As we entered Korça, our first impressions were less than enthusiastic. It seemed to have very few redeeming features indeed – certainly not the road surface… We found somewhere to park, conveniently right by the (modern but beautiful) Orthodox Cathedral, and went for a wander around. We think we found the reputedly beautiful older areas of the town. They were certainly older. We found the brewery (whose products we’d already decided we liked), but the tour was only available by advance appointment. We found somewhere for lunch – and ate a stack of utterly delicious charcoal-barbecued Qoftë (meat kebabs), served with bread that redefined doorstep. The city started to grow on us a bit.
We headed out, to the tiny village/suburb of Mborje, to have a look at their miniscule 13th century church. Which was, of course, locked. Our guidebook suggested we ask in the shop down the road for the key, so we did precisely that – fending off the (slightly simple) teenager who seemed to be asking for money to stop his aimless hanging about and find it. The women in the shop had lots of suggestions, but we didn’t understand a single one, so they barked an order at the lad, who headed off at a sprint. Eventually he returned, shrugged, and started to just hang about again. A while later, he was still there, unlike the key. Some smaller kids appeared, and joined him in hanging around. They spoke a bit of English, and offered to take us to find the key. Deciding the alternative was to give up, we did, and went on a guided tour of the village, gaining and shedding some of the gang on the way. Eventually, we found the keyholder, just sitting down to his lunch in the local taverna. The key was handed to the oldest of our gang, along with some VERY stern admonishments on what would happen to him if any misbehaviour happened, and we were in. The tiny interior was barely lit, but the beautiful frescoes covering every inch of the walls shone brightly even through a thick layer of candle soot and mould.
Guzman and Ilva had suggested the nearby village of Dhardë as a good sight to see – and they were right. Way up above the snowline, at the end of kilometres of steep potholes, the village spills – utterly unspoilt – down the far sides of the mountains from the city.
We found a spot to park the van, and after a wander round, found a little taverna to sample the local speciality – Lakror, a thin round filo pastry pie about 18″ in diameter and baked in the ashes of a wood fire. Probably for the better, we didn’t end up being served a whole one – just pieces – but the accompanying salads were as good as we’ve come to expect here. As for the pear Raki which washed it all down…
The end of a cold but incredibly peaceful night was signalled by several cockerels only just over a stone’s throw away (we know – we tried), and we fought our way back up the track out of the village and down to Korça again, heading for the National Museum of Medieval Art, where – despite the sign giving opening hours – the keyholder was eventually phoned to come and open up for the tourists. The collection was small, but simply stunning – mainly icons, but with some beautiful beaten metalwork – silver cups and Bible covers – and carved woodwork. Whilst we were there, a couple of tourgroups (Greek, we thought, one led by two Orthodox priests in full garb) passed through briefly and loudly, barely glancing at the contents. As we left, the doors were locked behind us.
Deep in the mountains on the other side of Korça lies Voskopoja, once the largest city in the Balkans, now a tiny village. The road out of Korça was the usual game of hide and seek with the tarmac, but it soon opened into a wonderful smooth newly surfaced stretch into the hills, where we branched off onto a steep and badly rutted dirt track up into the forest, searching out the monastery of St Prodhomi. After giving up and abandoning the van just as the track worsened dramatically, we walked the last stretch. Eventually, we found the caretaker – or, rather, she found us as we gave up and left – but again the frescoes and carvings were absolutely worthwhile. The church of St Nicholas in the village itself was much easier to get into. We were pointed towards a house carrying a B&B sign – where the priest was leaning over the back garden fence, chatting to his neighbour… At this point, the bit of Italian we’d learnt started to come into it’s own, as he gave us a guided tour, explaining the frescoes, both inside and in the covered porch down the outside.
Painted in the 18th century by the Zografi brothers and by David Selenica – some of the biggest names in the museum – they were again utterly stunning, but again in rapid decay. Quite simply, no money’s available for restoration or even basic preservation apart from that which UNESCO gives to the places on their heritage list.
Leaving Korça, we headed north to Lake Ohrid. Nearing Pogradec, on the southern shores of the lake, we started to weave our way steeply down. One layby on the outside of a hairpin bend was taped off by the police, with a couple of bikes and cars parked up inside the tape and people standing around. A single tyremark going straight on from the bend, through the dirt and over the edge told the rest of the story. From further down the road, we looked up to see what appeared to be a dull glint from somewhere in the trees, almost vertically down from that bend.
Pogradec’s central streets are brick paved, and as we pulled away from having briefly parked, we thought the road noise appeared to be louder than usual, accompanied by a bit of creaking from the back, but everything felt good through the seat and steering. A good look in the mirror showed, though, that one rear wheel had different ideas from the rest of the van as to which way to head, wobbling wildly. It turned out that all five wheelnuts had worked themselves very loose, to the point were all were about to fall off their threads, leaving the wheel free to pursue those different ideas. Could have been worse, but a salutory lesson in checking up after some of the road surfaces. Once we’d fought the curious kids back to the point where I could re-tighten it without tripping over them, we headed off again.
The shores of the lake, just a few km north of town, give a beautiful location to a fish farm and restaurant with camping field. Ohrid is famous for several unique species of trout, now endangered – not that you’d have known it from the guys hanging around at the side of the road, enthusiastically waving large fish and eels at passing traffic in the hope of selling some of the contents of their large tanks. We don’t know how good the wild fish is, but if it’s anything like as good as the farmed…
And so on to the border with Macedonia. The geography of the region means that, if we’re going to see Macedonia at all, now’s the time to do it, so over the border we headed. Or, rather, we tried to. We were refused entry to the country.
Fortunately, this was only due to the fact that the small crossing point we’d chosen, round the south of the lake, didn’t have anybody to sell us the car insurance we needed, so we had to return through the kilometre or so of No Man’s Land to give our passports back to the Albanian borderguard who’d just stamped our exit into them… After a brief moment of confusion at the northern entry point, resulting in being briefly shouted at by the very rotund, florid-faced and unamused Macedonian policeman we’d just driven straight past, we were let in – pausing only briefly to be thoroughly robbed for a fortnight’s worth of insurance.