Macedonia had a lot of hype to live up to, but I knew things were going to be all right when I heard about the miracle. Inside the church of St Demtrius in the old town of Skopje, the frescoes of the saints and martyrs, darkened by decades of candle-smoke, had suddenly brightened over the weekend of Palm Sunday, the haloes of the saints shining as brightly as the day they were painted. Squeezed into the back of the church behind hundreds of the devout and the curious, I can attest that the haloes were certainly very shiny, although not having any basis for comparison I couldn’t really say as to whether they were any brighter than usual. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help approving of the thoroughly practical nature of this miracle, so much less messy than statues weeping blood and more useful than pictures in your toast, which is the kind of thing my church tends to turn up. If even the unpreposessing building site of central Skopje could muster up a bona fide miracle, then surely Ohrid would be able to provide something spectacular for Easter.
What I had foolishly failed to anticipate was that the agreeably spring-like weather in lowland Skopje would not necessarily be replicated by a mountain-ringed lake. The town of Ohrid was called by the Greeks Lychidnos, the city of light, which sounds promising, and it looks dead good on postcards. However, it turns out that even the most picturesque and historic vision of lakeside loveliness can attain a certain Yorkshire-esque aspect in permanent drizzle, with even the peacocks which normally add value to cliff-top monasteries looking bedraggled and mutinous, sqawking disconsolately while the wind whips up white-capped waves bending the reed beds along the lake shore, and the famously blue and crystalline water more closely resembling the North Sea in February than the Mediterranean in August. I trudged around wearing every layer of clothing I’d packed, pausing occasionally to wring the water out of my backpack, and spent the evenings huddling in a blanket, drying my socks out in front of an electric heater in my bedroom and feeling for a while that I might as well have stayed in London.
But whatever the weather, it was difficult to avoid being charmed by Ohrid. It sprawls untidly along the lakeshore, surrounded by pine forests and orchards, and the old town bears testament to two thousand-odd years of cultured, quarrelsome and enlightened history, encompassing steep and haphazard Ottoman streets, a Roman amphitheatre, freshwater pearl shops hiding in tiny alleys, topped off by an eleventh-century fortress that was in turn Macedonian, Bulgarian and Turkish. It is one of those places that tends to get described by guidebooks as the “spiritual heart” of their respective countries, but I think Ohrid probably merits the description more than most. It is the seat of the fiercely (though unofficially) independent Macedonian Orthodox church, and was once said to have 365 churches, and you could attend a different one each day of the year; it is still well-supplied, although not to quite such an abundant extent, and the Byzantine steeples share the skyline with the slim white minarets of the Ottoman-style mosques, the chanting of the Easter services mingling with the call to prayer.
It being the season for it, spiritual succour was being cheerily doled out to one and all – I asked the directions of a bearded priest, who didn’t quite understand (I think my Croatian phrasebook is a little optimistic in airily stating that this language is instantly comprehensible everywhere in the Balkans) but helpfully annointed me with holy water anyway, which must have worked because I found the bus I was looking for, to a monastery in the mountains where a thousand years after his death the heart of local boy St. Naum continues to beat in his tomb. I was keen to hear this, but owing either to my not being devout enough or to my slight reticence with regard to lying on the floor of a church with my ear pressed to a stone sarcophogus when no one else was doing anything similar, I find myself unable to confirm this one way or another, which goes to show that self-consciousness is a major barrier to spiritual enlightenment, possibly explaining why the British are historically not terribly good at it. Still, there was a very good fresco of St. Naum harnessing a bear to a plough in one of those slightly eccentric episodes that tend to crop up in the lives of saints and as far as I’m concerned raise far more questions than they could possibly provide spiritual inspiration, but there was no obvious explanation forthcoming, so I went and had a coffee beside some sacred springs instead.
On Easter night, which despite the miraculous auguries in Skopje, was still pouring with rain, I joined the growing crowd huddling under umbrellas in the old Roman basilica outside the church of St Kliment for the Easter vigil. My landlord’s mother had equipped me with a Macedonian-style Easter egg which, she assured me, was necessary for the festivities – hard-boiled, and dyed red for the blood of Christ. Perhaps two hundred people milled around, queueing for candles and laying offerings at icons, in an atmosphere that was more convivial than mystical, with plenty of awkward lighting and re-lighting of candles due to the downpour. It rapidly became clear that priests in their gorgeous crimson robes and the Patriarch in his crown had decided that processing (it ain’t Easter if you don’t get some quality processing in) was going to be an indoor activity only that night, and the speaker system relaying the service to the damp devout outside had a somewhat tinny quality. But there was still a dead silence and a swell of expectation as midnight approached and then priests chanted, Christos voskrese, Christos voskrese, Christ is risen, and the crowd shouted back Vistina voskrese, He is truly risen, and the church bells rang and rang, and we all smashed our eggs, conker style, for luck in the coming year. I had read somewhere that the thing to do was to head home afterwards bearing your candle to get a nice “river of light” effect, but this is less practical when you have to keep relighting the damn thing every two minutes, so I took a lead from my companions, perched it precariously in a flooded sand tray in front of an icon of St. Naum while muttering a quick prayer that no matter how bad it got, no one would require me to harness a bear to anything, and beat a hasty retreat, eating my egg on the way home. Everywhere I went on Easter morning the ground was littered with scraps of bright-red eggshell.
Back in Skopje, the novelty of the miraculous frescoes seemed to have worn off rather in the aftermath of Easter, and I had the church more or less to myself when I went back. Spoilsport conservationists had officially attributed the phenomenon to condensation, (which is still I suppose marginally more miraculous than a guy with a cloth) but I left some money at the icons just in case. You never know when a bear might show up.