Bitola -- a pleasant surprise!

Trip Start Aug 27, 2009
Trip End Sep 17, 2009

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bitola -- September 15

After spending the morning relaxing for a few final hours in Ohrid, including a brief boat tour on the lake, we headed to the bus station.  We boarded a bus for the 1 hour journey to Bitola.  Bitola is well off the tourist trail, and our primary reason for coming here is that it is located near the Greek border, and Greece is our next destination. 

We had gotten spoiled as most of our bus rides were relatively comfortable.  The bus ride to Bitola was grueling.  The A/C wasn't working, and although it wasn't very hot outside, the bus was like an oven.  Thankfully the ride was brief and we arrived in Bitola about 5 pounds lighter after loosing all that water.  To compensate for the discomfort, the view on the short trip was amazing.  The forested mountains were stunning and just started to show a hint of fall colors.  As we drove through the village of Resen, we saw acres of apple orchards with plump, juicy fruits hanging from the branches.

We were pleasantly surprised with our accommodations in Bitola.  We had booked the Tokin House, and upon arrival Daniel made us feel very welcome and showed us to our comfortable double bed room.  He offered a map showing the handful of tourist sites in the town, and the hotel is right in the center of all the action.  Before heading out for some exploration, Craig called to confirm the taxi ride reserved in advance for tomorrow.  Valentina, a native of Bitola and an online embassador for Bitola tourism, had offered advice on contacting taxi drivers and a host of other helpful information.

The main street in Bitola is called Marshal Tito Street, a very walkable pedestrian friendly zone.  Along the walkway are reminders of Bitola's glorious past.  Apparently the city used to be a cultural and commercial center.  However, in recent years most of the commerce is focused in Skopje, while most of the tourism is centered in Ohrid.  As a result, Bitola no longer makes it on many tourist's itinerary, but the town is still proud of its past.  After a brief stroll through the city, we agree that it is definitely worth a stop as it is a pleasant place to spend a few hours.

The main attractions include some beautiful 18th and 19th century baroque architecture buildings, a noteable Catholic Church, several impressive mosques, and a clock tower and fountains in the main square.  There is also an old Turkish-style bazaar through which we wandered and ended up chatting with a Macedonian family who are now living in the US (visiting Bitola on vacation). Strangely enough, they currently live in New Jersey -- right next to Craig's home town.

We got hungry, and stopped at Grna Na Sirok Sokak right on the main square.  We were feeling adventurous and ordered zuccini and snails for starters.  Pretty tasty!  For the main dish, we ate a traditional Macedonian dish that was a meat and vegetable extravaganza -- think paella without the rice.  It was recommended by the waiter and we were not disappointed.  Of course we washed it down with several large bottles of Skopska beer.

After dinner we wandered around some more and ended up spending time drinking cappuccino watching the people stroll by along Marshal Tito.  It was very interesting to visit a Macedonian town without many tourists as we got a sense for what life is like here.  What is clear is that the evening stroll along the street, known as the "korso" here, is an integral part of daily life in Bitola.

Tomorrow Dimitar is picking us up at 6am for our 4-5 hr drive to Kalambaka in Greece.  We are hoping to arrive early enough to do some sightseeing before the forecasted rains move in later in the day.

We have really enjoyed our time in Macedonia.  It is an interesting place that wouldn't meet everyone's tourist needs, but we liked it.  With a little marketing this place could really start to draw in the tourists.  When that day comes, maybe we won't here what we heard from more than one local during our time in Macedonia -- "You are from America?  Why on earth would you come all the way here?"  We just wish we had more time to spend here as we would love to hike the mountains and see some more of Macedonia's natural treasures.  There is a lot to discover here for those who are willing to venture off the beaten path.

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