Bitola used to be the administrative centre of the Ottoman vilayet (region) of manastir (their name for the town) making it one of the most important towns in the Balkans, however today it is a sleepy backwater with a bustling market. The only indications of its former importance lie in the two large mosques in the centre and the fact that there are three foreign consulates in town, all sharing an uninspiring little building on the main street. The Turks cater to the small community there, the British won't leave before the French, and the French will be damned if they're going to be outlasted by the Brits.
|The small building, in the sleepy backwater that is Bitola, which houses 3 consulates. A hilarious legacy of pre-WWI politics.|
Further east I stopped off at the town of Prilep. It's a pretty run-of-the-mill regional Macedonian town with your standard bazaar, statue of Alexander the Great and mosque, which is now in ruins following the troubles of 2001 when there was a small conflict with Albanian separatists. In retaliation some local Macedonians burnt down the mosque, as Albanians are generally Muslim - unfortunately the mosque belonged to the local Turkish community and had no connections with Albanians. But this is the Balkans and small details like that fall through the cracks during tensions. In Prilep I stayed with some volunteers from the Peace Corps and EVS (European Voluntary Service). Such longer term foreign volunteers are always interesting people to meet whilst travelling as they often speak the local language and have been there for some time, so they have a disinterested view of the local customs, quirks and idiosyncracies. They are often an invaluable source of information and insights. It was whilst staying in Prilep that I was introduced to the concept of ima vreme, which basically translates as "there's time", or in other words: "don't worry, sit down, have another coffee, whatever it is that's bothering you will still be there later, so just relax". The Macedonians (and their Montenegrin brothers) are renowned throughout the Balkans for having a manana attitude and doing as little work as possible whilst having a chat over a coffee (unless they're getting worked up about various nationalistic causes that is). I took this advice to heart and spent a few days taking things a bit more slowly, helped in part by the rain (thankfully the flooding was limited to the Western Balkans and Prilep got off relatively unscathed).
The obligatory Alexander the Great statue in Prilep.
And from Prilep my journey took me south to Greece and Thessaloniki. It is the first time in this journey that I have been to a place that I have already visited before. Ordinarily it's not something I would do, but my next stop requires some bureaucratic organisation and so I needed a couple of days to sort things out. I also thought it would be nice to spend my birthday with a friend, and even though I'm generally not particularly sentimental about these things, your 30th birthday is still a milestone and it's nice to spend it with a familiar and friendly face. Theo hosted me over 3 years ago when I first came to Thessaloniki and I was thankful that he is still there. The town still looks the same: a little grey and workaday, with plenty of people sipping frappes in streetside cafes. However in the past couple of years Greece has gone through cataclysmic changes that may not be apparent to the casual visitor. Theo works for a local paper, and in the past year the number of employees has been cut by two thirds. His friend in Athens works for the largest plastic surgery clinic in the country; since September they haven't had a single client, even for the most minor procedures. I'm continually astounded by how people manage to get on with their lives and maintain a high level of normality despite very testing circumstances and privations. Anyway, this evening Theo and I went for a meal at a local taverna, complete with mezes and ouzo. A very relaxed and civilised evening and now I am finishing off my post before having to leave Theo's flat at 4am to catch the first bus to Ouranopolis (I just hope the bus is comfortable so that I can at least get some sleep on it).