Southern Macedonia: good food, good beer and bad weather.

Since Macedonia is not a very common touristic destination for Canadians, I am sure many of you will want to know if it’s a nice country to visit. Instead of boring you with stories about history, scenery or museums, I will cut straight to the chase.

These are 1.5 litre bottles of beer (pen for size reference). I tried those two local brands and found them very nice. Better, for 3 litres of excellent local beer, I paid exactly $4. Therefore, Macedonia is the best country in the World!

After a quick transit in the capital of Skopje, my first stop was in Macedonia’s second largest city, Bitola. It has a surprising history as a diplomatic centre, which I knew nothing about. During the late 19th century, several European consulates were opened in the city and conferred it a distinct European feel compared to other cities of the Ottoman Empire. It also had prestigious schools, among which a military school where the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, studied. The cafe culture is omnipresent and the town’s main pedestrian street, Shirok Sokak, is a great place for shopping, drinking and people watching.

A statue of Phillip II of Macedonia, with two mosques in the background. An indication of the region’s complex history.

Within walking distance of Bitola lies the excavated ruins of the town of Heraklea. It was founded in the 4th Century BC, by Phillip II of Macedonia, who believed (or at least said) that he was a direct descendant of Hercules.

The structures that remain are mostly from the later Roman and Byzantine periods. I paid the small entrance fee and, remembering the fact that archeological sites in Greece close at 15h00, I enquired about the opening hours. “Don’t worry, I’m here until tomorrow morning”. Quite the change of work ethics!

As in many such excavated cities, the amphitheater is the best preserved structure.

Nowhere in Canada can you see this kind of historical contrast. In the foreground, remains of a 2nd Century AD amphitheatre. In the background, one of the cooling towers of REK Bitola, which produces 70% of all electricity used in Macedonia.

Walking back towards town, I made a detour through a cemetery and stumbled upon this cemetery from the Great War. I attempted to talk with a man who seemed to be the keeper of the place, but he did not speak any English. I think I understood that 20,000 soldiers from Serbia, France and Bulgaria died nearby during the first World War. The graves bare no name, only an anonymous number.

Walking back toward the main road, I noticed a peculiar local practice. As far as I can tell, this husband and wife (and several more I saw) have decided to be buried in the same grave. Nothing unusual there, but the surviving members already have their pictures on the tomb, with the date “to be confirmed”. It certainly shows devotion, but I find it terribly macabre.

This ugly thing barely looks like a tree anymore, and much of its base is covered in asphalt shingles. But, it is still alive and, according to experts, it is well over a thousand years old!

Hungry from all theses explorations, I headed for a famous joint in town, Pizza Bure, and ordered a local favourite, the “cheese in the oven”, Bure style. The waiter, Zoran, explained it consists of a white cheese (think halfway between bocconcini and feta) , topped with a yellow, mozzarella-like cheese. The “Bure style” is the addition of a few small pieces of ham and mushroom in the mixture. Absolutely delicious, although I wouldn’t have it everyday. On the topic of eating too much, or not, I was alone in the place with 5 women. They were quite slim, but were having alcohol, bowls of cheese and pizzas for lunch. Strange when you see people in several Europeans eat like that, yet not be nearly as fat as North American. I blame it on corn syrup added to all our processed foods.

The main attraction in southern Macedonia is the town of Ohrid, a Unesco World Heritage site. I bet when the Unesco people visited, the weather was nicer.

All the tourist boats were docked, waiting for the season to start.

I was planning to spend the whole day visiting this beautiful town, but the weather really didn’t cooperate. Lake Ohrid is supposed to be very picturesque, but all I saw was fog and clouds. In fact, I couldn’t even see where the lake ended and the sky started. Soon after that, it started raining like crazy. Wanting to visit the fortress on top of the hill, I tried to wait out the rain in a cafe, but it would not stop. I cut short my visit and jumped in the next bus to Skopje. I guess I’ll have to go back to Ohrid some other time.


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