Sunday, 30 December 2012
Day 260 – A misleading flag and a rotten tree. (Macedonia)
Having rescued Denner from Greece and finally crossing the border into Macedonia, the first thing that we noticed was how misleading their flag is. As we drove through the border town with a grey sky above us, spots of rain falling intermittently from the sky and puddles scattered along the ground, we found the vibrant yellow sun on a bright red background that is their flag, to be a tad ironic.
Because of the time limit of aiming for Budapest for Christmas that was starting to encroach on our plans (now 16 days to cover Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and get to Hungary), we decided to skip the supposedly non-eventful capital of Skopje and visit Ohrid instead. Set on Lake Ohrid which is 288 m deep and the deepest lake in the Balkans, Ohrid is a beautiful old town and a popular holiday destination, especially in summer, for mainly Macedonians and Albanians. We looked into going skiing while we were there, but with only 80cm of snow, the season wasn’t yet open – an amusing concept coming from Australia where the snow season opens and closes on fixed dates regardless of snow fall, and 80cm is considered to be a very luxurious covering.
It was raining heavily when we arrived, but over night it snowed, and here began our encounter with snow that lasted for most of the Balkans. Covered in a layer of white, even with a thick fog encompassing everything bar the few metres in front of us, the town looked extra magical. We noticed that even the piles of rubble appeared stunning under a thick layer of fresh powder. At the top of the old town, set on a hill as is usually the case, was the fort which because of the weather we were the only visitors at, and was eerily quiet. From the Church of Sveti Pantelejmon which was only a little way down from the fort, we saw the lake through a gap in the fog. Wasps of steam rose from the surface and evaporated into the fog producing an incredibly surreal picture, one that Denner aptly donned “smoke on the water”.
On our way through the old town which unlike most old towns is predominantly residential and barely built into accommodation, restaurants and shops at all, we passed the ancient theatre. Much smaller and less impressive than many of the ones we’ve seen recently, such as the ones at Efes and Hierapolis, we couldn’t help but note how incredible the view from the stands was. Built on the side of the hill, the stands face out towards the lake and the distant mountains, the town surrounding it on all other sides. At this point we recalled that having a spectacular view from the stands is something that most of the ancient stadiums and theatres had in common. It’s a shame that by becoming accustomed to shelter and temperature control this is something that we miss out on these days.
We’d heard about an 800 – 900 tree known as the Plane Tree, which at various points in its life had housed a cafe and a barber shop, amongst other things. All day we’d been asking anyone we passed if they could tell us where it was, but we were met with blank stares and confused expressions. We persisted though, sure that the tree was in Ohrid and adamant that we wanted to see it, and eventually we met someone who gave us directions. Located in the centre of the new town, we finished exploring the streets of the old town before heading down to check out the famous tree. As we rounded the corner and the tree came into sight, we each paused and looked quizzically at each other. Was this really the Plane Tree? A sign mounted to the side of it told us that it was, but we found it hard to believe. We were expecting a grand tree, metres wide and stretching into the sky, perhaps an entrance to the trunk, and probably some sort of cafe/gift shop beside it. What we were instead standing in front of was a tree that may have been one or two metres wide if it was whole, but other than a thin strip of bark on either side, the entire structure was held up by black plastic supports. A few rotted braches lay in the mud where they had fallen off the dead tree, and besides a damp bench there wasn’t anywhere to sit – certainly not any sort of cafe. As the main attraction that had sold us on visiting Ohrid instead of any of the other options, this was humorously disappointing.