The Macedonian man looks across the placid water of the lake surrounding his hometown and happily declares it his own. It
is a very spiritual place,” he says. And you could hardly argue with the guy: Slav Stefanoski is one of the few Macedonians who’s had the opportunity to see the world. He’s travelled extensively yet, somehow, the reliable beauty and quiet lifestyle of Ohrid has finally grounded him.
“I come down to these shores every single day,” Slav says of the remarkably still waters of Lake Ohrid, in the north-west corner of the country. “I see the beauty and I wonder how it is that people still can’t believe in God.”
Lake Ohrid is Macedonia’s greatest asset for an embattled tourist market. The deepest lake in Europe, its shores have become one of the few places where Macedonians can come to unwind and forget their troubles, if only for a day or two.
It’s postcard perfect in every sense, with lush green hills on all sides, centuries-old churches and a township of 50,000 sitting discreetly at its bank.
But the beauty hides a much harsher reality. While Macedonia managed to come through the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia relatively unscathed, ethnic tensions between the thousands of refugees which flooded into the country has taken its toll.
Tension between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians reached breaking point in 2001 – fighting broke out in the west resulting in what Slav described as a summer of terror”. A political solution helped ease the situation within the year, but finding a definitive social balance has proven much harder. Tensions between Macedonians, Albanians and Serbs remain high to this day.
Unemployment is astronomical, with many surviving on the minimum wage of less than £100 a month. But locals like Slav have learned to make the most out of the modest tourist trade in Ohrid. Each morning he waits at the bus stop for the few tourists who have travelled the four hours east from the nation’s capital Skopje.
His flat on the third floor of a rundown block is modestly furnished. The tap in the kitchen sink drips persistently, but Slav says that while he’s been meaning to buy a new washer, he kind of likes the way it breaks the silence. He offers a spare room for guests, a shower and a meal all for less than €5.
“It’s enough for me to buy the essentials,” he says. “Rice for a month and spices for flavour. Tea is almost essential and honey makes for a nice treat.”
But the 44-year-old sees much greater potential in his hometown and is confident the more locals focus on welcoming tourists, the more Macedonia will be regarded as a Balkan state worth visiting.
Ohrid hides constant reminders of its rich history and culture at every turn. Churches and castles represent the religious phases of the territory over time. A partly uncovered amphitheatre in the town’s centre points to early Roman rule while, half an hour by car, visitors can explore the 17th century church of Sveti Naum, right on the border with Albania.
But it is Ohrid’s subliminal bar scene that is slowly carving out a new culture here. The town doesn’t come close to offering the spectacularly suave options you’d be used to on the European circuit, but it has managed to create an impressive vibe of its own by simply not trying too hard in the first place. It’s the type of town where you can walk down the cobbled narrow streets with a locally brewed beer in your hand, while the live music from a corner bar reverberates down the alley to meet you.
On this particular night, Slav and his guest find themselves in a smoky jazz bar where a fat guy in the corner plays trumpet and a friendly barman serves up far too many free shots. It’s a recipe for a long night in Ohrid and ends up more than a few hours later at a slightly less appealing kebab van.
“I’ve seen a lot in this world,” Slav says during the walk home. “And given the situation here, with so many living in poor conditions, I never imagined I would want to come back. Yet here I am, back in my hometown, and I don’t think I could imagine it any other way. My hope is that more people can come here to appreciate it for themselves. It could make all the difference.””