Day 18: Bitola, Macedonia

by - August 20, 2011

“Bitola should have a future as a tourist centre, for when the acacias are out it is a fantastically lovely city”

St  Sofia Church, Ohrid
There was still one more sight that we wanted to see at Ohrid before we departed, the church of St Sofia in the town centre.  This is the largest church in Ohrid and is based on its namesake in Istanbul (though quite how I don’t understand).  It spent 500 years as a mosque when Macedonia was part of the Ottoman Empire and unfortunately its charms were lost on us when an army of shutterbugs arrived. We got a taxi to the bus station (cosing about 80p for a 10 minute journey) and then took the bus on the hour and a quarter journey to Bitola.  The journey passed through terrain straight out of the Italian job and the abandoned smashed up buses by the roadside, surrounded by crosses and flowers didn’t help me to put the film’s final scene out of my mind (nor did the fact that halfway through the journey we stopped at a chapel where everybody filled up their bottles with holy water).  With the odds seemingly against it however, we did arrive in Bitola both on time and alive.

Mosaics at Heraklea
Bitola is one of those ‘faded grandeur’ cities that I have often come across in former Yugoslavia.  At one stage it was the second biggest city in Ottoman Europe and was a centre of trade and politics - it was nicknamed the 'city of consuls’ as all the major European powers had embassies here.  The embassies remain, but the grand buildings they once occupied here now have been generally sold off, leaving diplomats with a fraction of the former space.  We were staying at the beautiful Chora Guesthouse on the edge of town, built into a traditional Ottoman house.  There isn’t loads to see in the town itself, but a kilometer out of the centre one of the ruins of the Roman city of Heraklea.  The ruins are compact and the theatre is mainly reconstructed, but the mosaics that are preserved are probably the best I have ever come across.  The entrance fee was a modest 100 MKD each, but they wanted a massive 300 MKD from anybody who wanted to take photos.  Luckily the guy on the gate was pretty relaxed and let us both in for 50 MKD as students and turned a blind eye to our cameras.  The whole atmosphere at the ruins was very relaxed and they didn’t seem to mind people walking all over the walls and other remains.

Sveti Dimitrija Church, Bitola
It was about 4pm by the time that we got back to town but this left enough time to wander around the pretty pedestrianised shopping streets and to look at the churches, mosques and old clock tower that are the main sights. We decided to go into one of the churches - the church of Sveti Dimitrija, which we were shown around by a little old lady.  She asked us if we were Catholics, which Ellie could answer fairly easily but which I had to answer with 'church of England’. She had understandably never heard of this so, deciding that the story of Henry VIII and his wives would probably cause a fair bit of shock, I settled for calling myself a Protestant. She nodded to confirm that she had heard of this religion, but then checked that I knew who Jesus and Mary were.  We lit a candle at the pretty church as the lady had given us quite an insight into the faith.

Russian Embassy, Bitola
It was now getting towards dinner time and we decided to have a meal at a restaurant in the Russian Embassy building (where the current embassy occupies the top floor).  The meal was good but we regretted asking for Turkish coffee at the end as they served it in a normal sized mug rather than the little 'shot’ that it should come in. For those of you who have never hard Turkish coffee, this is the equivalent of being served whiskey in a pint glass, so we left the restaurant with quite a buzz. On the way back we stopped at a little supermarket, which is worth mentioning as a sight in itself.  I have never seen such chaos - it wasn’t even as though they had just forgotten to tidy it in a while, it was more like the delivery man had launched the stock at them with a cannon.  It was near impossible to walk, but the kindly owner (who glided around as if it was wide-aisled Waitrose) gave us some information about the train we were planning to catch to Skopje in the morning.

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