As I have mentioned elsewhere VT Euromeets are wonderful fun and I recommend them but they do have one slight drawback when it comes to writing tips later on. Our hosts in Serbia and Macedonia (Keti and the two Valentinas respectively) had spent so much time and trouble that I haven't a clue about admission prices, normal opening times etc. for half the places we visited, and I know at least a couple of places were especially opened for us. Please bear with me in that respect as most of the technical information will be taken from web resources.
What I can tell you about is my opinions about places, which may or may not be of value to you. Although Bitola has had a museum since the 1930's, it was moved about somewhat from building to building until finally settling in it's present impressive home which I believe was formerly a military academy during the time of Turkish rule here.
The museum is laid out chronlogfically from prehistory to more or less the present day and has some fascinating exhibits, signed in English as well as Macedonian. I was particulary interested in an exhibit about local "freedom fighters" during the late 19th / early 20th century with the associated weapons. Just me being a bloke, I suppose.
Slightly further on, there is a reconstruction of a townhouse "drawing room" dating to the early 20th century which contains some beautiful artefacts. Just beside that you can see the sign from the British consulate of the time. At one time Bitola prided itself on having a large number of consuls resident in what was locally known as "Consulate Street".
When you have finished the main exhibition, you should take time to visit a smaller but impressive exhibition dedicated to Kemel Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey who was a student in this very building when it was a military academy. It is very interesting, and there is rather a poignant love story attached to it, if you like that sort of thing. I'll not spoil it for you here.
I do commend the excellent website I have attached for a virtual tour of the place, although obviously a real tour is much better. I have elsewhere recommended Bitola as a travel destination and this is a bit of a "must see."
Bitola as important political & cultural centre on the Balkans & under the Ottomans had deversity of inhabitants.
One of the majority of the inhabitants were the Safaradim Jews known as MANASTIRLI Jews.
Their couture left rich trace in the every day tapestry of life in Bitola.
Lots of buildings with rich architectural art, traditions & history are witness of thriving community in the City.
The Safaradim Jews arrived on the Balkans and Bitola in particular in the XV Ad from Spain & Portugal escaping the Spanish inquisition & crusade wars..
They found peaceful haven on the Balkans, thanks to the wealth of craft masters and traders who made up the the number of the Jewish population in the Balkans.
Some of the most gifted Jewish masters of crafts moved from Spain & Portugal to the Ottoman Empire & settled on the Balkans. .....The Spanish overseer of Oran, decided to expel all of the Jews from the city and 'clean' the place with help of the Catholic Church.
The boats from Oran stopped at Madeira island, Marseilles, Genoa and Duress. The ones from Duress made their way inside the Ottoman kingdom,
Hence big numbers of them settled in Bitola, Shtip, Skopje, Belgrade & Sarajevo....
Interesting is that still the descendants of the Bitola Jews call themselves Monastirli Jews. Monastir is the old Ottoman name for Bitola.
One third of the population of Bitola from the 1700's to the Balkan wars (1912-1913) were Monastirli Jews.
Between the World Wars some of them left for Palestine and south America, predominantly Argentina & from there ended up in New York Sate in USA..
Unfortunately during the WWII,under Bulgarian & German occupation armies, most of the Synagogues, schools and religious buildings were destroyed.
And 13.000 Jewish inhabitants from Bitola were sent to TREBLINKA.
300.000 Jews from Macedonia were gathered in Skopje railway warehouses and transported to their deaths in the Nazi camp of Treblinka.
The Bulgarian Occupational Army proceeded with utmost precision to delete the existence of these ppl from Bitola.
As the last act of savagery the Old Synagogue which was situated in the Old Bazaar was blown away day before Bulgaria signed the capitulation pact.
The only trace of the Jewish life left today is the Jewish Cemetery located on the eastern side of town, on the entrance to Bitola from Prilep. There is an small remembrance room within the gates of the cemetery with documents and artefacts of the life of Manastirli Jews in the City.
Also around town specially on Shirok Sokak are dotted grand houses in baroque style, belonging to prominent Jewish families. They are easily recognisable as the Star of David can be found incorporated in the Grand design of the façades.
Located in the center of town, almost next to the flying saucer fountain, the Jeni Mosque was originally built in 1558 and houses the city's art gallery. I was not able to get into the gallery, so to me it is a mosque with a 39 meter minaret.
During my week in Macedonia it seemed that every afternoon about three o'clock the sky would cloud over and the heavens would open up. Fortunately I was never far from shelter when this happened and on this particular afternoon in Bitola I was passing this place - Restaurant Korzo.
The covered terrace suited me admirably, the waiting staff were attentive and a beer and ashtray were immediately placed in front of me. I don't remember ordering either but maybe I just look like a beer and ashtray sort of person??
Joking aside though this was a very pleasant spot to weather the afternoon storm. There was a buzzy local feel, some people eating whilst others simply having a drink, people came and went, umbrellas were furled and unfurled and the wait staff duly buzzed and hovered.
I ended up with one of those magic beer glasses which seemed to refill itself every time I tried to empty it and before I knew it I was on number three by the time the sun had reasserted itself.
PS I didn't eat here but the food looked good.
In Bitola's 19th century role as a major Ottoman trading centre the various magazas within the city were the fortified storerooms, and sometimes marketplaces, where tradesmen and merchants would hold their wares prior to being sold either by private negotiation or in the bazaar.
One of the few remaining is this one at the top end of the Shirok Sokak, just off Magnolia Square. In keeping with its former role this is now used as an exhibition and performance space and during my visit was showcasing the works of Dimitar Malidanov.
I wasn't quite sure what it was all about as the two women looking after the place didn't seem to speak English but I assume the pieces were all for sale. I'm also assuming that different artists use the space and that the building can be hired for other artistic uses.
OK this is yet another bar but in this one I only had coffee. Caffe Leo is a characterful little pizzeria down at the bottom end of the Shirok Sokak and is distinguished from the crowd by its impressively wood-panelled interior.
Located in the lower half of the main drag means that is firmly in "Old Fogey" territory and so suited me perfectly - the little outside patio is ideal for "Old Fogey Watching" ;-)
At the bottom end of the Shirok Sokak you'll find the city's main park. This is a relaxing shaded space with well-kept lawns and shrub beds which looks ideal for a weekend stroll or picnic without having to go far from the city centre.
Although not particularly spectacular the park has useful facilities such as the Mladost Sports Centre, a childrens play area and a couple of outdoor cafe/bars.
The interesting Russian monument caught my eye and a little research reveals that it was erected in 2003 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of the then Russian Imperial Consul Aleksandr Rostkovski who was murdered here during the late Ottoman period.
When I'm travellling I love just taking a wander and seeing where I end up and if there happens to be a bar at the end of it then so much the better. Here I got a doubleplusgood result.
I just aimlessly sauntered out of town and found myself out where the Jewish cemetery and the St Nedela Orthodox church and graveyard are located. I was kinda thirsty by then and this little bar proved to be a veritable oasis.
Not only was the beer cheap, a mere 50 Den for a large "Dab" but the bar owner was a friendly guy as we attempted to make small talk (even though neither of us had a common language). The bar itself is pretty basic, just a simple wooden shack on the roadside, and on a midweek lunchtime I was the only customer apart from one other guy who just seemed to be resting his feet rather than having a beer. Pleasant way to spend half an hour :-)
All of Bitola's main tourist attractions follow a sort of linear path through the city beginning with the Heraklia archaeological site about a kilometre out of the centre, then following the main street of the Shirok Sokak and finishing at the bazaars. Personally I found my own Golden Line which included most of the city's bars and several of its restaurants but the same line pretty much follows both my route as well as that that the local tourist board promotes.
For the local tourist board's set of videos simply Google "golden line bitola" and you should find the "youtube" set.
For my version keep reading this page!
Another centrepiece of downtown Bitola, and a symbol of the town. It is 32m high - say 100’.
The present structure was built as recently as 1830, but it is mentioned as being there in the 17th century, so it must have replaced an earlier building.
One story suggests that the Turkish administration of the time collected 60,000 eggs from the local population to be used in its construction - to strengthen it apparently.
The Yeni mosque is a remnant from the city’s Ottoman period, dating back to 1559. It is now an art gallery.
It occupies a prominent spot close to the Dragor, at the end of Maršal Tito, and is one of the city centre landmarks. I must confess I didn’t go inside. I only had 36 hours in the city, and being super tired when I arrived as well as having some urgent work to do, I spent a lot of time just sitting around chilling out.
A short walk (and it really is) from central Bitola, there is a most impressive ancient site, that of Heraclea. Our guide, obviously very knowledgeable, was at pains to point out that it was not an ancient Roman or Greek site but an ancient Macedonian site. I have no problem with this, associated as it is with Macedonian nationalism as I have spoken about elsewhere on my Macedonia pages but, as an employee in a tertiary industry, he really left a lot to be desired. Treating a group of generally middle aged (sorry to the younger ones here) people like the schoolchildren he was obviously used to overseeing was really not the way to go. He has a lot to learn.
However, left to our own devices (the guide having gone off to oversee a bunch of schoolkids, which he was obviously better suited for) we discovered a wonderful place, still under excavation. Indeed, the "diggers" who had not a word of English between them, were far more helpful than the "professional" (and I use the word advisedly) guide. At least they tried to be helpful.
The problem with Heraclea, as I suppose with many archaeological sites, is that they estimate that they have excavated about 20% of it. So what to do with the other 80%? The problem is that it now all lies underneath houses and businesses. Do you remove them to dig up ancient remains or do you leave them alone? I am not an archaeologist and really cannot offer a valid opinion. Also, in a country that is struggling economically, does it make sense to spend so much money on the past? Again, I do not know. The current excavations appear to be funded by the Italians under EU auspices. Strange when their own economy is going belly up. What I do know is that Heraclea (as so far excavated) offers a wonderful insight into the lives of the ancients and I commend you to go and visit.
To the facts and figures now. It appears there was a civilisation here since about the fourth century BC. Yes, the Romans did come and conquer, and made this an important site but our guide seemed to gloss over this point somewhat. Baths, amphitheatre, forum, they are all here and beautifully preserved and now exposed again. I shall choose to remember the place as a reminder of the wonderful inventiveness of the people here, of whatever hue they may have been, and cherish a day in this fascinating place.
I cannot actually tell you how much it costs to visit here or the pening hours as it was all arranged for us. i would suggest that the physical state of the place would make all but the most cursory glimpse difficult for people with mobility difficulties.
Readers of other pages of mine on VT will know that I detest shopping but I love markets or bazaars as they tend to be called in this part of the world. There is an old bazaar building in Bitola but this is not where the real action is. Walk a little way beyond it and you are into the proper commercial area. It is a place, like they tend to be, of wonder, strange scents, unusual sights and sheer wonder. The bustle of daily commerce crammed into tight packed streets is simply a delight.
OK, we were in a slightly priveleged position in that we were on a Euromeet, and even had our own TV crew meet us and interview some of the members. I avoided this as I don't like cameras but I have included an image of the filming which apparently transferred from Tera (local station) to national Macedonian TV. I rather liked the idea of VT on TV, it amused me.
OK, I am not going to beat about the bush here, and I do not want, in any way, to breach VT's very proper rules about political and religious comment but it is impossible to speak about the Balkan region without at least tangentially mentioning the seemingly eternal conflict between Christianity and Islam here. To do so would be to mislead the reader, and I do not intend to do that. The fact is, you cannot walk around central Bitola without noticing the huge mosque that dominates the skyline. As our excellent guide (Christian, I believe) very properly pointed out to us for many centuries both faiths co-existed quite happily here, and the nearby Orthodox Christian church was happily tolerated as long as the mosque was the largest and most impressive building. Such is the way of the world.
I live in an area of London that is predominantly Moslem and I know that Friday lunchtime prayers are the most imprtant of the week. I was, therefore, somewhat surprised to find that the two mosques in the town were not actually open for worship at that time and were apparently only open on holy days (Eid etc., I suppose). Being from Northern Ireland, I probably have more reason than most to hate religious intolerance, and I wondered at this. Was it just that there were no longer enough Moslem worshippers to make it viable? I don't know.
The building itself dominates the skyline of central Bitola. It is a hugely impressive structure. apparently it was built in the mid 16th century and is impressive from the outside even if I didn't manage to get inside. If you visit Bitola, you won't miss it.
It is a fact of life in Macedonia (as indeed most of the Balkans) that you must register your presence with the police within 24 hours of arrival in any new place. This requires depositing your passport with the hotel / guest house / hostel you are staying in, and I have never had a problem with it. However, needing local funds, I went to a bank just off the main square in Bitola to change money but was told I couldn't do it as I didn't have my passport. Slight problem then. I can't get my passport as my lovely landlady (see seperate tip for Chola Guesthouse) quite properly has it for my registration and the bank are not allowed to change money without it.
However, in the way of things in this lovely country, it was not a problem. The delightful lady in the bank who, thankfully, spoke a bit of English and directed me a very short walk to the little exchange office pictured. For some obscure reason, exchange offices apparently do not need your passport. I duly repaired there, spoke to the gentleman who spoke good English and was the proud owner of a walletful of Macedonian dinari in about three minutes flat. Checking with my Macedonian friend Valentina, I found that the exchange rate was competitive. I would have no problem in recommending this place.
I cannot for the life of me find the business card I acquired so I will have to describe where it is, see the later section of this tip.