Starting with a Cappuccino
If I had met them in a dark alley, my heart would have beaten the tune of “Thriller.” I would have tightened the grip around my backpack and prayed to the god of travelers to take me safely through the dimly lit street.
Instead I encountered them on a sunny terrace, drinking a “cappuccino” that had nothing to do with either coffee or foamed milk.
The three guys, shaved heads, broad shoulders and fearsome faces, saw us struggling with our phone to try to find a place to stay on the Internet and decided to help us.
Finding a Place
There are many advantages of traveling through areas the masses haven’t discovered, but it is not all sunshine off the beaten track; at times it can be hard to find a roofed place to sleep.
Ignoring our fake cappuccinos, we explained to the men in 2-word sentences what our problem was.
Our personal Schwarzeneggers got up immediately. They took us to a hotel, not designated as such, and patiently waited for everything to be arranged with the owner.
They shook our hands, wished us a pleasant stay and didn’t want anything in return. Try that in Saigon or Gambia.
The room not only had a roof, somebody had actually put in an effort to decorate it. It had a bed with swirled metal at both ends and a carmine lamp that matched the color of the curtains.
Normally I would avoid a place with anything more decorative than a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling, thinking it was not in my price range, but for lack of hostels, we had no choice.
Travel in Macedonia
With our luggage safely stored in the room, we were ready for our expedition into Bitola, the second largest city in Macedonia.
With more than 74,000 inhabitants, Bitola is situated in the deep south of the Republic of Macedonia, a country very few people know exists, let alone visit.
The few foreigners that do come to Macedonia go to Ohrid, lured there by the low prices and the big lake.
Despite the sun, the town of Ohrid has a grayish layer, like a Polaroid that hasn’t fully developed.
The travel industry needed a new, cheap destination and thus created one. It has all the elements a tourist could want: mountains, lake, sun and ice cream.
What an Amazing Place
The designers followed all the steps in the “How to Create a Tourist Destination” handbook, except for the last and most important step: install a spark.
In Ohrid, there is no Balkan feel and, despite being next to Greece, no classic grandeur. The gray apartment blocks from the communist era have a soft focus layer.
There are no edges, no broken streets, no balconies filled with the laundry of every day human life.
When I travel I want to visit places that make my heart beat faster, that are not just decor for an average movie about an average town.
Bitola meets my expectations with mouthwatering contrasts: A freshly painted facade with pilasters stands opposite un-plastered concrete. Casino ads scream at the people near a pedestaled hero on a horse.
There is a mosque at the end of a neo-classical street. Well made-up ladies lounge over a cocktail on a terrace and unshaven men sit on a bench in the park, their over-washed t-shirts rolled up over their tummies.
We walked through the mountains with paths hardly recognizable as such, leading past steep and deep slopes.
We dragged ourselves all the way to the top where the view would be magnificent, if it weren’t for the fog.
The Roman remains of Heraclea Lyncestis with pillars and mosaics are a nice appetizer, but the city is the main dish. On one of the squares hangs a giant Heineken banner behind fighting soldiers on the freedom monument.
Exploring the Market
The market offers no sunglasses, but long, flowered skirts. When you buy some berries, they are put on a metal scale with lead weights.
Green peppers and dried fish were on display next to a trash pile where the local cats were having a party.
We had our dinner of sausages and fries on a terrace; a part of the street that is covered with fake grass mats, on wooden chairs brought out for the warm weather.
The waiter was afraid to talk to us, so he found another customer who spoke some English to take our order. This is Bitola.
It is not Budapest or Berlin. It has no special towers to climb or pyramids to take selfies with, but it has a heart, beating in the right place.
For there is no beauty without ugliness and Bitola has the right combination.
Even our hotel room turned out not to be perfect. The bathroom had a wellness cabin: not just a bath, but different shower-heads for a water massage, a bubble maker, built-in radio and romantic lighting.
It didn’t look like former communist Macedonia, but it was: of all the faucets and shower-heads in the cabin, only one worked.
There were no bubbles, no sound coming from the radio and only one light went on. The cabin itself leaked on all sides, turning the bathroom into a private swimming pool.
It was perfect.
If You Travel to Bitola, Macedonia:
Cheap flights to Ohrid or Skopje from European destinations through WizzAir: https://wizzair.com/en-GB/FlightSearch
Bitola Tourist Information: https://bitolatourist.info/ (English)
Macedonia uses the Cyrillic alphabet. It might be useful to bring a copy of a translated alphabet.
Author Bio: Anika is a professional freelance travel writer and photographer based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. She has lived in 6 different countries, speaks several languages and has traveled independently in more than 50 countries, with a special interest in Eastern-Europe. She has published a travel guide about her home town Utrecht and a book with stories of food and drinks around the world, both available at Amazon worldwide.