Bitola wasn’t really part of our Macedonia travel plan. Actually, we didn’t really have a proper plan, which is what caused the mess in the first place.
After arriving in Skopje and working our socks off to catch up on freelance work, we jumped straight on a bus to Lake Ohrid – which is known as the place to go for travellers in Macedonia. We had four beautiful days in Ohrid, wiling away hours around the lake and exploring monasteries.
Then it was time to move on, except we had nowhere to go.
There’s not all that much information out there for travellers to Macedonia, aside from some scantily clad travel guide pages and a handful of small blogs. We basically didn’t know where to go in Macedonia. It was also winter time, which meant hiking was off the cards and less frequent buses, and that made potential travel destinations more limited.
That’s when we ended up in Bitola.
When We Arrived in Bitola
When we arrived, I was devastated. Bare in mind that we’d just had four days at the incredibly beautiful Lake Ohrid where our ‘baba’ Tatiana had home-cooked us vegan food with veggies grown in her garden. And now, I was walking through ugly backstreets under an overcast sky looking for a hostel that had been described as “all that there is.”
Suffice to say, I was becoming increasingly bummed out that we were stuck in Bitola rather than somewhere beautiful. “It’s not that bad. We’ve not even seen the hostel yet. Let’s just check in and go out and explore this evening,” were Luke’s words. The eternal optimist. I rolled my eyes, smiled and we continued walking.
Eventually we arrived at the hostel and first impressions weren’t the best. The guy who ran it had long, greasy black hair tied back and a girlfriend whose looks could kill. They told us to sit down and wait, so we sat down on this lumpy purple couch with our rucksacks between our knees.
A girl in a huge crazy red coat with weird shoes began babbling at us about how she “is from Couchsurfing” and met this guy – she indicates confused white guy who’s looking up at her in dismay and trying to smile politely – and that she’ll show us the city from a local perspective.
Bitola is Macedonia’s second largest city, but you wouldn’t know it. The main “city” centre is more the size of what you would expect of a small town centre in the UK and after walking from the bus station to the hostel we knew there wasn’t much to see. The confused guy may as well have been making a throat cutting motion at this point.
We check in and the greasy haired hostel owner starts giving us some advice. We say we’re vegetarian just as he launches into a speech about meaty restaurants and bars (we’re actually vegan at this point, but didn’t want to explain veganism). Soon the Couchsurfing girl and the hostel owner begin bickering about where the best place to get baked cheese in Bitola is.
That was it, I’d completely written Bitola off as the worst place on earth. Luke put the final nail in the coffin by getting a cone of the greasiest, most disgusting chips absolutely drenched in cheap ketchup. This was it, this was our four year anniversary together (yeah, it was our anniversary too!)
Why I Was Wrong – About Bitola & Travel
I’m going to come right out and say it: I was wrong about Bitola.
Bitola actually turned out to be a decent place. But more than that, I was really wrong to write off a whole city as not worth seeing based on just a 15-minute walk, a weird encounter at a hostel and Luke eating some grimy chips. It took me a little while to get back on board with Bitola and gain a little perspective, but I’m glad I did.
There’s nowhere in the world that isn’t worth seeing. Every place is valuable. There are new experiences to be had, interesting things to learn and new people to meet – and deciding that a place isn’t worth seeing because it’s small, overcast, industrial, polluted or whatever, is wrong.
Some of the best places we’ve travelled to have been small towns (like all the cool small towns in Costa Rica and even Mavrovo and Ohrid in Macedonia!) There’s not always a lot of information about these less travelled to places like Bitola but that just means you’ve got to go and discover it for yourself.
A Travel Guide to Bitola
If you happen to have found yourself in Bitola, then I hope your arrival was more positive than mine! Once you get beyond the industrial areas, Bitola is quite beautiful in places and on a clear day you can see the surrounding mountains. Here’s a rundown of the interesting things to do in Bitola and the good places to eat:
Admire the Clock Tower and Two Mosques
In the town square, there is a gorgeous clock tower and two beautiful mosques – the Yeni mosque and Ishak Chelebi mosque – which sit across the river from one another. We were fortunate enough to be able to see the clock tower from our hostel’s balcony and admired the beautiful dome roofs on the mosque while having breakfast at the Art Caffe on the square.
Cross the River and Explore the Old Bazaar
Head across the river and to the right into the old bazaar. In the past, Bitola was an important trading point in the Balkans and the bazaar developed here during the Turkish rule. Traditionally the bazaar was a place for trading, but also a hub of politics and culture. There used to be over 900 shops in operation, but now the bazaar is much smaller and there are only local butchers, hardware stores and the like. It’s still worth wandering around and has a very historic feel.
Stroll Širok Sokak Street and Stop for Nescafe
Sirok Sokak Street is the place to be in Bitola. It’s a wide pedestrian boulevard lined with cafes and shops that extends all the way from the town square down to the Heraclea Lyncestis (ruins). The guy from our hostel scoffed that all the “cool kids hang out there drinking their hipster nescafes.” Luke and I had seen “nescafe” written on signs everywhere and had been thinking how weird it was that everyone was so wild about the instant coffee. Turns out “nescafe” in how the Macedonians say “iced coffee.” It’s pretty good, but not as good as the traditional, non-hipster, Turkish coffee.
Visit the Ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis
Luke has been excited about visiting these ancient ruins, which date back to 4th century BC. It was a little underwhelming. Though the ruins themselves are quite impressive, they’re located out of town down an odd side road, fenced into a small area with factories in the background and the upkeep has obviously been really bad. Visitors are allowed – encouraged even – to just walk along the ruined walls and rough planks of plywood connected the gaps. In the summer there are apparently incredible mosaics on show, but unfortunately they’re covered over in winter.
Eat Burek from a Local Bakery
Bitola has the best burek we ate in the whole of Macedonia. There’s a popular little bakery in a side street just round the corner from the Art Caffe in the town square. If you head over there around 7 or 8 in the morning, you’ll likely see a small queue of locals grabbing massive slabs of burek to go. We can highly recommend the white cheese and the cheese and spinach ones.
Try Baked Cheese, Bitola’s Speciality
Baked cheese is a regional speciality from Bitola, and it’s just what you’d expect. A dish of oven baked, gooey cheese that’s enough to give you a heart attack. It comes served with white bread which you dip in. We ate baked cheese at Pub Bourbon Street. It was good to try but once is definitely enough for this dish.
Stop for a Drink at Jagoda Meze Bar
You won’t miss Jagoda Meze Bar – it’s a cool bar with paper strawberries hanging from the ceiling. The staff here were incredibly friendly and there’s an extensive drinks menu and some decent bar snacks. If you’re feeling brave, try the local rakia which most locals have along with a shredded cabbage salad.
More To Do in Bitola
I also read about travel blogger David’s hiking trip to Pelister National Park in his list of cool things to do in Bitola, and I’m now filled with travel envy over that! Definitely something worth checking out.
Have you ever had a travel experience similar to mine? How did you handle it?