Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Laurence Mitchell looks at one of the most extraordinary rivers in the southern Balkans. Join us on the shores of Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia. The water that plunges over a weir at the northern end of Lake Ohrid eventually reaches the sea at Drin Bay on the Adriatic shore of Albania.

article summary —

The small resort of Struga (Струга) on Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia is usually overlooked in favour of its more glamorous neighbour. Ohrid is without question a jewel of a place, a lakeside city famous for its ancient history, superb architecture and for once having had 365 churches. UNESCO-protected as a place of cultural and environmental significance, Ohrid has long attracted visitors from all over the Balkan region, particularly the countries that constituted former Yugoslavia. Struga, on the other hand, has a more limited, local appeal. Popular with visitors who, rather than seeking culture, simply want to spend a little time close to the water, Struga is half the size of Ohrid and perhaps a little less than half as glamorous.

Rebecca West, visiting the lake in the 1930s as part of the groundwork for her epic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon , saw things rather differently. ing Ohrid to be “very poor… a huddle of discoloured houses under a low sky that seemed to have sunk so low that it had been muddied,” West had been initially disappointed with what she found. Struga, on the other hand, she declared to be “an enchanting little place, white and clean like a peeled almond.”

Compared to Ohrid, Struga has relatively few churches and little by way of classical architecture, although it could still be said to be “white and clean.” The scattering of small fishing boats that line the foreshore seem more in the business of messing about on the water rather than anything more serious. A few sandy beaches lie close to the town but its hinterland is mostly characterised by expanses of reed beds where frogs croak and warblers reel noisily from hidden perches.

The town boasts a 1970s-style Yugo-futurist hotel and a central pedestrian promenade lined with gift shops, ice cream parlours and cafés. The shop signs are in Macedonian Cyrillic, Albanian and occasionally English. Unlike largely Macedonian Orthodox Ohrid, Struga has a sizeable Albanian- speaking Muslim minority, and a newly built Turkish-style mosque stands tall at the edge of town, its pencil minarets echoing the poplars that line the main thoroughfares.

What really divides Struga though is not religion, or ethnicity, but a river.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 66.