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…..

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

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