Bitola’s highlight was the great floor mosaics at Heraclea, a city founded by Philip of Macedon and named for the Greek hero Hercules

Sometimes we go to these off-the-beaten track places like Ohrid and hit a home run. We loved it. Then there’s Bitola, not exactly a strike out, but kind of a lazy fly ball.

Bitola is Macedonia’s second largest city, down in the southwestern part of the country and just a little north of the border with Greece. It was founded by Philip of Macedon in the 4th century BC and for many years was a key cultural, educational, and commercial hub. From the time of the Ottomans it was known as the “City of Consuls” as so many nations had consuls here. So it sounded interesting.

Bitola’s main pedestrian thoroughfare

More interesting than it was, it turns out. There was a lively street of outdoor cafes and that was fun but it was kind of limited. There were some ruins about a mile out of town that were worth an hour or so. Mostly the ruins were pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, but the mosaics, covered up for some 1,400 years, were pretty impressive. And I loved a bit of the history: the city was an important part of the Byzantine empire but was sacked by a rising threat to Byzantium, a guy named Theodoric. Ultimately Emperor Zeno convinced Theodoric to turn his attention to the remnants of the Western Roman Empire instead, which Theodoric proceeded to conquer in the late 5th century. As Rome in those days was something of a … how do you say it? Shit hole? … he made Ravenna his capital and developed the fantastic mosaics we fell in love with last summer.

More of the mosaics, in really remarkable condition

But for those ruins, though – and even they were at best a brief visit – there wasn’t a lot to see. So I did what I liked to do when there’s not a lot to do and climbed up a big hill out of the city to look down. And that’s it. From here we move into Bulgaria, a country we visited and loved back in 2010.

Looking down on Bitola from high atop a neighboring hill

That church up there was my goal and I took the rainbow as a good omen

Macedonia’s countryside, looking away from Bitola

Not all of Bitola was this run down, but it is obviously a poor city in a poor country. Traveling here helps me understand the frustration many Macedonians feel about all the money being spent to spruce up Skopje

Macedonia is primarily Christian, but it was founded as an explicitly multi-cultural country and you see many mosques as you travel around. I have to say that I love the towering minarets you see as you drive through the country.

The Church of St. John, dedicated to John of Patmos, sits on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid and the town below

Ohrid rhymes with “horrid,” but don’t let that fool you; this little gem on the shores of Lake Ohrid is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been in these four-plus years of travel. Ohrid is one of a small number of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list that is referenced for both its natural and cultural heritage; most sites are one or the other, but Ohrid is both stunningly beautiful and culturally important. It is a remarkable place where we could easily have spent more than the two full days allotted. Alas, we wanted to stay longer but the day we were scheduled to leave was Macedonia’s national independence holiday and they were fully booked. That’s right, we were all but kicked out of town.

What’s the natural beauty? Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in Europe, dating back at least two million years and perhaps as much as three million years. Due to its age, depth, and isolation, the lake supports some 200 species of plant and animal life that are unique to the lake itself. Walk around the hills that surround the lake and you feel that you must be on the Mediterranean, or at least Lake Como or something like that in Italy.

The Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon is another church with some great views

And on top of that, for centuries Ohrid was a major ecclesiastical city. You know you’re in a religious place when the airport is called “St. Paul the Apostle Airport.” It has been a major church place at least since St. Clement of Ohrid walked the streets here. He lived back in the 9th century (when Ohrid was part of the Bulgarian Empire) and is considered the first Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. He is one of the leading saints of modern Bulgaria and the patron saint of today’s Macedonia. By the end of the 10th century, Ohrid was the capital and main city of the Bulgarian Empire. Hundreds of churches were built during these centuries before the Ottoman invasions of the 15th century; in fact, it is said that there were once 365 Orthodox churches in Ohrid, one for every day of the year.

Certainly not all of those churches remain, but several of them do and they add immeasurably to the natural beauty of the place. On our first day there I stumbled onto St. Sophia, an 11th century church that displays some remarkably well-preserved frescoes. And as you just walk around and explore you see more of these wonderful old churches filled with icons and relics. It’s enough to make you want to join the Orthodox church. Well, almost.

Frescoes in the Church of St. Sophia date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. When the Ottomans took control they plastered over these evil paintings so when they were uncovered centuries later they were in great condition for their age.

Ultimately, then, Ohrid was about sitting by the lake reading, swimming in the lake, hiking up into the hills, and all that. The food was great, including one night at a place called Belvedere where live music was not just nice entertainment but even led to lively dancing around our table. One night after dinner we caught the end of a live concert with some Macedonian pop group. All in all a great way to spend a couple days. It would have been a great way to spend even more days, but they wouldn’t let us. Sad.

A view of the lake from our hotel. There wasn’t a lot of swimming there but I can speak with authority that the water was clean, reasonably warm, and relaxing.

This was my favorite tiny stretch of beach, well out of town and very quiet. I spent several hours there finishing the biography of George H.W. Bush I had started.

Part of the lovely path out to my beach. From here it went up into the hills and then back down, so you had to really want to get there. I did.

Mark in front of the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon. Both the interior and exterior have been massively renovated in recent years but, to our surprise, the interior was pretty uninspiring. From the outside you expect it’s going to be huge and impressive but it really was neither.

Speaking of not so huge, there were lots of Yugos and other similar cheap, old little cars around

Lots of flowers and beautiful buildings and so on in Ohrid

The reconstructed walls of Bulgarian Tsar Samuel’s castle dating from the late 10th century make for great views over Ohrid

There was a walking path way around the lake. Ultimately I don’t know how far it went, but it was a long way around where you would find what looked like pretty hip beach clubs and bars and so on.

Speaking of food, we loved the simple things. In this case fried cheese, grilled eggplant, and cabbage.

And then there was the night of dancing in our restaurant

Our table was often surrounded and we didn’t mind a bit

A massive statue of Alexander the Great, but called simply The Warrior, because it would be too provocative to suggest that Alexander – whose father was Philip of Macedon – was Macedonian

Macedonia really wants you to come to Skopje. This may be a poor country, but they’re spending big money turning the capital city (pronounced “scope-ya”) into the Caesar’s Palace of the Balkans.

It was strange. We started walking around after checking into our hotel and Mark just said “This feels like a big Caesar’s Palace. I’m not sure exactly why, but it feels very Vegas.” As we continued to explore it became obvious. Everywhere you turn there are statues, big ones, huge ones, massive ones, even some small ones, but statues everywhere. Shiny new museums, too, that must be as expensive as any you’ll find anywhere. And ornate pedestrian bridges, too, all with statues, trying to make the city look like some ancient Macedonian cultural center. Except with all the statues so new and shiny it comes off more like a fake version – ala Caesar’s Palace – than an ancient city.

Across the river from The Warrior is another huge statue, this one his father Philip looking across to hail his son

And then to add to the Las Vegas comparison, as we would walk to dinner we saw more casinos than I’ve ever seen anywhere outside of Vegas. Strange.

At any rate, Skopje is an interesting city largely because Macedonia is a fascinating country. It’s not clear to me, for instance, exactly what its name is. They use the name Republic of Macedonia. Greece, though, strongly objects to that name since much of ancient Macedonia including the old capital of Pella is in Greece. So when the country was admitted to the U.N., it was admitted as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, often abbreviated as FYROM; that’s the name used by NATO, the European Union, and the U.S. All because Greece doesn’t want anyone to think that modern Macedonia has anything to do with the ancient Macedonia that was home to Alexander the Great.

Which is interesting because as I recall the history, Greeks in the 4th century BC didn’t consider Macedonia or its conquering rulers, Philip and his son Alexander, true Greeks. Sure, they spoke some variation of Greek but they were interlopers, from the hinterlands, definitely not classic Greeks. Fast forward 2,500 years, though, and boy they sure are Greeks.

The role that Greece plays in determining just what Macedonia is permitted to do extends in a lot of directions. The major, massive statue in the center of the city, for instance, is obviously a statue of Alexander the Great, the most famous Macedonian of all time. The Greeks, though, claim him as Greek (and his home town of Pella is in modern Greece), so the statue is known simply as “The Warrior.”

The original flag of modern Macedonia, bearing the Vergina Sun, was deemed too provocative by the Greeks

So they switched to this design, which I still think is pretty cool

And it extends to the flag. When I first saw the Macedonian flag I thought it was one of the coolest flags I’d ever seen. It was not, however, their first choice. Originally (and by “originally” I mean after their 1991 independence from Yugoslavia) their national flag was based on the Vergina Sun, a solar symbol of 16 rays used extensively as a symbol of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia. The Greeks objected to this, as well, insisting that the U.N. not allow it and instituting an economic embargo against little Macedonia. Finally the country capitulated, agreed to a new flag and to be referred to by others as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Spending time in Skopje is like seeing all the complexity of the Balkans distilled. As one writer put it every country on the peninsula once had its day in the sun; at one time or another the peninsula experienced a Serbian empire, a Bulgarian empire, a Hungarian Kingdom, a Greater Albania, ancient Macedonia, Byzantium, the Ottoman empire, and so on. And basically every country refers to the time of their greatest strength and says that that should be the extent of their current borders. And we’ve experienced it: Albanian friends showing us how much of ancient Albania has been swallowed by awful neighbors; Bulgarian friends doing the same; and now Macedonian tour guides showing the true border of Macedonia and how Greece is evil and awful and stupid but getting away with grand theft.

We toured two museums in Skopje, one of which was a museum of Macedonian Independence. The short story is that as Yugoslavia was breaking up in the early 1990s a referendum was held on September 8, 1991 and some 95 percent of Macedonians voted for independence. The longer story, though, is that nationalists had been fighting for independence for many decades, going back to the Ottoman era. The museum was interesting but peculiar in one way: you could only go through it with a tour guide; you couldn’t just experience it on your own. That’s normally a big turn-off, since we hate crowds and groups and you usually can’t hear or understand anything that’s being said. In this case, though, there was no one else there at the start so I (Mark was taking a break) did much of the tour with just the guide, giving me the opportunity to question him a fair amount about this history.

A map showing modern Macedonia in orange with the dotted line encompassing ancient Macedonia. The two dots are ancient Macedonian capitals, including Pella, the birthplace of Alexander. As you can see that’s all Greece now, but Macedonia thinks it should be Macedonian, including the parts of Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, and Kosovo that are historically Macedonian. Or were at some ancient time.

His story was interesting. The Greeks are awful, throwing their weight around all because silly Westerners have this love affair with an ancient Greek civilization that hasn’t been around for millennia (there’s some truth to this, of course). And the Serbs are worse. The section of the museum dealing with Tito’s dictatorship was a very different experience than what we saw in Belgrade. Very different and, I would add, more accurate. A brutal dictator who had opponents tortured and murdered. And you can’t trust the Bulgarians at all; they’ll steal all the Macedonian land they can.

And that’s the problem with the Balkans: everyone hates everyone else, typically because of some battle 400 years ago or something.

Still, it’s a great place to travel, so far at least. The food continues to be great and breathtakingly cheap. In Sweden it was hard to have a dinner for two for under $150 if you had wine and all. Here it’s hard to spend over $50 even if you select a nice wine.

And the hotels are a bargain too, though in this case there was one very weird feature. We stayed at a Marriott right in the center of things. Very nice hotel, new or recently renovated and a great value for the price. Because of the recent merger with Starwood we’re treated well there and get access to the executive lounge. We’re staying on the 7th floor and the lounge is on the 5th floor. So we go down, have a drink or two, then go back up to the room to get jackets to go out for the night. Except there’s no “up” button for the elevator, just down.

That can’t be right, right? Only a down button even though there are three floors above? Somehow, though, in this classy, shiny, flash hotel they only have down buttons. Strange indeed.

Beautiful displays in Skopje’s archeological museum. Indeed, almost too beautiful.

And speaking of strange, the other museum we toured, an archeological museum, was … odd. You just didn’t know what to make of it. It had an enormous collection of ancient coins that was awe-inspiring, just display case after display case of coins dating back thousands of years that appeared to be in mint condition. Could they be real? It just didn’t seem possible. And all sorts of other stuff in stunning displays with great lighting that made you feel you were in something truly special. All surrounded by manikins dressed up in period costumes that just looked so tacky. It was all interesting but all just strange, too.

So two days in Skopje. Fascinating, beautiful, affordable, and weird all at the same time. Next stop on this Balkan road trip: Lake Ohrid.

I didn’t know it, but Mother Teresa was born in Skopje. When we were in Albania they bragged about her as Albanian, which is true; she was ethnically Albanian but born and raised here in Skopje.

Did I mention lots and lots of flashy statues in Skopje?

Lots of museums, too, including a massive hoard of coins. These beauties date from the third century BC. Don’t they look too perfect to be genuinely ancient?

And then there were all these tacky manikins, including Byzantine Emperor Justinian here

Mark on the walls of Kale Fortress, a Bulgarian stronghold back in the day

Oh yeah, the food. This was a perfect lunch: traditional kebaps, cabbage salad, their tzaziki-like yoghurt dish, and a glass of crisp white wine. Perfect.