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Beginner’s guide to Macedonia: Bitola - the place where living is good

In the middle of the Pelagonija valley, in the southwestern part of the Bitola valley, 14 km north of the Greek border is Bitola, a city praised in many songs because of its marvelous attraction. Some say it is the most praised city on the Balkans because it is one of the most beautiful and in Macedonia and beyond.

How to get there?

You can get there by train from Skopje. The Skopje – Bitola section is 232 km long and it was projected for a speed up to 120 km/h which means that it would take 2 hours from one point to the other with an express train. It happens sometimes that the train goes for 4.5 to 5 hours. There are three to four trains going from Skopje to Bitola every day. The road distance between the two cities is 175 km and it would take about 2 hours with an average speed of 80 km/h. There are bus lines from almost every town to Bitola and from Skopje there are buses almost on an hourly basis. There are also direct international bus lines from, and to Bitola from Belgrade, Sophia, Vienna, etc.

Passengers traveling from more distant places can come to Macedonia by plane at one of the two airports – in Skopje and Ohrid – and from there to Bitola. The road distance between Ohrid and Bitola is around 70 km. Bitola is an episcopal, university and consul town at an altitude of 576 meters above sea level. Today, it is the Seat of the Prespa-Pelagonija diocese. The Metropolis was built in 1901-02 in a beautiful neo-baroque architectural style. Also working in Bitola are the Islamic religious community, the Roman Catholic Church and others. There were times when the synagogue was full, too.

In the past, Bitola was the headquarters of the consuls when it was the centre and the biggest town, not just in the Vardar part of Macedonia, but bigger than Belgrade. Even today the general consulates of Greece and Bulgaria, as well as the honorary consulates of Great Britain, Russia, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, Turkey, Croatia, France, Montenegro and Ukraine are in Bitola.

Bitola is beautiful as the Gardens of Eden throughout the year. In autumn, when the rain is murmuring as if eternally mourning the Jews from Bitola, who moved there after fleeing from Spain during the church inquisition, you can still feel the sighs for the children that didn’t have the time to remember Bitola; for the Jewish beauties and handsome merchants, who were deported to the death camp in Treblinka, Poland on 11th March 1943, all 3011 of them.

During the winter, snow and ice can “chain” the beautiful Bitola. The top of Baba Mountain is Pelister at 2601 m. The two ski slopes at Pelister have two ski lifts, “Sapunchica” and “Chuka” with capacity of 900 skiers per hour, with the chairlift from “Begova cheshma” to “Kopanki” also working. The chairlift has been completely renovated and it is being operated by the hotel “Molika” along with the ski lift on Pelister. Because of its natural beauties, Pelister was declared as a first National Park in Macedonia and former Yugoslavia in 1948. It is 15 km away from Bitola, 65 km from Ohrid and 30 km from the Prespa Lake.

According to legends, “the gods were mad at Zeus for selecting Olympus as headquarters when they had the mountain beauty Pelister up north and as a punishment, Zeus married Pelister to Baba.”

Near Bitola is the ancient city of Heraclea Lyncestis, dating back to 4th century B.C. It was built by Phillip II of Macedon. After it was built, Phillip named it Heraclea in honour of the great hero Heracles and added Lyncestis to it in honour of the people called Lyncestians that lived in this region. The people of Bitola honoured Phillip by raising an 8m tall monument of him that was built by sculptor Angel Korunovski.

Times are changing, but not the connections

Even today, Heraclea is a testament of perseverance and supremacy through history with the Heraclea Nights, a prestigious summer cultural event consisting of theatre, music, etc. Talking about theatre, especially first class theatre, I can only think of the Macedonian Hamlet from Bitola – Vladimir Taleski – the current mayor of Bitola. The voice of Hamlet roars from the city hall toward the clock-tower, which it is still unknown when it was built, even though it was mentioned in the 16th century, and according to some sources, it was built at the same time as the church of “St. Demetrius” – in 1830.

Bitola is in the heart of Macedonia. If Macedonians from all parts of the country put their hands forward, they would all cross, as the folk song says, “over there mother, near Bitola”.

The great Krste Petkov Misirkov, creator of the golden book about the Macedonian language – 'On the Macedonian Matters' - published after the Ilinden uprising in 1903, had faith in and taught in Bitola.

This town that smells like pine tree, was the place where the creator of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk was educated. The first exhibitions in the museum in Bitola date back to 1978 with the first exhibition of photographs, documents and facsimiles that depicted the life and work of the great reformer of Turkey, who graduated from middle military school in 1899. The school was set in the same building where the museum is today. There is a memorial room in the museum with his monument proudly standing in front of it.

Also worth visiting is the Ishak Chelebi Ibn Isa Mosque, built in 1506 and located opposite the clock-tower and the Great Bazaar. Its minaret is around 50 m high. 

Bitola is the town of the first piano in the Balkans and the first camera, owned by the Manaki brothers – Janaki (1878-1954) and Milton (1882-1964). They were the first cinematographers in the Balkans. In 1905 the brothers moved to Bitola, an important political, economic and cultural centre at the time, and opened the famous “Artistic photography atelier”. According to Milton’s memories, it was that year that his brother Janaki bought a film camera from London which was made by the “Charles Urban Trading” company and it was the 300th of the “bioscope” series. It was with that camera that the Balkan cinematography started. The brothers opened their movie theatre in Bitola, called “Manaki” which worked from 1921 to 1939. 

When I am in Bitola “I know no way back” – as one of the heroes written by Petre M. Andreevski, who spent his youth in this town, would say.

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