Macedonian Ramble: Bitola’s Shaky Bridges to the Past

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An old postcard of Macedonia. Bitola is east of Ohrid and its lake. On this map Florina, in Greece, is spelled as Lerin.

This is the fifth part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

Unlike UNESCO-recognized Ohrid, Bitola is a small North Macedonian city (more a town) of little distinction, although it does have the ruins of a Greco-Roman city (Heraclea Lyncestis) and an Atatürk Museum (the Turkish war hero and leader was in school here in 1896-98, when it was the Ottoman garrison town of Monastir).

Because the bus stop was close to Heraclea, I decided to walk there before checking into my hotel, knowing that the ruins would close at 4 p.m.

In fading December light I walked for a while through a dingy sports park, and then, following a sign, headed down a lonely side road, wondering if this was the best thing to do in a strange city. I kept moving forward, and around a bend came upon the fenced ruins—the fate of empires that one sees scattered across Greece and Turkey.

The Roman Way to Heraclea

There was no one in the small office at the entrance, and the front gates were locked, so I figured I would only see Heraclea from the outside, but as I was strolling along the fence near the amphitheater a man arrived in his car, explaining that he was director of the site and would let me in.

No only did he let me in, but for an hour he walked me around the ruins, emphasizing how Heraclea (named after Hercules) was a strategically important city on the Via Egnatia, which essentially was the highway from Rome to Constantinople as well as, on the north-south axis, between Greece and Illyria.

He explained that Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) had founded the city in the 4th century (BCE), and that, in Roman times,

the Emperor Hadrian (one of my favorites) had done much to enhance the city by adding the amphitheater. He said the city was overrun and abandoned in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, after Rome collapsed and slavs moved into Macedonia.

When the Turks ruled over Macedonia (from about 15th to the 20th century), the director said, Heraclea was forgotten. Now he was hoping for a grant from the European Union, as much necessary work had been neglected. “You know,” he said wistfully, “we’re not a rich country.”

When the British author Rebecca West saw the ruins of the Greek city in the late 1930s, there was not much to see, but she was still inspired. She writes:

Its excavations are at a stage that can interest only dogs and archaeologists, and my husband and I went and sat for a few minutes in the Orthodox cemetery, which straggles over the hillside near by. I have a deep attachment to this cemetery, for it was here that I realized Macedonia to be the bridge between our age and the past.

Into the Mists of Bitola’s Past

Rather than tempt fate walking back into town on a lonely road in the darkness, I had the director call me a taxi, and it took me to the Hotel Theatre, which one online booking site had called “exceptional”. What lured me there was the promise of a bicycle rental for guests.

I liked the Hotel Theatre, although summer is the time to be there, as its best feature is a courtyard patio and bar, which in winter was closed. My room had a large desk and wifi, and the bicycle that the clerk at the front desk said I could ride came with a lock, which gave me confidence to leave it parked around town.

Because a cold winter mist had descended on the town, I thought of staying inside for the evening, but I needed dinner. In searching for a restaurant I discovered that the Atatürk Museum, located in the old city hall, had evening hours. So I was all set for a night on the town.

I cannot say Bitola is a great cycling city—in a league, for example, with Copenhagen—but it does have a wide pedestrian main street and on the fringes of the downtown section there wasn’t much traffic, at least after 7 p.m.

On a cold December evening, however, it hardly lived up to Rebecca West’s description:

Yet Bitolj is one of the fairest of all cities. It lies at the valley mouth and spills out into wide plains, shading itself with poplar groves; and till full summer there are snow peaks to be seen beyond the plains. It is one of those cities which prove to our amazement that we Westerners have never even begun to understand what town-planning means. Thirty-five thousand people live in it, yet from every point of the compass it looks like a garden, and there is no part of it so congested or squalid that it would be unpleasant to live in it.

Since the 1930s, however, fortune hasn’t often smiled on Bitola.

Down by the Station: Unfinished Rail Business

Once I got the knack of riding around Bitola at night in the cold, I relaxed and started to enjoy the city.

My first stop was the railway station, where I went to check on a European Union project, to renovate the rail connection between Bitola in North Macedonia and Florina, in Greece.

For years I had been reading about the project on various railway websites. Completing the line would provide another uninterrupted rail link between London and Athens.

At the moment the only through line goes south from Skopje to the border at Gevgelija (where I know from first-hand experience that immigration checks to enter Greece and the EU take so long that it’s possible to have a full dinner at the station restaurant that sets up tables on the platform).

The Bitola-to-Florina link would give freight another access point for traffic, for example, going from Budapest to Thessalonika. And it would allow passengers, such as myself, to take the train from Bitola into Greece.

I locked my bicycle to a railing in front of the station. Nearby was a sign indicating that the EU had paid €19.5 million for the twenty-mile project and that it was set to open on December 10, 2018. But inside I heard from one of the station masters that no trains were running on the refurbished line. Nor did he have any idea when the service would start.

Truth be told, the station master had no time for my rail-fan questions. He had been smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee at his desk, and didn’t need to walk over to the glass window in his office and listen to me badger him about the absence of trains to nearby Florina.

He did give me the train times to Skopje and other cities such as Prilep—I was trying to figure where to go next—but then shrugged when the conversation came back to the EU’s €19.5 million sunk costs. (He probably thought I was an auditor from Brussels.) Finally, to get rid of me, he said dismissively: “No one here has any reason to go to Greece.”

Atatürk Comes to Life

The exhibit covering the Bitola life of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is near the center of the town.

Atatürk was posted there twice—once in the military academy during high school (1896-1898) and later (1907-1909) as a junior officer during the time of the Young Turks’ revolt against the Sultan.

It pleased me that the museum was open in the evening, and for a change there were some other people looking through the cabinets that showed cadet Mustafa Kemal in high school and pictures of Monastir as a regional capital.

Atatürk (his assumed honorific) rose to military fame, and later political power in the 1920s as the “father” of modern Turkey, as a divisional commander at Gallipoli (1915). There he famously said to his men: “I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die,” when the Allies were threatening to break through the Turkish lines in the early days of the Allied amphibious landing on the peninsula.

Atatürk was active in the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) that pushed Greece out of Asia Minor (the war was a disaster for the idea of Greater Greece and ended with the massacre of Greek citizens in what was then Smyrna, now Izmir).

Atatürk was the transitional leader between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the subsequent rise of the modern Turkish state, and he was also a moderating influence (of sorts) in trying to balance Turkey as a leading power in the Islamic world, without cutting itself off from either Europe or the more traditional Arab states.

The Turkish victory over the invading Greeks also allowed the country to throw off the onerous Treaty of Sèvres (a cousin of Versailles in the Peace of Paris 1919) that had given the Allies control over Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Dardanelles.

Sèvres was also the legal instrument used to strip the Ottoman Empire of its constituent states across the Middle East, which gave Britain a mandate in Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) and France responsibility for Lebanon and Syria. At the same time it defined the borders of modern Turkey, in which Atatürk ruled as a strongman until 1938.

Who Controls Macedonia Often Controls Eastern Europe

From the museum I biked into the pedestrian area of Bitola, over which the winter fog had settled, blurring the street lights. There was some life along the main street, as shops and restaurants were open, but in the December chilly air it still felt remote from the glitter of modern Europe.

I did find a hip bistro for dinner, and in riding back to the hotel I detoured around an old mosque that speaks to the region’s delicate political and religious balance.

The classic Greek geographer and philosopher Strabo said famously, “And Macedonia, of course, is a part of Greece,” but it’s a quote that can easily be found among the works of Serb, Turkish, Albanian, and Bulgarian geographers.

At the moment Bitola is neither here nor there—a forgotten Balkan town on train tracks to nowhere—but it remains on a major fault line of European politics.

Since Atatürk was there, the town has been Ottoman, Bulgarian, Serb, Greek, Austrian, Nazi German, Yugoslav, and North Macedonian, if not French (and I am sure I have overlooked some invaders).

As the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar writes in her magnificent Memoirs of Hadrian, which evokes the vanished Roman world, if not places like Bitola: “I was willing to yield to nostalgia, that melancholy residue of desire.”

Next: The mountainous World War I front lines around Monastir. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.