by Margaret Birch
The ever changing colours and shimmering light of Lake Ohrid are mesmerizing, calming, as spiritual as the many churches at every corner. It’s a privilege to walk the narrow streets of the old town, peering up and down alleys and stone steps, the old and the newer jumbled together. It’s a joy to eat a fresh salad, or fish soup, at a lakeside restaurant and to bob about on the water in a small boat. St Johan’s church, standing quiet and faithful above the water has been rated as one of the best views in Europe. There’s good shopping, a lovely park by the big jetty, music and dancing and festivals. This is truly a UNESCO world heritage site and prime tourist destination in the making.
So, we have visited, many times, as others have, drawn back by the ambience, the friendship, the wine. And every time we have come, especially more recently, there have been more visitors, more people toasting in the summer sun, or strolling in the winter peace; more tour groups with earnest guides trailing up and down the sights, with different takes on history. And we have been pleased that this must mean a growth in the hospitality industry. This means more regular earnings for those who work long hours to earn enough to cover the rest of the year.
Why then, at every corner, we stumble over litter, plastic bags, discarded cans; Why, in all the beautiful reeds and corners of the lake, collect not multitudes of birds, nor the famed trout, but rubbish. We spot three boys, fishing. We return after lunch to find their discarded plastic bags and dead fish.
It’s marvelous to swim in the early morning, when the water is sparkling clear, tiny fishes cling to the stones and jetties near the beach and the cormorants dry their wings in the early sunshine. But tread carefully. Mind the broken glass, discarded crisp packets and cigarette ends. Tread even more carefully when you enter the water to avoid the broken railings and rusted metal pieces sticking up as dangerous as spears (with grateful recognition to the individuals who do clean up, to the person who covered the end of one spike with a plastic bottle, assuming that safety was their intention).
Try to get information from the newish INFO points, try to get information from the old or new information booths, try to find centrally collated bus timetables, or connected accommodation advice. Try to find the craftsmen, the street book-sellers for summer browsing, the city’s precious, ancient skills, overwhelmed everywhere with cheap, foreign trinkets and supposedly local goods with dubious claims to authenticity. Try, as visitors do daily, to take a picture of the wonderful view from the ancient amphitheatre without including the unattractive, metal roof structure. We are informed proudly that it’s the only Roman theatre in the world with a roof (yes, ever wonder why?). Try to understand why maintenance and cleaning are not carried out throughout the year or why renovation is ‘scheduled’ for the height of the tourist season. Why the piles of builder’s rubble left from work completed? Why the unmaintained treasures, the crumbling old houses really worth keeping, broken steps and more? Why are newly found mosaics not better preserved so that visitors and locals alike could see them in all their splendour? Try to move for cars!
This city is a marvel and we love to come here. But it must be cared for. And we think it should be part of a strategy with a unique selling point of small scale tourism, eco, cultural, culinary tourism, tourism which brings those with money back again and again. There is capacity here, but there must also be the collective and individual will, vision, prioritization of resources, good quality workmanship. There must be planned and coordinated development, based on World Heritage guidelines, cultural sensitivity and common values. History and modern life could be better appreciated, in all its complexity. People must open their eyes and see what we visitors see – the failings and the beauty. And choose to preserve and develop the beauty.