The City of Consuls
February 12, 2011 Leave a comment
By Rob Packer
Bitola, Macedonia’s second or third largest city—it depends who you ask—, about an hour away from Ohrid, is a town that’s down on its luck. What was once the Balkans’ second largest city (after Thessaloniki) and an Ottoman provincial capital, now seems a bit of a backwater: it was an agricultural and trading centre for the region with a lot of grand houses to show for it, but fell into insignificance after the Balkan Wars of 1913 when Bitola found itself 14km from the Greek border and in the furthest corner of an area reorienting itself towards Skopje and Belgrade. Today the process is so complete that there isn’t even any public transport across the border into Greek Macedonia. And even if it is factually correct, the city’s nickname, the city of consuls, must seem more and more anachronistic: this city of barely 100,000 people still hosts 11 consulates including British, French and Russian ones, apparently locked in a game of chicken where no-one wants to be the first to go.
In a similar way to Sarajevo, Bitola seems to have a piece of every culture to have passed through the region (Ancient Greeks and Romans, Byzantine Orthodoxy, Ottoman Islam and a Europeanizing fin-de-siècle) and the city ends up with a bipolar feel: Širok Sokak, the main drag feels like it could be in Hungary, while the narrow streets behind the mosques on the north side of the river feel much more like Turkey. Meanwhile, the city’s Roman heritage at Heraclea Lyncestis lies half-forgotten past the city’s park, some industrial buildings and a cemetery, its supposedly spectacular mosaics covered in gravel to preserve them over the winter months.
Unlike most places I went on the trip, though, Bitola is very low-key: everything is pleasant enough but nothing is mind-blowing nor would have you rushing back, and the city is caught up in its own relaxed air where it seems the entire town sits out on Širok Sokak, drinking espresso for most of the afternoon. I thought that the town was summed up with the excellent Chola Guest House, where I stayed which could be the best combination of price and comfort that I’ve ever seen: wonderful hotel rooms in a century-old townhouse for under €15—probably the best combination of comfort, price and simplicity that I’ve seen in a hotel in any country.
Bitola was also one of those places where I realized that communication in Macedonia is far from easy. For most of the trip where the local language has been Croatian, Bosnian or Serbian, if English or German failed, I could just about get by with a basic local vocabulary, a touch of grammar, filling in any gaps with a Russian word and crossing my fingers that it would be understood—this worked in most places, especially Montenegro, which sees a fair few Russian tourists anyway. Macedonian is a close relation of Bulgarian and this strategy definitely does not work even though it’s still a Slavic language. I don’t really like any sweet food, so it was a surprise to wake up feeling like a small piece of baklava for breakfast. It was easy enough to find the baklava was easy enough and understanding that the coffee machine would take an hour to start up wasn’t too hard either, but getting out of drinking a coffee product was impossible. The waitress refused to understand nothing, nichts, or nichego and exhausted, I eventually accepted something called Neskafe. I can safely say I would never use Nescafé to make what I was presented with: chocolate syrup, sugar, coffee powder and cold milk—I managed two sips before giving up.