dozen people could fit into Sveti Naum at one time, but it’s one of the holiest places I’ve ever been to. It was very dark, with just a few candles lit, and all one could see were the eerie haunting old frescoes on the ceiling and walls. It’s the kind of place where even an atheist might feel the presence of God.

On the way back to Ohrid, we saw a small pack of kids halting traffic on the road, as they rushed up to each passing vehicle. I couldn’t see exactly what was going on, other than that passing motorists were giving the kids some money. They made their way over to us, and we could see that they had the cross that had been thrown in the water that morning. Perhaps one of them was the younger sibling of the young man who had retrieved it?

After deducing that we didn’t speak Macedonian, one of the youths switched to broken English.

“Give us money and you will kiss the cross,” he said. “For luck.”

We gave them the Macedonian equivalent of a few dollars and got to kiss the cross. And it did indeed turn out to be a great year for us, but the luck didn’t kick in immediately. Several hours before, we had checked into a 10€ per night room after seeing a “Zimmer” sign outside someone’s apartment, and we agreed to stay there after a quick look. But then when we returned in the evening, we realized that the little apartment was ice cold.

I don’t recall if the place had a formal heating system that was just set very cold or what the problem was, but the woman who ran the place gave us about a half dozen heavy woolen blankets and we were just fine.

Over the course of the next two years, we kept returning to Ohrid. We found a little hotel called the Villa Sveti Sofija that became our home away from home and in the summer, we liked to patronize the town’s lakeside bars and beaches. Even on a hot summer night, the temperature by the lake dips dramatically and I used to feel like I’d died and gone to heaven when sitting at a lakefront bar on a cool, starry night sipping $1 bottles of Skopsko, the local beer.

I never got around to jumping in the lake in pursuit of the cross, but I’m the kind of person who prefers not to exhaust every option in a place I love because I like to have an excuse to return. If I ever make it back to Ohrid to swim for the cross, I hope there’s still some warm rakija waiting for me.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[Photos by Dave Seminara, Nikolovskii , moeafati and plepe on Flickr]