There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Ohrid, the Heart of Slavic Macedonia: Part 12 of The Balkans

Ohrid began life in the 4th century BC under the name Lychnidos (City of Light) perhaps because of the reflections from its clear, blue lake. When the Romans replaced the Macedonian Greeks Lychnidos’ position on the Via Egnatia ensured its continued prosperity. The Slavs arrived in the seventh century and renamed the city Ohrid (city on a hill) which is accurate, but lacks poetry.

After a leisurely breakfast we strolled in warm sunshine along the lakeside promenade to the square at the foot of the hill on which the old city stands.

The lakeside promenade and the old town of Ohrid
We followed the old streets across the face of the hill and then upwards….

Through the streets of the old town, Ohrid
….until we reached the Upper Gate in the curtain wall of Car Samoil's castle which dominates the old town.

The Upper Gate, Ohrid
We started our tour by descending a short way along Klimentov Univerzitet.

In 862 the brothers who were to become the Saints Cyril and Methodius were dispatched form Constantinople to evangelise the Slavs in central Europe. They travelled at the request of Prince Rastislav of Moravia who was less concerned about his people being pagan than about the growing power of the Church of Rome.

Catholic liturgy was in Latin, then still the language of the Western European elite, and Cyril and Methodius realised the Slavs needed a liturgy in their own tongue. Unfortunately the Slavs were illiterate and their language unwritten so the brothers developed the script that became known as Glagolitic and used it to write a liturgy in what is now known as Old Church Slavonic (Modern Church Slavonic is used in services in most Eastern orthodox churches today.)

Ohrid and its lake are in the southwest corner of Macedonia
The success of Cyril and his bro was based on the careful training of disciples and two of the foremost were Saint Kliment of Ohrid (we met him outside the new cathedral of St Kliment in Skopje) and St Naum (see next post). These two eventually returned to Ohrid and set up the first university in the Slav world where they developed the script named after St Cyril, now used throughout eastern Europe and central Asia*. The street name commemorates Kliment’s university; Ohrid's 'University of Science and Technology' in the modern town was founded in 2009 and is a rather different institution.

We were in Klimentov Univerzitet looking for the entrance to the 13th century church of Sveti Bogoridica Perivlepta where the bones of St Kliment were once kept. It should have been easy – we could even see the church - but the entrance to the small courtyard was not where the signs pointed. Eventually we found the ticket office, paid our 100 denars (£1.10) and swiftly wished we had not. It was Sunday, a service was in progress and the church was packed - it is small so that required a little more than a dozen people. To enter we would have to walk over the upturned feet of the kneeling worshippers, and you should not trample on people’s soles on a Sunday.

Sveti Bogoridica Perivlepta, Ohrid
We missed the promised ‘vivid biblical frescoes’ but settled for visiting the renowned icon gallery across the courtyard.

A large woman barred our entry demanding another 100 denars. We showed her our tickets, but that was not good enough, the icons required a separate ticket. I sometimes come over all mean when I feel I am not getting value for money, but Lynne was having none of it, forcibly** extracting the notes from my scrooge-like grip. I am glad she did, not so much because of the icons, which were fine enough, but for the language used to describe them. We had seen the huge painting of Christ Pantocrator at St Kliment’s in Skopje, but here we encountered Jesus and Mary variously painted as ‘psychosostria’ (saviour of souls), ‘peribleptos’ (admired) ‘episkepsis’ (questioning) and ‘hodigitria’ (showing the way). Lynne made a note and we looked the words up later. Perhaps I am a little odd, preferring the words to the pictures, but then I have always preferred the words to the music as well.

Returning to the Upper Gate and walking a short distance in the other direction took us to the city's amphitheatre. There are four such theatres in Macedonia and this was our third in three days, but whereas the others are Roman, Ohrid's is Greek in origin. The Greeks used it as a theatre but later the more bloodthirsty Romans held gladiator shows and executions. It was then covered up and forgotten until its accidental rediscovery in the 1980s. Only the lower tiers remain, but it is again being used for performances; during Ohrid's Summer Festival it has hosted the Bolshoi Ballet and José Carreras, among others.

The amphitheatre, Ohrid
Returning, again, to the Upper gate we had problems with more dodgy signs before we located the road up to the castle entrance.

Up to Car Samoil's Castle, Ohrid
The First Bulgarian Empire lasted from 681 to 1018 and ruled a considerable area to the north of the Byzantine Empire. The capital moved several times and in 982 it arrived in Ohrid which had long been the cultural and military centre of south west Bulgaria - the distinction between Macedonian and Bulgarian is a recent invention.

Car Samoil (Csar Samuel) the last ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (there was a Second from the 12th to 14th century) built the hilltop fortress over an earlier fortification possibly constructed by Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great.

Car Samoil's Castle, Ohrid
There is little to see inside the castle,

Inside Car Samoil's Castle, Ohrid
....the main attraction is to climb the steps onto the walls and see the view over the city of Ohrid.....

Ohrid from Car Samoil's Castle
..... and across the lake.....

The Northern tip of Lake Ohrid, from Car Samoil's Castle
Much of Car Samoil's reign was taken up by war with Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire won a decisive victory at the Battle of Kleidon in 1014 and captured 15,000 Bulgarian soldiers. The Emperor Boris II (Boris the Bulgar Slayer) blinded his captives leaving 1 man in every 100 with one eye so he could lead the others home. When Samoil saw his returning army he died of a heart attack. He is buried beside Lake Prespa, his grave being on what is now the Greek side of the border. While medieval warfare was undoubtedly barbaric, this is a case where history was, for once, written by the losers not the winners. The mass blinding was probably Bulgarian propaganda and never actually happened.

We drank our morning espresso at a café outside the castle gates and then followed a forested path downhill to the Church of Saints Kliment and Pantelejmon, a shiny new building which sits behind the remains of a 4th century basilica.

Fourth century basilica, Ohrid
When Saint Kliment returned to Ohrid after his travels with Saints Cyril and Methodius he was given a small church on this site. He had it rebuilt as a much larger church and dedicated it to Saint Pantelejmon, personally designing the crypt where he was later interred. Under the Ottoman Empire it became a mosque and then a church again, undergoing many further changes over the centuries, some constructive, some destructive. The current structure was started in 2003 by the archaeologist Pasko Kuzman. It has been hand built as close to the original design as possible using as much of the historical material as was available and has been re-dedicated to both St Kliment and St Pantelejmon.

The Church of St Kliment and St Pantalejmon, Ohrid
Inside are more icons and we were invited to peer into the glass covered crypt to see the relics of St Kliment, which are taken out for an annual parade. It was too dark down there to make out much, and I have never understood the fascination the Catholic and Orthodox churches have with body parts of the saints - or Buddhists with bits of the Buddha. After a millennium of upheavals, changes of regime, mayhem and destruction it is an act of faith to believe these really are bits of St Kliment not randomly collected bones.

A further descent along a pine fringed path took us down to the lake side at Kaneo, once a fishing hamlet just side Ohrid, now a stony beach with a few pleasure craft and a couple of restaurants on the edge of the city. On a headland above the beach is the 13th century church of St John containing a fresco of Christ Pantocrator that has only recently been rediscovered.

St John's, Kaneo, from above
It is the setting of the church which makes it so beautiful whether viewed from above, or from the beach - or more precisely the decking of the Letna Bavča restaurant, which stretches out over the water.

St John's, Kaneo, from the deck of the restaurant
Seduced by the scenery, the sun on the clear blue waters and the promise of fresh lake carp and eel we found an empty table and relaxed after our morning’s exertions.

We ordered glasses of mastika. It had taken us a few attempts to work out how best to drink this nectar which looks like ouzo but is in some ways closer to pastis. We had expected it to arrive with a carafe of water, but discovered that it is not served with water but with a glass of small ice cubes. You drop as many as you like into your glass and drink it as the ice melts and mastika goes cloudy - in warm sunshine it works magnificently.

Lynne's carp was a steak across a large fish, the flesh well-flavoured and beautifully cooked. Carp can be muddy, but this was not, the limpid waters of Lake Ohrid do not do mud. My eel was delightful, the flesh sweet and the fat running.

Lynne eats lake carp beside the lake, Kaneo, Ohrid
A bottle of Zupljanka from Tikveš (inevitably) had the acidity to cut the fat and was an excellent accompaniment. I thought it was a new grape to me but have since discovered Zupljanka is the local name for the more familiar Chasselas. It was a long lunch, sitting in the sun, sipping wine and reflecting upon what a lovely place we had stumbled upon.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the sun drenched decking, but after a good strong coffee we paid the surprisingly modest bill and made our way up hill from the cove, along the hillside and then down to Saint Sophia's, though we suspected we had probably seen enough churches for the day.

Founded in the 9th century most of it dates from the 11th and the frescoes, which were painted over the next two hundred years, are of international importance. The walls of almost every church in Macedonia are covered with medieval frescoes and we were beginning to feel a little frescoed out.

Saint Sophia's, Ohrid
We followed the road as it dropped through the delightful old town and then wandered slowly back along the promenade.

We did not feel the need to eat anything else that day, but in the evening we wandered along to the bar-lined street that runs inland along the base of the hill, sat at one of the pavement cafés and enjoyed a leisurely beer (or two). There were plenty of bars to choose from, Ohrid is not only the spiritual heart of Macedonia, its situation beside the country’s biggest lake makes it also the largest holiday resort – a strange mixture of Blackpool and Canterbury.

Pop-up Church, Ohrid
But even here we could not get away from frescoes and icons. Just across from where we were sitting was a pop-up church, the open doors of a market stall revealing an impromptu iconostasis. Throughout the evening, in a street otherwise given over to hedonistic pleasure, a steady stream of people stopped by the icons, crossed themselves and offered a brief prayer, many of them also dropping a few denars in the box and lighting a candle.

*In fairness I should point out that Preslav in modern Bulgaria makes the same claims.

**I would like to make it clear the ‘force’ applied was purely verbal. There was no unseemly scuffle in the precinct of Sveti Bogoridica Perivlepta.

The Balkans 

Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)
Part 3 Mostar

Croatia (May 2012)
Part 5 Korčula
Macedonia (May 2015)
Part 8 Skopje

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Mariovo and Lake Prespa: Part 11 of The Balkans

Our destination for the day was the city of Ohrid, but as it was only 70km from Bitola we first took a short trip in the opposite direction into the Mariovo district, described by Lonely Planet as the badlands of the border country where the sound of exploding World War One armament caches can still be heard during summer wildfires.

Macedonia had the misfortune of being the main battlefield in the First Balkan War (Oct 1912 - May 1913) in which the Balkan League ganged up on Turkey to drive the Ottoman empire almost entirely out of Europe and in the Second Balkan War (June to August 1913) in which Bulgaria, unhappy about how little of Macedonia it had been given at the end of the first war, fought its erstwhile allies. The Bulgarians were defeated but the war allowed the Turks to regain part of the territory previously lost. Then came the First World War; Bulgaria joined up with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Kingdom of a Serbia and pushed south through Macedonia, then part of Serbia. They were stopped in the Mariovo region by a combined allied force and by 1916 there was a static front where half a million Bulgarians faced an army of 700,000 French, British, Serbians, Italians, Russians and Greeks.

Todays journey in purple

Finding our way out of Bitola and down the road towards the Mariovo was not easy; not only was it was unsigned, but the police were diverting traffic away from the correct turning around a busy street market.

French Military Cemetery, Bitola
On the outskirts of Bitola we came across a huge French military cemetery. The French bore the brunt of the fighting on the Macedonian Front (also known as the Salonika front) and although it was described as 'stable' from 1916 until the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918 that does not mean it was a safe or comfortable place to be. There are the graves of 6,128 known dead and an ossuary containing the remains of 7,000 more who could not be identified. The killing machine that was the First World War stretched into places I had never thought about. The British dead, I later discovered, were mainly buried in cemeteries on the Greek side of the border, which at this point is less than ten miles away.

Ossuary, French Military Cemetery, Bitola
After crossing the Pellagonian plain the road started to rise into the Mariovo. This region of rolling uplands was once wealthy, its prosperity based on sheep, but two world wars and the collectivisation policies of the Tito government did not help Mariovo. There are still sheep there - we saw several flocks each marshalled by their own shepherd - but there are far fewer than there used to be, much of the land is deserted and the villages filled with empty and crumbling houses.
The Mariovo countryside

The village of Makovo had 71 inhabitants in the 2002 census and probably fewer now, though there are houses for several hundred. Rapeš, a further five kilometres through largely deserted upland sheep pastures, is smaller, but here we saw houses being repaired, vegetable plots being weeded and a man in a blue boiler suit tending to as many beehives as I have ever seen in one place. Despite the activity there were more empty houses than occupied ones. We went on a few kilometres, the road becoming narrower and rougher. Gradešnica, 18 km beyond Rapeš, was the next and final village. It is, I read, now the biggest settlement in the Mariovo with 80 inhabitants. We did not get there - the countryside is beautiful, but we felt we had the idea and did not need to drive to the bitter end of the road. Like the Cotswolds this area became rich on sheep, but being the battleground of two world wars and then part of a failed experiment in agricultural economics led to poverty and depopulation. The countryside is more rugged than the Cotswolds, but if fate had been different the Mariovo could have been speckled with cute villages and the weekend homes of the rich and famous.

Rapeš and some of its beehives
We made our way back towards Bitola, pausing briefly above the edge of the plain. The city was hidden from view (unfortunately the same could not be said of the local power station) but the mountains beyond still had streaks of snow in sheltered gullies.

Looking across the Pellagonian Plain to the mountains beyond
From Bitola we continued westward through the mountains on the M5 (a road that will take you to the Cotswolds in the UK) towards Resen. Five kilometres before the town we left the main road, turning south towards Lake Prespa, 180km² of serene blue water largely in Macedonia but with smaller parts belonging to Greece and Albania,

Blue, serene Lake Prespa
We were heading for the not quite lakeside village of Kurbinovo and the church of Sveti Gorgi in the hills behind but paused for a picnic lunch by the turning onto the lane to Kurbinovo. For the first time on this trip, the sun was shining strongly and the afternoon was heating up.

The turning to Kurbinovo and Sveti Gorgi - for once well signed
Lake Prespa is a tectonic lake – at 850m the highest in the Balkans – and like all tectonic lakes (the biggest and best known being Lake Baikal in Russia and Lake Tanganyika) it is very old and very deep. At its nearest the much bigger Lake Ohrid, also a tectonic lake, is only 10km away and is 150m lower. Seismic activity has opened fissures in the karst geology that are quietly emptying Lake Prespa into Lake Ohrid - a cause of some concern to the locals. The village of Asamati on the lake shore a kilometre away in the opposite direction from Kurbinovo used to have a popular swimming beach but the receding lake has left it with a patch of mud it can do without.

Unlike the villages of the Mariovo, Kurbinovo was alive and growing with several new, well-built houses and more were under construction, though around the edges of the village the older houses look to be falling down and abandoned. Beyond, the road up to Sveti Gorgi was narrow but was mostly in good repair. We had to stop for Lynne to remove a tortoise which had spent the last five minutes sprinting across the road but had spotted the car at the last moment and withdrawn into its shell right where I wanted to drive.

Tortoise road block near Kurbanovo
According to the Lonely Planet the church would probably be locked and the key holder would be unfindable, so we were not that disappointed at being unable to get in, but the building would have looked better without the scaffolding.

Lynne, Sveti Gorgi and some scaffolding
The frescoes are the church’s main attraction, but there are some outside, and an example of those inside can be seen on the 50 Denar bank note.

External frescoes, Sveti Gorgi, Kurbanovo
Leaving Kurbanovo we drove north to Resen, the region's main town. Resen grew up on the Roman Via Ignatia and not a lot has happened since. We stopped for petrol, the first time on this journey. The nationally fixed price is less than 90 pence a litre making it a relatively painless experience.
50 (60p) Denar note with frescoes from Sveti Gorgi

Ohrid is 25 km from Resen as the crow flies, but there is a range of mountains in between and the road takes 40km to get there.

The old town of Ohrid sits on a hill beside the lake of the same name. The modern town straggles along the shore and spreads back round the hill. It is both the spiritual centre of Slavic Macedonia and the foremost holiday resort in this landlocked country.

Me, Lake Ohrid and the old town
We checked into our hotel beside the lake, where we encountered a reminder that this is an earthquake area – and that English is not widely understood.
I hope there won't be an earthquakeake
In the evening we walked a short distance to a restaurant reputed to serve the best scara in Ohrid. Scara, meat beaten flat and grilled is the most typical of Macedonian dishes and Lynne had a butterflied and grilled chicken breast while I, perversely, chose veal tagliatelle. We enjoyed a glass of mastika before our food, which was pleasingly accompanied by a bottle of Tickveš rosé. We finished with pancakes, honey and hazelnuts.

Well fed, we retired to our room and next day set off to explore Ohrid on foot.

The Balkans
Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)
Part 3 Mostar
Croatia (May 2012)
Part 5 Korčula
Macedonia (May 2015)
Part 8 Skopje

Friday, 29 May 2015

Prilep and Bitola: Part 10 of The Balkans

Breakfast at the Popova Kula Winery was very Macedonian; a huge lump of feta cheese, fried unsweetened doughnuts and a glass of drinking yoghurt. They also managed to produce a cup of tea (with mint) but clearly regarded the request as eccentric.
Popova Kula Winery, Demir Kapija

We drove 10km back up the motorway to Negotino before turning westward across the Tikveš wine district, technically a sub-region of Povadarie, but the only name that really matters in Macedonian wine. Tikveš includes Demir Kapija, where Popova Kula is, and Negotino but Kavadarci is the centre of the region. Nearing the town we found ourselves amid the sort of monoculture you encounter around Bordeaux or Beaune, but here the ranks of vines had an endearingly scruffy Macedonian look that just does not happen in regimented French vineyards.

Popova Kula Vranec, Demir Kapija, Tikveš

As the regional centre I expected Kavadarci to be an attractive small town, but actually it is ugly, industrial, rather down-at-heel and, at least to our cursory inspection, sadly lacking in charm.
Stobi Winery, Tikveš region

We followed the almost empty main road across the rest of the Vardar Valley, up and over a range of pretty hills and into the valley beyond where the main business is, allegedly, the growing of tobacco, but unlike the vines in Tikveš tobacco plants were hard to spot. I would like to believe the tobacco market is shrinking and the growers have turned their attention to less destructive crops, but that is probably wishful thinking, certainly Macedonians appeared to be the most enthusiastic smokers we have encountered for some time.

The crowded road towards Prilep
 The centre of the industry is the town of Prilep which, with 66,000 inhabitants, is the fourth biggest city in Macedonia. Unlike Kavardaci, we could have by-passed Prilep, but we drove into town in search of coffee and whatever else it had to offer.

Demir Kapija to Prilep and then on to Bitola

Whatever else turned out to be not a lot, but unlike Kavardarci, Prilep was making an effort. We parked near what we took to be the centre, close to one of those interesting fountains that repeatedly turn themselves off to entrap the unwary. The weather was not entirely sure what it wanted to do - we started walking down the main street in short sleeves, but then the sun ducked behind a cloud and the temperature plummeted so we returned to the car for pullovers. Properly equipped, we took our morning espresso at a pavement café.

Hazardous fountain, Prilep
At end of the main street we found the čaršija, an area of narrow pedestrian streets with wrought iron balconies and a spaghetti of electric wiring….

Wrought iron balcony, Čaršija, Prilep
 ….  surrounding a fruit and vegetable market.
Prilep market

Beyond is a burnt out mosque. Macedonia achieved independence in 1991 without firing a shot, but in 2001 the Kosovo conflict spilt over into northern Macedonia with Kosovo Liberation Army elements trying to inspire ethnic Albanian Macedonians - over 20% of the population - to fight for either a separate state, or for a 'greater Albania'. For six months until a UN brokered settlement there was a considerable fighting along the Kosovan border. Ten policemen (the police took on a quasi-military role during the conflict) from Prilep were killed in an ambush. Rioting in Prilep resulted in the burning of the mosque, not that any of Prilep's very small Albanian population had anything to do with the atrocity which happened far away. The failure of local and national authorities to sanction the rebuilding remains a bone of contention.

Burnt out mosque, Prilep
 Opposite the mosque is an Ottoman clock tower. It does not lean as much as the tower in Pisa, but it's not exactly vertical either.

Not entirely vertical clock tower, Prilep
On the way back to the car we popped into a shop to equip ourselves with the wherewithal for a picnic: some bread, cheese, spicy salami, yogurt and chilled lemon tea.

The fifty kilometres from Prilep to Bitola cross the Pelagonian Plain, land so flat the slightly raised roads between the fields stand out like unnaturally straight veins. We turned off the highway and took a side road arrowing towards a distant village to find somewhere for our picnic.

A place for a picnic, Pelagonian Plain
The plain stretches south into Greece while on the mountains to the west we could see streaks of snow hiding in shaded gullies. Bitola, Macedonia's second city (pop 105,000) is 15km from the Greek border.

The Pelagonian Plain
We drove south through Bitola, trying to follow the main road though I think we lost it for a while. Signposting was non-existent and at several junctions it was not easy to tell which was the main road. On the other hand it would be hard to get seriously lost, Bitola feels smaller than it is, a country town not a 'second city'.

We were looking for the ancient city of Heraclea at the southern end of Bitola. Eventually we encountered a signpost which directed us down a cobbled lane; a very low key entrance to one of Macedonia’s most important archaeological sites.

Heraclea Lyncestis was founded by Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander the Great's father, in the 4th century BC when he incorporated this area into his kingdom. After the Roman conquest Heraclea's position on the Via Egnatia (which ran from the Adriatic through Albania and Macedonia to the Aegean at Thessalonika and then to Byzantium) maintained its prosperity. Under the Byzantine Empire it became an important bishopric, but the beginning of the end came when Theodoric and his Ostrogoths sacked the city in 472 and again in 479. The earthquake of 518 did not help and the last straw was the influx of Slavic tribes moving south. It was the same story we had heard at Stobi.

There are the usual palaces and basilicas, the latter with some of the finest Roman mosaics still in existence. It had not occurred to me before - though I suppose it should have done - that when palaces, basilicas and grand civic buildings stand either side of a roadway barely wide enough for two small carts to pass, then nobody ever has much of a view of the outside of the building, and this must have affected architects attitude to exteriors.

The basilica and its mosaics, Heraclea
The small part of the city that has been excavated is well presented, though the information boards tell you less than those at  Stobi.

The mosaics, Basilica, Heraclea
A three storey museum stands at one end of the site. Although they have retained too few artefacts to fill the bottom two storeys properly they do have some interesting sculptures - I felt I knew this chap, I think I played rugby with him in the 1970s.

Roman head, Heraclea
I think he used play alongside me in the front row for Warley RFC 1972-5(ish)
The top floor is largely empty, but the museum's real function is to provide something to look at as you climb the stairs to the theatre. The oldest artefact recovered from the site – though not in the museum here - is a theatre ticket, a bone token inscribed with a seat number. A cage for wild animals and an entrance for gladiators have been found but it seems the theatre dropped out of use in the late fourth century as Christianity brought an end to gladiator shows. By the time the Slavs arrived in the seventh century the theatre had declined to such an extent they built a couple of huts in it without realising what they were doing.

The Roman theatre, Heraclea
From Heraclea we had a simple plan. Follow the main road back into town and where it swung right, keep straight on into Nikola Tesla, turn left into the next main street – Dimitar Ilievski-Murato - cross the pedestrianised Shirok Sokak and the hotel Epinal would be on our left

Pedestrianized Shirok Sokak, Bitola 
Despite our Google maps print-off lacking a scale and despite none of the street names being displayed, the plan worked perfectly - until right at the end. The Hotel Epinal is the tallest building in Bitola, but it is set back from the road and we drove straight past it. We then did a couple of circuits of the area beyond. Bitola may be Macedonia's second city, but it does not have city traffic systems. Going round in a circle does not involve turning left, left, left, roads run in random directions, some are one way, others should be but are not and others dwindle suddenly into impassable lanes. At traffic lights it is not always clear exactly which roads are part of the junction - no lane markings, or any other information are painted on the road. Not for the first time we remarked on the similarity between Macedonian town's and those of Portugal, though perhaps Portugal of the 1980s. Bitola's adaption to the motor car is minimal, but it matters little as there is not much traffic and my circuits were less stressful than I have made them sound.

Eventually we had to stop and ask. I hate asking, I am a man and thus naturally reluctant to admit to not knowing anything, so I sent Lynne into a bar to do it for me. I am glad I did, because the reply was a point and words which roughly translated to 'right there, you numpty'. The Hotel Epinal was a big building and we were less than fifty metres from it. This may say something about our stupidity or about Macedonian signing.

The city’s top hotel from the old regime, the Epinal has been extensively modernised and has a large and airy modern reception and lounge area, but for some reason the lift only descends as far as the first floor (for American readers ‘the elevator only descends as far as the second floor’). Someone, thankfully not me, had to haul our case up a long flight of stairs apparently designed more for the purpose of making an entrance rather than getting from one floor to another.

Staircase for making an entrance, Epinal Hotel, Bitola
Many countries kept consulates in Bitola when it was capital of the vast Ottoman province of Rumelia and it is still known as the 'City of Diplomats'. Pedestrianised Shirok Sokak (Wide Alley) is reputedly lined with elegant diplomatic buildings, but although it is a pleasant enough thoroughfare, it was not, I thought, particularly elegant. It is lined with cafés that spill onto the pavement, but that does not quite make Bitola the hip and happening place some locals might want you to think. However, I am not a hip and happening person so I thought they looked promising.

Lynne in Shirok Sokak, Bitola
The northern end of Shirok Sokak terminates in a square with two mosques, a clock tower and a statute of Philip II of Macedonia. This statue has not been renamed ‘Warrior on a Horse’, Philip was the founder of Heraclea and Bitola is that city’s direct descendant so he is here justifiably. Off the square the church of St Demetri did not look much from the outside, but inside is large enough to have three aisles and more icons than you can shake a stick at.
Philip II of Macedonia, Bitola

Later, as in Skopje, we found the cafés full of drinkers, but little sign that anyone was eating. Eventually we noticed one of the smallest and most basic was sending out plates of inviting looking scara (the grilled meats that Macedonians never tire of eating). A flattened out and grilled chicken breast for Lynne and a similarly treated piece of pork for me, a shared shopski salad (tomatoes and cucumber covered in a blizzard of grated cheese) and a couple of bottles of the excellent Skopsco beer came to around £10.

The River Dragor, Bitola
In the morning before setting off on our day's travels we walked to the end of Shirok Sokak, across Bitola's little River Dragor which rushes pleasantly beneath overhanging trees, and into the čaršija, the old Ottoman area where once the stalls of merchants in the same line of business huddled together in narrow streets.
Lynne and shoe shops, čaršija, Bitola
 The narrow streets are still there, but only the shoemakers (or rather the shoe repairers and sellers) seem to have kept up the clustering tradition.

The Balkans 

Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)
Part 3 Mostar

Croatia (May 2012)
Part 5 Korčula

Macedonia (May 2015)
Part 8 Skopje