It's Greek to Me

Sunday, May 13, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Balkans & Beyond, Days 48-49:  Ohrid, Macedonia to Bitola, Macedonia.  Departing Ohrid on Saturday, we couldn't resist the opportunity to drive along the eastern shore of the lake to National Park Galicica, which straddles Mount Galicica (7,395 ft) between Lakes Ohrid and Prespa.  A well-maintained road takes visitors almost to the mountain's summit before descending down the other side to Lake Prespa.  Along the scenic drive, views of the lake and towns along its coast are spectacular.
Lake Ohrid from scenic overlook in Galicica Park
Our destination for the next couple of days was Bitola (pop. 75,000), Macedonia's second largest city and one of its oldest.  Founded by Philip II (AlexTheGreat's dad) in the fourth century BC as Heraclea Lyncestis, Bitola today sits ten miles north of Macedonia's border with Greece—that part of Greece that's also known as Macedonia.
Old Roman theater at Heraclea Lyncestis
Macedon was conquered by Rome in the 2nd century BC, which took over governance of the town.  To accommodate the Roman sport of gladiator fighting, the Roman emperor Hadrian had a theater built on a hill in Heraclea.  Its use was discontinued in the fourth century after Rome was Christianized, and it was buried and forgotten after an earthquake in the 6th century AD and Slavic invasions led to the abandonment of the city.

Small basilica at Heraclea
Many centuries later some ruins of the city were uncovered during a building project, and an archeological dig began in the 1930s.  The first indication that there had been a theater came with the discovery of a 14th row admission ticket carved on a small piece of bone.  With interruptions in the dig caused by the numerous conflicts in this war-torn area, it was 1968 before the 20-row theater was completely unearthed on a hill in what had been the center of the ancient town.  In addition to seating for hundreds, scientists uncovered a tunnel and cages for animals built below the rows for spectators.
Širok Sokak Street
When we arrived in Bitola around noon on Saturday and asked for a recommendation for lunch, the friendly reception agent at our small hotel warned us that the city is always bustling on Saturdays, especially Širok Sokak Street (Wide Street).  Lined with shops and restaurants, this pedestrian thoroughfare is obviously the place to see and be seen.  People crammed into the sidewalk cafes all had their chairs facing the street, so as not to miss any action on the promenade.
Philip II reigns (and reins?) over Magnolia Square.
After lunch, we strolled the mile-long avenue from the City Park on the south end to Magnolia Square on the north.  Wandering over to the nearby Yeni Cami (New Mosque), we sat at a bench outside pondering whether we should try to enter.  The doors were closed, and our limited understanding of the protocol and customs for non-Muslims visiting had us puzzled.  A gentleman walked past where we were sitting, and I smiled at him.  He walked past, and then—obviously reading the situation and our dilemma—he motioned for us to follow him.
Yeni Mosque
Though he spoke only a few words of English and we spoke neither of his languages—Macedonian and Italian—we were able to communicate enough for him to invite us into the mosque and tell us that it was built during the Ottoman period, completed in 1558.  In recent years, he indicated, the exquisite interior has been restored with the financial support of the Turkish government.
Funeral notices
As we wandered around Bitola, we couldn't help noticing light posts, building columns, trees and other surfaces plastered with signs bearing text and a photo of a person.  The format was almost similar to the old "Wanted" posters, except for the floral border decorated with a cross.  Our attempts to translate with Google's help were stymied by the script style font.
Later our helpful innkeeper explained that these are death notices posted in the neighborhood where the deceased had lived.  The wording is quite similar to what is published in newspaper obituaries in the U.S., including information about funeral arrangements.
Light up!  No stigma here.
As we have noted before, smoking in this region is much more widespread than in the U.S. and even in Western Europe.  Every table at sidewalk cafes is equipped with at least one ashtray, and often tables inside have them, too.  It's a bit like being back in the 1970s.

Even though we had decided to leave Greece for another trip, being so close to the border and having seen all we planned to in Bitola on Saturday convinced us to consider a day trip into northern Greece on Sunday.  With the ongoing dispute between Greece and Macedonia, we were a bit uncertain about what to expect at the border, so we did a little Googling—just enough to reveal a couple of nightmare tales about people being detained at the border by both Greek and Macedonian authorities for such infractions as calling a Greek city by its Macedonian name or carrying two cameras across the border.
Where are they now?
While conducting this research Saturday evening, the magic of a flight tracking app enabled us to follow the progress of our grandnieces (ages 21 and 19) on their first transatlantic flight.  They hopped the pond for a study abroad summer program in Florence, Italy.  We're looking forward to meeting them in Venice for a long weekend on our way back home.
The difference was evident at the border stations:  Macedonia (top), Greece (bottom)
Undeterred by the hyperbole we uncovered in our research, we pressed on with our plans to visit Greece, hoping for the best.  As it turned out, we had nothing to fear.  Border crossings for both countries were uneventful, coming and going.  What struck us most, however, was the immediate stark contrast between Greece, a thoroughly Western European country—despite its location on the Balkan peninsula—and Macedonia, which had suffered under Communist rule for 50 years, until 1991.
E-65 in Greece
We followed E-65, a European transnational highway, from Macedonia into Greece.  The difference in the quality of the road was stunning.  As soon as we entered Greece, the road suddenly became a limited access, dual carriageway with exceptional maintenance and meticulous signage.  We had not seen conditions like that in a long time.
On a secondary road to the lake shore 
Unrelated to the improved roads, we found that there was "something" indescribable in the quality of the light of northern Greece that made the scenery—for lack of a better word, just pop.  Whether it was atmospheric conditions or the influence of all those Greek gods, we cannot say, but the colors appeared more saturated, the light more glowing than most places, even those just across the border.

With no specific destination in mind, we meandered through the town of Florina and aimed our GPS at the shores of Lake Prespa, hoping to find something scenic.  As we approached the tiny village of Mikrolimni (pop. 72) on a narrow local road,  we chanced upon an interesting Greek character, Mr. Santos, hobbling along the road with the aid of his cane.

He waved us down, and when we stopped, he asked us in Greek if we could give him a ride into town.  We somehow understood what he needed and opened the door to the back seat.  He climbed in and off we went.  Later at a charming taverna on the lakeshore, we learned Mr. Santos' story from the restaurant owner's son-in-law.
He is currently 88 years old.  During the Greek Civil War in the 1940s, Mr. Santos allied himself with the Communist partisans.  While he was off in Yugoslavia for training, the Mikrolimni area was retaken by Greek government forces, making it unsafe for Mr. Santos to return to his village.  Subsequently, he lived for many years in Czechoslovakia and then the Soviet Union before finally being allowed to return to his home town in the 1980s.    
We enjoyed a lovely lunch of local dishes at the lakefront and wandered the area taking photos and enjoying the view before dragging ourselves away to return to Macedonia.

Tomorrow we'll drive to the Macedonian capital city, Skopje.  From all we've read, it should be a highlight of the trip.

Two-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Ohrid, Macedonia
    •  Ended in:  Bitola, Macedonia
    •  Miles driven:  186
    •  Miles walked: 12.23
    •  Weather:  49° to 73°, rain, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Swallow nests:  87
    •  Curves in the road:  324
    •  Incredible views of the lake:  217
    •  Ashtrays in sidewalk cafes:  4,839
    •  Letterboxes planted:  2

Loved:  The relief of four uneventful border crossings

More time to spend in Greece.  But we'll get back there soon.

Learned:  As if we needed it, we were reminded again–when seeing the direct contrast between Macedonia and Greece–of the struggles former Communist countries are still enduring in an attempt to catch up with the progress made elsewhere while they were oppressed.

More Photos
Swallows return to St. Naum on the lake because their mud nests attached to building eaves are tolerated at the monastery.
Our drive up to the summit of Mount Galicica in Macedonia's National Park Galicica
Remains of a courthouse at Heraclea
Floor mosaics set two thousand years ago retain their detail and color.
Greek scenery 
More Greek scenery