Travel | August 22, 2017 5:00 am

Macedonia: The Perfect Starting Point to Explore the Balkans

RealClearWorld's Joel Weickgenant journeys to the ancient city of Ohrid.

The peaks of southwestern Macedonia were our compass as we approached the Balkan country’s border from Greece in the south. Shrouded in mist at the height of an early summer’s day, the mountains that draw the eye range around lakes Ohrid and Prespa, two ancient bodies of water that split the lands around them like an inland sea. “Like the lungs of the Balkans,” my co-traveler remarked, and it’s easy to see why the ancient city of Ohrid, our destination that day, would take bloom in such a place.

Ohrid was an epicenter of Byzantine architecture and one of the first established centers of Slavonic culture. Sitting astride the ancient Roman Via Egnatia at the banks of the lake whose name the city shares, Ohrid is the best European resort town you’ve never heard of. Spilling over the hillside between Samuel’s Fortress to the banks of the lake, the town’s narrow streets are a buffet of Ottoman residential architecture. If you sit long enough at the square that gazes on the church of Saint Sophia, sipping coffees and picking out languages from the polyglot passersby — here Turkish, there Russian and British, but never too many since, as said, Ohrid has yet to be overrun by tourists — you almost forget about the political problems that perennially haunt this tiny country.

All of which made Ohrid the perfect destination to start our journey to Macedonia — or, to be official about it, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. For the geopolitically minded traveler, this tiny Balkan country is the perfect place to begin an exploration of the Balkans. It has much of the stunning physical beauty this part of the world is known for, and all of the mystery. And despite its population of barely over 2 million, Macedonia is much like Bosnia farther north — a melting pot with a flux of identities that can prove explosive.