Saint John the Theologian on a rainy day

Lake Ohrid: Bridging Nations with Waters of Timeless Beauty

Nestled within the snow-capped Galichica Mountain Range, Lake Ohrid contains crystal clear waters with visibility extending down to 22 meters (66 feet). This lake, enriched with a biodiversity that boasts an estimated 45 million acre-feet of water, is the equivalent of 379,884 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Lake Ohrid spans across North Macedonia and Albania. Approximately 64% of the shoreline and 69% of its surface area belong to North Macedonia, while the remainder lies in Albania.

Terrain image from Google Maps 2024 with four locations marked round Lake Ohrid: Ohrid City, Saint Naum, Tushemisht, and Pogradec
Terrain image from Google Maps 2024.

Why Lake Ohrid is a Gem of the Balkans

Lake Ohrid is the deepest lake in the Balkans, reaching depths of up to 288 meters (945 feet). It is also recognized as one of Europe’s deepest lakes. The pristine waters of Lake Ohrid are exceptionally clear, with transparencies to a depth of as much as 22 meters (66 feet).

Lake Ohrid is celebrated for its clarity but also for its ancient ecosystem hosting over 200 endemic species, making it a hotspot for scientific research and nature enthusiasts. Its significance is recognized with multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites surrounding its shores, which are also home to manage nature reserves and national parks.

Trin rinsing his hands in the clear water of Lake Ohrid
Lake Ohrid, from Old Town Ohrid

Why is it so clear!

A significant portion of the lake’s water enters through underground springs and channels connected to nearby Lake Prespa, which sits 160 meters (about 526 feet) higher in elevation. The water clarity is further maintained by the absence of major rivers dumping sediment or causing sediment upheaval.

Streams from the mountains do deposit sediment into the lake. However, unlike many lakes that have shorter lifespans because of sediment deposition, Lake Ohrid continues to experience tectonic subsidence, meaning the lakebed is sinking, which helps preserve its depth, making it a remarkably clear and blue-hued lake that shimmers under the Balkan sun.

Horses on a hill above Lake Ohrid. The clouds are reflected on calm waters.
View from the Ottoman Pogradec Castle ruins

Links to the past and to space

In A.D. 14, a Roman highway from the coast of Albania ran near Lake Ohrid and continued on to Thessalonika and Constantinople (Istanbul). Now it seems to be forgotten and public transportation is unreliable. However, there is much to see on foot and only a little public transportation. Locals are often willing to lend a ride as well.

Intriguingly, Lake Ohrid shares its name with a lake on Saturn’s moon Titan, although the latter consists of liquid ethane and methane. Ohrid Lacus, on Titan, is an honorary name given by NASA.

Ohrid, North Macedonia: Our starting point

The city of Ohrid, marked by the northern most red dot on the map above, offers access to numerous hiking trails. Additionally, the Old Town and lakefront are delightful areas to explore.

We traveled from Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, to Ohrid by public bus to begin our exploration of the lake region. Although our online tickets indicated that printing was not necessary, the bus driver insisted on a paper copy. After some discussion, he allowed us to board.

We stayed near the waterfront, which gave us easy access to explore the historic section on foot. The area features a pleasant boardwalk and lakeside park that are ideal for daily strolls.

Exploring Ohrid, North Macedonia

The chapel of St. John the Theologian is one of the icons of Ohrid City. We walked up to it on two different days. On the first day it was raining, as seen in the featured image of this post above. The second time we had blue skies. It was still worth going twice.

St. John the Theologian chapel. It sits on a rock outcropping over Lake Ohrid. Mountains and clouds in the background.
Church of Saint John the Theologian
Trin looking over Lake Ohrid, the blue sky reflecting on the clear waters
Trails meander all through and round Old Town Ohrid. We stopped at many places along the way just to take in the spectacular views of the lake.
The Fortress wall with the North Macedonian Flag flying in the wind above Lake Ohrid.
We were pleasantly surprised to find out that Samuel’s Fortress in Old Town Ohrid was free the day we walked up to it. There is not much to see inside the fortress, but the view from on top of the walls was beautiful in all directions.
Stray dog on the beach of Lake Ohrid
From the city of Ohrid, there is a trail that leads down the coast to Metropolis Beach. It was approximately six miles round trip, but we had a few stray dogs join us. They seemed happy just to walk alongside us and then lay at our feet when we sat down to take in the views.
Viewpoint on trail behind Ohrid headed towards Velestovo
We followed a trail up the mountain beside Ohrid, headed towards Velestovo for spectacular viewpoints of the Lake and snow-capped mountains. The walk is about 9 miles round trip with a little over 700 feet elevation gain.

Getting to Saint Naum, North Macedonia

From Ohrid, we planned to take a local van down (furgon) to the Saint Naum Monastery. It’s a small passenger van that is often filled to capacity – over capacity to most standards. While waiting for the transport, a local offered us a ride for just $1 USD more than the van fare. We took it knowing that it would be a more comfortable ride with access to the windows on both sides of the vehicle.

Along the way, our driver shared insights about the region and even made a stop at the Bay of Bones. From the viewpoint, we had a good view of a pile dwelling settlement built on stilts over the water. It is a partial reconstruction of the Bronze Age homes that were estimated to reside here 3,000 years ago.

Replica of the pile homes from the Bronze Age built on Lake Ohrid.
Bay of Bones

Saint Naum, near the Albanian border, is perched atop a rocky outcrop overlooking Lake Ohrid. Walking along the water’s edge, we chose to skip all the touristy stalls selling trinkets. From somewhere within the monastery, we could hear the distinctive cry of peacocks. It is free to walk around the monastery. Peacocks also roam around freely, some of them are pure white.

The calling card of Saint Naum is the crystal clear spring nearby that feeds a small river emptying into the lake.

Saint Naum Monastery with the mountains in the background
Saint Naum Monastery

The Monastery of Saint Naum

If I were Catholic, I might have been convinced to become a nun. Monasteries and abbeys often seem to be built in such serene places.

Saint Naum is known for its clear spring water. As with many places held sacred by their church, they built a chapel over the spring. It’s a small adorable chapel that anyone is free to enter. In the center is a small spring fed pool that visitors can walk down to. The water flows out the back of the chapel and meanders down to eventually enter Lake Ohrid.

View from the boat dock in front of the monetary looking towards the mountains.
The dock at Saint Naum
Peacock at Saint Naum
Peacock at Saint Naum

Cross-Border Stroll to Tushemisht, Albania

From Saint Naum, we walked across the border into Albania, an experience that reminded us of crossing borders on foot in South America. At the North Macedonian checkpoint, we presented our passports to the border agent, who scanned and stamped them without asking questions. A short walk later, we reached the Albanian border, where a single car was ahead of us at the gate. After a brief wait, it was our turn. We walked up and handed over our passports again, which were promptly scanned and returned without any queries. We then continued our walk to Tushemisht, where we spent the night.

Trin on a trail from Saint Naum to Albania
Trin on a trail from Saint Naum to Albania

Tiny Tushemisht, Albania

Tushemisht (aside from being one of the more fun town names to pronounce, not to mention the fact that it’s the first town we’ve visited that has tush in its name) boasts a stunning boardwalk that stretches along its waterfront. We walked back and forth numerous times, enjoying the views instead.

Tushemisht also has a national park called Drilon National Park. It is the smallest national park we have ever visited, but it was fun to see and would be a nice place for a picnic, though it felt more like an amusement park with go-cart options and cafes. As we strolled around town, yet another friendly dog joined us. He made a happy sound every time I scratched behind his ear.

Tushemisht boardwalk
Tushemisht boardwalk
Weaved embankment in the Drilon National Park
Drilon National Park in Tushemisht

Walk to Pogradec, Albania

From Tushemisht, we decided just to walk to Pogradec, our next destination. It was only five kilometers away, but two local taxis offered us their services as we walked along. It wasn’t far, and it was a cool sunny day with pleasant views of the lake, so we declined the offers.

Along the path were multiple bunkers, remnants of the regime led by Enver Hoxha from 1944 to 1985, which bore elements of Stalinism and Maoism. Hoxha ruled Albania as a staunchly hardline communist and constructed 750,000 bunkers. They were never used for their intended purpose. Today, locals have painted or reused the larger ones for cafes, housing, or storage.

Bunkers, a relic of the regime

Three Albanian bunkers painted by the locals in camouflage, a smiley face, and a ladybug.

Violent anti-religious persecution and totalitarian methods marked the Hoxha regime. He enforced state atheism and spearheaded anti-religious campaigns against both Muslims and Christians. He claimed to have the first true atheist state (even though Stalin already claimed this). Although he banned travel abroad, people fled his persecution and oppression.

He imprisoned, executed, or exiled thousands who resisted or were perceived as disloyal.

Hoxha also sought to mobilize the youth, similar to other authoritarian figures of the time. Mao famously engaged impressionable youth in the Red Revolution, and Stalin encouraged young people to support his causes. Hoxha likewise used his “Young Pioneers” in the Hoxhaist youth movement, paralleling tactics seen in Nazi Germany, where Nazism found significant support among the youth. This pattern of leveraging young people in promoting extremist ideologies appears to be a recurring theme in totalitarian regimes. It is eerily similar to the rich youth of America at elite colleges currently protesting. They scream out, “We are Hamas,” and demand support for the very terrorist group who rape, mutilate, and target civilians….

Trin and Bonnie in front of the Welcome to Albania sign

Hiking Pogradec, Albania

Multiple times while in Pogradec we walked the promenade. It was especially stunning at sunset. On one of the hills west of Pogradec are the ruins of an old Ottoman castle. We hiked up to it for the views and from there we could see almost the entire small city.

Yellow and blue boats sit one the shore of Lake Ohrid almost perfectly matched to the yellow sunset.
From the beach in Pogradec
View of Pogradec Castle from the Pogradec Castle
View from the Pogradec Castle

Is Travel to Lake Ohrid safe?

Yes, it is safe. Come, have fun, but take normal travel precautions and avoid drug deals – as suggested anywhere in the world. According to the USA State Department, North Macedonia is listed as requiring normal precautions, while Albania is categorized as level 1, similar to Italy, Spain, and France and many others.

We have spent significant time in 50 countries and experienced attempted theft only four times. Twice in Nicaragua and twice in Italy. None of them were successful, and no one was harmed. It was all pretty tame, some of them even laughable.

To avoid being offended, it’s important to note that in Albania, staring is not considered rude. While people-watching is a common pastime globally, most people tend to be discreet about it. Albanians are more open about their curiosity.

On our walk from Tushemisht to Pogradec, we stopped in a park to remove and pack away our rain jackets. An older man cycling by saw us, pulled off the trail, parked his bike, and sat on a bench nearby, watching everything we did. It wasn’t menacing, just pure curiosity. It was almost cute and endearing.

Big Dog in Albania
This is not one of the angry dogs. This is one of the many friendly strays.

An angry pack of dogs 🐾

From our lodging in Pogradec, we spent one of our days hiking to the power station atop the mountain just west of town. We wandered through various neighborhoods till we reached the trail that left town and wandered up the terraces towards the mountain. Along the way, we passed two shepherds with their herd of sheep and goats. Guard dogs sat watching over their flocks but didn’t seem bothered by us as the shepherds nodded to us. At the top of the terraces, the trail took a steep climb up the mountain and towards the saddle between our destination and the higher mountain behind it. We decided to bag two peaks and check out the higher peak first.

Growing hungry, I scouted out the trail ahead to find a good place to sit and eat our packed lunch. As the trail opened up to the viewpoint, I was suddenly met with ferocious barking. One large white dog appeared first, quickly followed by three others, and then another joined, all charging towards me with bared teeth and fur bristled along their backs. These large dogs were out to protect their herd of sheep and goats, evidently just on the other side of the ridge I had crested.

I knew I should slowly back up. There was no way to outrun the pack. However, the trail was narrow, rocky, and filled with brambles. I can trip on a flat sidewalk, backing up here would likely result in a fall – not a good position to the oncoming pack. So, I turned around and slowly walked towards the trail.

That was a mistake. A moment later, I felt a tug on my skirt; the lead dog had my skirt between his teeth.

Typically, dogs in Albania are not an issue, according to online polls. Most of the strays we met in North Macedonia are tagged, showing they have been spayed or neutered, making them less aggressive. In fact, we’ve had a number of strays join us on our walks or come up to us looking for a pat on the head. One adorable stray in Tushemisht followed me for a while, giving small little sounds of enjoyment whenever I scratched behind his ear. The strays seem to be well-fed and treated kindly. However, this pack were working dogs—they had a job to do, and I had unknowingly intruded on their turf. They are not aware of public trails, they only know to protect their herds.

Trin on the trail on the way up to our second peak behind Pogradec, Albania. The city can be seen in the distance on the other side of the mountain.
Trin on the trail on the way up to our second peak behind Pogradec, Albania

The rest of the pack kept coming.

The flash of adrenaline prompted me to spin around and yell, “No!” The rest of the pack kept coming, with angry barks and snapping jaws. I then forcefully commanded them to “Get,” gesturing back towards where they had come from. The dogs halted but maintained a half-circle around me. I made a partial lunge towards the lead dog and commanded again for them to get back. Eventually, the pack retreated slightly, but continued to bark fiercely.

Just then, Trin, who had been just below me on the ridge, caught up and began clacking our walking sticks together to scare the dogs away. We slowly retreated, still yelling, until we were out of their sight. Although we had planned to eat lunch at the mountain’s peak, we hurried back down to the saddle between two peaks and settled on a rock for our meal.

“That could have been a lot worse,” I said, looking at the gaping hole in my skirt.

“That’s going to be a big butterfly,” Trin joked, referring to the butterfly I had previously sewn onto my pants to cover a small hole made when I snagged it on some volcanic rock.

A calm breeze cooled our skin, hot from the full sun. It was a beautiful day with blue skies reflecting off Lake Ohrid. Today, the lake was calm and almost perfectly reflected the few clouds in the sky. The overgrown terraces below us are hundreds, possibly thousands, of years old. This idyllic landscape over the timeless beauty of Lake Ohrid was the beauty we needed to recharge.

Two blue boats in the reeds on Lake Ohrid
We often end with a picture of a blue door, but I can see many opportunities with a blue boat too!

6 thoughts on “Lake Ohrid: Bridging Nations with Waters of Timeless Beauty”

  1. Oh my gosh those clear waters in the lake are absolutely gorgeous!! You guys find the most incredible and interesting places to explore! I love traveling with you via my armchair!
    And I am so glad you escaped the angry dogs with just a hole in your skirt!!

  2. Such beauty that you capture on your adventures. However, please be careful. That was a close call with those dogs. ❤️

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