Before setting foot in Macedonia, I had never even heard of Bitola. I had spent the few days before exploring Skopje and Ohrid, and fell in love with the people, the food, the landscape, and the overall, easygoing atmosphere oozing from every aspect of my experience. I had planned on going to Bulgaria by that time to meet up with some friends, but I didn’t want my time in Macedonia to end. So I pulled up the map, and saw that Bitola was nearby. I immediately knew I had to go there. With no plan and no expectations, I packed my bag and headed to the bus station.
For the hour-long drive east to get to Bitola, I hired a shared taxi in Ohrid with two other people. With this arrangement, it ended up costing me just as much as a bus ticket. Like most people I met there, the driver was very curious about me. Where was I from? What was I doing in Macedonia? How did I like it? He was a big, friendly man with a hearty laugh and a smoker’s voice; he came to typify the people of the country for me. Once we pulled up into town, he apologetically admitted that he had no idea where my hostel was. So I gave him the name and number for my hostel and he called them to ask for directions. Those stereotypes about cold and snippy Eastern Europeans are wrong, at least for Macedonia. In my time there, they were nothing but warm, chatty, and welcoming and it was the same in Bitola.
Being the second largest city in the country, it holds cultural, industrial, and administrative significance to the region. In my time there, however, I saw not a single other tourist. Bitola had no chain restaurants in sight, no Starbucks, no McDonalds. No loud groups of university students telling stories of late-night debauchery. Clean tree-lined streets, fresh cheap food, mountain views… I felt like I had hit the jackpot.
Due to a combination of poor planning and limited vacation time, I had only one 24-hour period to see this city. The hostel owner tsk-tsked me when I told him I was only staying one night. “I would have a lot of recommendations for you, if you were staying longer.” After checking in, I immediately headed out into town, armed with the map he gave me, marked with points of interest.
I didn’t really feel like I needed the map, since all roads seemed to lead to Bitola city center, where the clock tower was located. Turning north from the clock tower, I crossed the river to the city market. The market looked a lot like the bazaar in Skopje, but this one was an actual public market, where farmers came to sell their goods, rather than a tourist attraction. I gleefully browsed the culinary and medicinal herbs, fresh fruits and vegetables, and organic honeys. I found what I thought was a meat market, because there was just so much bright red. After my eyes focused, I saw that it was heaps and heaps of red peppers. Again, I had to suppress the powerful urge to just set down my backpack and live there forever. I bought some raspberries and peppers to snack on later. I could smell their freshness wafting from the bag and was tempted to eat them right away.
I headed back to the clock tower and turned south down Sirok Sokak, or wide alley. Sirok Sokak is the main pedestrian area of town where people can eat, shop, drink, and socialize. It’s a nice walk for people watching and viewing the neo-classical architecture, though it doesn’t take long to complete, so I thought it worth stopping in a café to savor the atmosphere. After a few minutes of relaxing with coffee and some local pastry, I continued south to the city park.
Further south, beyond the park, I found the ruins of Heraclea. Heraclea was a significant region of Roman Macedonia in the 4th Century B.C.E, founded by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. I was the only person there at the time, so I had the freedom to explore the ruins completely on my own. That is if you don’t count the chatty old man at the snack bar trying to get me to speak Macedonian with him. I was told that in the summer, Heraclea is full of tourists, so I considered my solitude a stroke of luck. The highlight of the ruins was the tile mosaics, which were very detailed works showing animals in the wild. There were no barriers, no security guards, and nothing protecting them from the elements. I was surprised the mosaics were as intact as they were. They must have been restored at some point, though this was information I could not uncover. After climbing and stumbling over the ruins for about an hour, I retraced my steps back to the city center, about a 45-minute walk, while enjoying the raspberries and peppers I had purchased earlier.
That night, after a long day of walking and exploring, I walked back to Sirok Sokak for some intense caloric refuel. I bought a pizza and a bottle of wine; the total was less than 10 USD. The pizza was good, made with local produce, and the wine was amazing. While enjoying my dinner, I sat back and felt grateful for my stubbornness. Of all the places I could have visited from Istanbul, I wanted Macedonia, and didn’t really have a good reason for wanting to go, other than a good feeling about the place. I’m so glad that I did because I was rewarded with so many pleasant surprises. The amount of time I spent there, four days, didn’t feel like nearly enough to do everything I wanted to do, but it was just enough time to leave me enchanted and dreaming of my return.