Ohrid, Macedonia is an emerging travel destination that has breathtaking nature and rich history. In fact, Lake Ohrid is one of only 28 sites that’s a UNESCO world heritage in both culture and nature categories. The lake is the biggest, deepest lake in the Balkan peninsula that hosts many rare and endangered species. Ohrid also has many churches and archaeology sites that are more than 1000+ years old.
Ohrid is beautiful to visit in the summer time. You get to swim in the lake and watch the splendid sunset on the lakeside sipping a cheap cocktail. The cherry on the top of all these? The city hosts an annual 3-weeks summer music festival from July 12 to August 20! Ohrid Summer Festival is a classical music and opera festival founded in 1961. Legendary Musicians including Svyatoslav Richter, Grigory Sokolov, Ivo Pogorelić, Mstislav Rostropovich, Vadim Repin, Nigel Kennedy, Zubin Mehta, Ennio Morricone, and Mikhail Pletnev had all performed at the festival. The concerts happen in historical venues such as the Antique Theatre of Ohrid and Church of St. Sophia. It was one of the most delightful experiences I stumbled upon when I travelled in Macedonia in 2015.
How did I find out about the Ohrid Summer Festival?
I didn’t know about the festival since my trip to Ohrid was completely unplanned. You could only imagine how excited I was to find out about this festival! That afternoon, I was strolling around and exploring the town. I was using Triposo to help me navigate my way, and I happened to pass by the Church of St. Sophia. The architecture was typical Eastern European and Orthodox. Following the narrow passageway, I reached the gate and paid a small entrance fee to get in.
Ohrid doesn’t get a lot of tourists. Well, at least two years ago it didn’t in contrast to other destinations in Europe. I had most of the attractions to myself. The Church of St. Sophia was built during the First Bulgarian Empire, sometime between 852~889 AD. It was first an orthodox church, and it became a mosque during the Ottoman Empire era.
When I entered the church, I was surprised to see a grand piano. It isn’t uncommon for a church to have a piano. I just didn’t expect this church to have one, especially the venue was obviously in a concert setting. One of my pet peeves is when I see a piano display in public, I have to check what brand it is. This one was a beautiful Steinway & Son.
I told the man who was working at the ticket booth that I am a pianist. He gave me a brochure, and that was how I learned about this annual music festival. He invited me to return in the evening to attend the concert, and I did. I don’t remember how much was the ticket, but it was not expensive at all.
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The concert featured composition works by Macedonian composer Vlastimir Nikolovski (1925~2001). His works are contemporary while mixing in a good deal of Balkan and gypsy musical elements. Born in Skopje, Nikolovski studied composition in Macedonia, the Soviet Union, and Serbia. He was one of the most important figures in the creation of a Macedonian school of composers. Watch the 1996 performance of his Piano Toccata, Op. 20 by Macedonia pianist, Elena Misirkova.
The interior of the church provided superb acoustic for music performances. Seeing concerts at an 1100 years old church surrounding by timeless Byzantine painting only enhanced the experience! The concert also had a group of great audiences. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and stayed till the end.
How to Reach Ohrid?
Ohrid is the perfect vacation destination if you are looking for an off the beaten path site that has lots of cultures to offer. I would NOT recommend how I did it. I entered from Greece, and it was not easy. Many people I met at the hostel travelled from Albania or Skopje by small buses. You can always use Rome2Rio to figure out your route.
Where to Stay in Ohrid?
I stayed at Agartha Hostel Ohrid for three nights, and it was one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. Agartha is a small family owned hostel with warm hospitality with a good vibe. The best part? They got a piano inside! I don’t know if the piano is still there since it’s been two years. The piano was out of tune, but that was okay! 😀 Oh, and here was also where I and my partner Jim met.
The accommodation rate at the hostel is relatively cheap in comparison to other destinations in Europe; however, the price has doubled since 2015. I can only imagine the overall expenses to travel in Macedonia will increase more in the future. I’ve also debated whether I should write more about Ohrid because it’s such a hidden gem. The increasing amount of tourists has triggered more constructions in the name of tourism development. In fact, UNESCO has expressed concerns over this matter that Ohrid might lose its UNESCO status if the environment damages further.
The message here? Visit Ohrid now!
You can find out more about the festival through their official website.
Find your own stay in Ohrid by comparing multiple hotel booking sites!
Also published on Medium.