Balkan Tour 2024 – Part 6 – Ohrid, North Macedonia

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Another VFR flight today, but across very interesting terrain, crossing a timezone and then another entire country, as we flew from Plovdiv in Bulgaria to Ohrid in the south-western corner of North Macedonia. This was arguably the one of the highlights of the trip. A bonus feature is video of the final approach.

Planning for this flight involved a few surprises despite careful research. North Macedonia isn’t in the EU, so we needed border staff in Bulgaria to check and stamp our passports. Plovdiv was a good choice to get that done, with permanent border staff onsite and no additional notice required. Ohrid airport operations responded promptly to my email requests, highlighting that the airport daily opening times are as published by NOTAM but that they can supply AVGAS. They have around 2-3 flights per day, and often close mid morning – the schedule states regular times for each day of the week. This puts some pressure on to fly earlier in case of any delays. The flight time was estimated 1h20 but we would cross back to the CET timezone, effectively landing 20 minutes after departure (local time). I reckoned an 0840 departure (Bulgarian local time) would have us land around 0900 (North Macedonian local time). This compares favourably with an eight-hour drive by car.

Included in their email response, Ohrid pointed out that my flight would require permission from the Macedonian authorities and gave me an email address to use. This caught me out when we were out and about exploring Cluj, but it’s amazing what can be done by mobile phone these days. A fairly quick reply to my email asked me for three aircraft documents (Certificate of Registration, ARC and Insurance), which I sent from my phone and permission was granted by return. While I was surprised about needing government level permission, I was very positively surprised that it was dealt with promptly during an Easter weekend at no charge. It’s hard to understand why light aircraft flights might require individual permission in this part of the world, but I don’t make the rules.

We also needed to get hold of enough cash (in Euros) to pay for fuel at Ohrid, and this was done by making multlple withdrawals of Bulgarian lev using several different cards at a bank ATM and then swapping those for euros at a bureau de change.

A quick look at the chart shows some pretty high terrain on the route up to almost 10,000 feet. I opted for an initial altitude of 8,500 with the expectation that slightly higher might be required. Controlled airspace in the main part of the route starts above FL105.

After snatching a quick early breakfast at the hotel, which was prepared for us a few minutes earlier than their 0730 normal opening time (despite being the Easter holiday), our taxi came at 0745 and we were at the airport around 0800. A friendly operations staff member was waiting to escort us through security and up to the office to settle landing fees. Border staff stamped our passports and we were out on the apron by about 0820. I took my time with pre-flighting, so it was 0900 when we took off. There were no scheduled aircraft movements that day, so it was good to have access to the full airport facilities.

Plovdiv passenger terminal

The tower had asked me if I could exit their control zone via BAKAL on the standard route V221 while climbing to my planned altitude of 8,500 feet. This is clearly marked on SkyDemon and so no problem for me to use. We were instructed to use the full length of the runway (as stated in the AIP) and took off from runway 30 then turned left before passing the main city. It seemed to me that there are some quite large villages/small towns hidden away in the mountains to the south. The distant snow-covered mountains ahead looked quite daunting, but we climbed up sufficiently to be well clear of those nearby.

I think this town is near BAKAL, fairly soon after departing Plovdiv

At BAKAL, I was switched to Sofia and didn’t get a response straight away – quite possibly the controller was talking to someone else on the landline etc – but after checking I did have the correct frequency, contact was made. I deviated slightly south to fly above a col in the mountain range and climbed further to 9,500 feet. The mountains on either side had peaks of 9,560 but we were well clear of both. Winds were very light so there was no turbulence or mountain wave effects – it was really quite smooth up there.

Aiming for the col – the snowline at each side is at 9,500 feet, similar to our altitude

Sofia (Bulgaria) told me to switch to Skopje (North Macedonia) when I crossed the border at VELBA, and there I was instructed to fly visually to IZD, an NDB/DME waypoint ten miles north. I don’t believe anyone else was flying at this altitude in my immediate area, so my descent and routing were at my discretion. The controller was kept fairly busy with airliners elsewhere.

The hills and mountains weren’t so populated in the middle part of our journey, and there was just a rugged carpet of green trees below with the odd lake and village here and there.

Once into Macedonia, and especially after reaching the central area, more population centres came into view.

Shtip, small town in the main upland plain in central North Macedonia
Despite the reflections, this gives a good impression of the carpet of trees below
Ohrid is barely visible in the middle of the photo – you can see the road in the valley leading upwards and left

Timing the descent proved trickier than I had imagined. Ohrid is 2,300 feet above sea level, so I had around 7,000 feet to lose. I normally allow 5 miles per 1,000 feet in the descent, so intended to start down with around 30 miles to run. The chart noted mountain tops of over 6,000 feet ahead, but they appeared higher than that. With about 25 miles to go, I descended more quickly than usual by putting down the gear and flaps. I was switched over to Ohrid Tower who provided the airfield information and cleared me to proceed onto a long final for runway 19 and asked me to report the field in sight. Readability was about 4 initially due to the terrain, but I could understand what was being said and read it back. The airport was already in sight by then.

Still a fair bit of altitude to lose, so gear down

To help the more rapid descent, I slowed down and put the gear and first stage of flaps down. This helped manage the descent profile a lot better than the previous day. I used the GTN Visual Approach guidance feature with the autopilot, but given the terrain close by on both sides, it wasn’t really a surprise that no glide slope indication appeared. The Garmin Aero was going bananas, constantly warning of terrain and insisting we “pull up, pull up”. Thankfully this didn’t overly concern my wife because she could see I was paying attention.

The Garmin Aero continued giving audible terrain warnings due to the hills on our left
One of the few airports in the area with AVGAS

After landing, a follow-me car led me to a marshaller. The AVGAS bowser pulled up almost immediately and topped off the tanks. AVGAS isn’t always available here, but it must be tax-free like the UK Channel Islands and is considerably cheaper than in countries nearby, although must be paid for in cash.

Videos

I’ve split the flight into two separate videos:

  • Plovdiv departure, crossing into North Macedonia until about 15 miles before Ohrid
  • Visual approach and landing at Ohrid

Below is a speeded up YouTube video of the last 15 miles including approach and landing

Immigration formalities apply – yes, we really were visiting only for two days – but we must have looked like sufficiently convincing tourists to the immigration officer. Passports stamped again and we were on our way. Cash is essential here but you can usually only obtain it inside the country. Most hotels and many restaurants do accept card payments, but cash is much more common. The ATM in the arrivals lounge dispensed 5,000 denar (about 100 euros).

Outside in the car park, our pre-arranged hire car was waiting for us – the agent had been monitoring our flight on FlightRadar24 and asked us what it was like. Car hire here seems reasonably priced and relatively easy but must be pre-arranged if arriving outside the times of scheduled flights. The last piece of the jigsaw puzzle was an eSIM for my phone. Friends had recently been caught out abroad and ran up huge mobile phone roaming charges – calls are typically £2/minute and data 20p/Mbyte because you have left the EU. I had bought a local “virtual” SIM card for my phone using the Airolo App. It’s a bit fiddly to install and setup but works well. We found a coffee shop in the town centre with Wi-Fi to complete the eSIM installation and book up a hotel.

The horizontal track looks straightforward, routing between the 10,000 feet terrain either side

Ohrid

Northern Macedonia has a population of around 2 million and the only two airports are at Skopje (the capital) and Ohrid. I had thought Ohrid would be the second or third largest city in the country but it’s the 8th, with just 42,000 inhabitants. It has a growing tourist market, with stunning scenery, relatively economical accommodation and restaurants, as well as many historic attractions.

We spent two nights here.

Lake tours are popular

We drove down the east side of the lake, stopping at a lovely restaurant for lunch which had great views over the lake. There are a few purpose-built tourist hotel blocks on the shore, but really not that much development overall. We went almost to the Albanian border, visiting the Monastry of St Naum, one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.

Our hotel featured an outside swimming pool which appeared enticing in the warm sunshine, but I think had been filled with ice-cubes overnight and was quite a shock to the system. There was a short coastal walk into town, with great views from the cliffs over the lake and an interesting church on the way.

The next day we explored Ohrid on foot, and climbed to the top of the hills to explore the historic church and fort. This is where the bible was first translated into Slavic language in AD 900, and from here Christianity spread throughout the Balkans and into Russia as far as Vladivostok.

Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon
We found a delightful authentic restaurant slightly off the beaten track for dinner. Excellent, tasty food and great views.

PIC today: 1:35

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