Bitola, Macedonia: The City of Consuls and Cafes
A little history lesson helps make sense of Bitola’s diverse buildings, food and people. The city was a military, political and trading center in the 1300s, and possibly before. When it fell under the Ottoman Empire in 1382, trade significantly expanded and the city became an islamic religious center and important administrative outpost. During this time, the city expanded to have approximately 70 mosques, 900 shops, and 12 consulates-gaining the nickname, “the City of Consuls.”
After the Balkan Wars, Bitola would have been a probable choice for Macedonia’s capital, but its proximity to Greece (15km) made it vulnerable to siege. (And as many readers know, you wouldn’t want to sit Greece and Macedonia together at a UN dinner party.) Skopje became the capital, and Bitola began a slow decline in political importance. Despite the shift in fortunes, eleven consuls still exist in Bitola today.
We drove to Bitola through green mountains and valleys, passing horse-drawn carriages on the highway.
Upon arriving in the town, we parked on a dusty side street and received second glances at our Belgrade license plates. We picked our way through an unpaved road. It seemed that not much had changed in Bitola’s last hundred years.
Then we reached the main square.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by lush green grass, crayola-colored buildings, and techno music pumping from a hundred cafes. Minarets peeped over baroque rooftops and between office buildings. Bitola’s centuries of history were crammed together in a half-mile radius. The 900 stores during the Ottoman Empire have been replaced by an almost equal number of coffee shops, all of them full.
We joined the throngs of people in their Sunday best and did as the Bitolans do. We strolled up and down the street-not to show off our finery, but to find an empty seat for lunch.
We had intentions of seeing mosques, churches and other sights in Bitola, but we failed to realize that Sunday lunch in Bitola is an all-day affair. Even though we were at a humble cevap* place, the waiter presumed we wanted to chat for an hour before our meals appeared. We nursed our drinks, watched the same people pass by again and again, and listened to the good-natured arguing at the table next door. We may have missed seeing some of the guidebook attractions, but we definitely saw life in Bitola.
*RHOB tip: when you see lots of mosques, get cevap. Halal cevap (or just pork-free cevap) is delicious.