Bitola – An unknown historic Balkan city

Just 12 km from the borders of Greece, Bitola is the second largest city in North Macedonia. It has managed to maintain its unique 18th and 19th century architecture, with buildings that show its former glory and historic past, when every major European country had a consulate here due to the trading and business that took place in the city. This is the reason, why Bitola was nicknamed the “city of consuls”.

Sirok Sokak

It is believed that a tribe called Lynkestai was the founder of the first settlement in the area. Later Philip II (the father of Alexander the Great) founded here a city named Heraklea Lyncestis, in honour of Hercules and the ancient tribe that lived here. The city continued to prosper during the Roman and the Byzantine period and became the largest city and trading centre in the Balkans after Constantinople and Thessaloniki. The area was also a thriving centre of Christian worship. So when the Ottomans came to the city in the 14th century, they named it Monastir, due to the many monasteries and churches in the region.

Magnolia Square

From the 18th century but mainly during the 19th century, Monastir became a major trading centre and was linked by railway to the rest of Europe. French was spoken widely in the city and there were several international schools and a military academy, that was attended by Turkey’s historic leader Kemal Ataturk. During the Balkan Wars and the two World Wars, the city was in the centre of the events and suffered severe bombings, damages and destructions, but managed to maintain its identity. When the provincial town of Skopje was selected as the capital of the Federal Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia, Bitola lost its importance and became a neglected city. However, today it’s striving to regain its importance mainly as a cultural and tourist destination.

Magnolia Square

We start our walk in Bitola from the city’s main square, named Magnolia Square, which is located on the south bank of River Dragor. At the centre of the square apart from the statue of Philip II, we see the impressive Clock Tower, built in the 1830s. Legend says that the Ottoman authorities collected around 60.000 eggs from nearby villages and mixed them in the mortar to make the walls of the tower stronger. Just next to the main square is the well-maintained building of Magaza, which used to operate as a trading and exchanging centre and today hosts temporary art exhibitions. 

Sirok Sokak
Sirok Sokak

From the square, we follow south the emblematic pedestrian street of the city, Sirok (Shirok) Sokak (which means in Turkish “wide alley”). The official name of the street is Marsal Tito and with a total length of almost 2 km, it is considered the longest pedestrian street in the Balkans. The street is full of shops, cafes, bars and restaurants but it is also lined on both sides by impressive protected 18th and 19th century buildings. The diversity and variety of the buildings, as well as the artistic details on their facades, is something that will certainly impress you. Anthropomorphic figures, flowers, refined designs, symbols and capitals are indicative of some of the designs that you will see on the buildings. Along the way, there is also the typical Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

House of the Army / Dom na Armija

At the end of Sirok Sokak we see the impressive renovated (but not in use) building of the House of the Army (Dom na Armija), which used to house the officer’s club and the Bitola Institute and Museum. The building of the Museum was one of the buildings of the Ottoman Military Academy (that Ataturk attended) and houses in its one wing an exhibition about Ataturk which rivals the one at Gallipoli. The other wing of the Museum is dedicated to the history of the city. Sirok Sokak continues from this point for another 800 m through the well-cared city park. Sirok Sokak is the beating heart of the city and is full of life at all hours of the day.

Old Bazaar and River Dragor

To continue our walk in Bitola, we return to Magnolia Square and cross the river to visit the other side of the city, where the Ottoman Bazaar and the Old Town are located. This was once the centre of commerce with over 900 shops organised according to craft. If you walk among the narrow streets of the Old Bazaar and on the bank of the river you can still see a few old storefronts. West of the Old Bazaar is the covered market Bezisten. It is one of the most impressive and oldest buildings in Bitola from the Ottoman period and one of the biggest covered markets in the region.

Yeni Mosque

Surrounding the Old Bazaar are several mosques, such as the Isak Mosque, the domed Ajdar-Kadi Mosque (built by the Mimar Sinan, the greatest architect of the Ottoman period) and the Yeni Mosque, which has a 40 m minaret, and recent archaeological excavations have revealed that it has been built upon an old church.

St. Demetrius / Sv. Dimitri

Very close to the main square is also located the impressive Orthodox Christian Church of St. Demetrius (Sv. Dimitri). The church was built in 1830 with the contributions of local merchants and craftsmen. It is plain on the outside, as all churches in the Ottoman Empire had to be, but lavishly decorated with chandeliers, a carved bishop throne and an engraved iconostasis on the inside. According to some scholars, the iconostasis is the work of the Mijak engravers. Mijak is an ethnographic group of the region renowned for their wood carving skills. The church also has some frescoes made in two periods: the end of the 19th century and after World War I. The opening scenes of the film The Peacemaker were shot in this church, as well as some Welcome to Sarajevo scenes.

St. Demetrius / Sv. Dimitri
Heraclea LyncestisPhoto by Vaurien – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Very near the city centre at the end of the city park, the archaeological site of Heraclea Lynkestis is located. The city was founded by Philip II in the 4th century BC and was an active trade centre for almost eight centuries. Only a small part of the ancient city has been excavated but what has already been revealed is quite spectacular. These include an amphitheatre, baths, basilicas and some very interesting mosaics, which are fine examples of early Byzantine art. 

Manaki Cinema on Sirok Sokak (on the left)

Bitola however has also a special interest for movie buffs as the city is related to the Manaki Brothers, who are considered the pioneers of cinematography in the Balkans. The two brothers, Yanaki and Milton, were born in the village of Avdela in Greece to a wealthy family, where they opened their first photographic studio. In 1904 they moved to Bitola (then Monastir). In 1905 they became the court photographers of the king of Romania and start to travel in Europe. In 1907 they brought from London a Bioscope cine camera and start making films in the Balkans. They filmed the events of the Balkan Wars and the two World Wars, but also the simple life in villages and of everyday people. In 1921 they showed their first film to the public in an open cinema they establish on Sirok Sokak and in 1923 they built a proper cinema building, which was finally destroyed by fire in 1939. Today a new cinema named Manaki is built on Sirok Sokak near the location of the old one and every year a film festival named after the Manaki Brothers is held in Bitola.

Photos by Manaki Brothers – The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia (DARM), Bitola Department, Public Domain

Many places in Bitola serve excellent food and you can taste fine international and local cuisine. First of all, if you are walking on Sirok Sokak, you must make an obligatory stop at Mini Pani (Sirok Sokak) for freshly baked burek and many other delicacies. Other fine places for a quick snack are Boulevard Bakery (1st May Boulevard) and Pizza Sweden (Sirok Sokak), which makes the best value-for-money pizza slice in the city. However, there are some very good restaurants in the city such as Aurum Kitchen Bar (Todor Skalovski 8), a modern place with very good international cuisine and the Lounge Bar Manaki (Roosevelt 17), a bar-restaurant with good ambience. Finally, our favourite place in Bitola to try local wines and some tasty dishes is Vino Bar Bure, with its tables strategically placed on Magnolia Square. 

During our visit to Bitola, we stayed at the Robevksi Luxury Rooms on Sirok Sokak and enjoyed every minute. Large luxury rooms with good facilities and daily cleaning. They also provided parking for our car, which is important if you stay in the city centre.

Bitola is a very interesting city with a long history. Although seriously neglected in the previous decades it has managed to maintain its character and its heritage. The city is now trying to develop again with new modern buildings as well as the preservation of the old ones. Bitola is one of the upcoming destinations in the Balkans, that you must discover.

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