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Days 3 and 4: Skopje to Bitola

After seeing Skopje in the beautiful sunshine on Monday, our assumption was that the good weather would continue unabated. Our plan for Tuesday was to take a bus to Mount Vodno, a mountain on the outskirts of Skopje which has a cable car to the top and from where we hoped we would have a beautiful view across the region. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. Unbeknown to us, the entire of southern Europe from Italy to Bulgaria was about to be hit by the remnants of Cyclone Simeon.

When we woke up on Tuesday morning it was just raining lightly and we were hopeful that it might brighten up within a couple of hours. We had breakfast at a lovely cafe just round the corner from our apartment, where we enjoyed coffee and enormous slices of meat burek for under £3. We went back to our room to catch up on some reading while sitting out the rain, but as the hours ticked by it showed little sign of abating. By mid-morning we couldn't even see the bottom of Mount Vodno, never mind the top of it, and so we were forced to give up on the idea of the cable car. By lunch-time we were starting to get cabin fever in the apartment and managed to convince ourselves that it wasn't raining that much really, so we would be safe to venture out for a walk. Venture out we did, at first just as far as the bus station where we purchased our tickets to Bitola for Wednesday, as well as our tickets to Serbia for the following Saturday. We were only in the bus station long enough to figure out which counter we needed to approach and make two purchases, but during that time the rain managed to degenerate from a light drizzle into a full-on torrential downpour. Oh dear.

We half jogged a few hundred metres down the road to a shopping mall, getting thoroughly soaked in the process. There was thunder, lightning, and some of the streets were starting to look like they had more water on them than the river Vardar. We took refuge in the shopping centre and spent some time walking around the supermarket in the hope of finding an umbrella. We did eventually find exactly one umbrella which we proceeded to purchase, causing some consternation at the checkout as it didn't appear to have a barcode on it.

Even armed as we now were with an umbrella, going outside did not seem like a good decision so we sat and drank coffee in the shopping centre for a while until things calmed down a bit. Eventually we decided to brave it, and although it wasn't raining that hard by this point, it was quite a challenge to walk the kilometre or so back to our apartment, because some of the roads we needed to cross were ankle-deep in water. Once we made it we decided to stay indoors for the rest of the day, only heading out again in the evening to get a meal at a local Italian restaurant.

We were disappointed to wake up on Wednesday morning and find that Skopje was still extremely wet. We had booked tickets for a bus to Bitola at 9am, so after a quick breakfast in the nearby cafe we set off for the bus station once more. We were pleased to see when we arrived that the bus we were due to be travelling in looked reasonably comfortable and that it wouldn't be a hardship to spend the nearly four-hour journey across Macedonia to Bitola in it.

Bitola is Macedonia's second city, located in the southern part of the country close to the border with Greece. Historically also known by the Greek name 'Monastir' and the Turkish name 'Manastir', it is located on the Roman road Via Egnatia and the ruins of the ancient town Heraclea Lyncestis are just outside the modern city centre. Our bus journey took us right across the middle of Macedonia, passing through the towns of Veles, Gradsko and Prilep. The landscape was exceptionally hilly, with winding roads, tunnels and mountain passes. By the time we got as far as Prilep (which looked like a pretty place, with a big castle on a hill overlooking the town) there had been a noticeable improvement in the weather and significant amounts of blue sky were visible. Yay!

We arrived in Bitola at 12.40 and walked to the guesthouse we had booked to check in. We are only staying in Bitola for one night on our way to Ohrid, so we left our stuff in the room and headed out to explore straightaway in case the weather changed its mind and started raining again. Our aim was to at least find the ruins of Heraclea before the heavens opened; we didn't have a map, but the guidebook indicated that if we walked back as far as the station, through a park and just kept going, we would get there in the end.

The first signpost we saw upon leaving the guesthouse was to Athens! Not a sign you see every day of the week.


Happily we soon found a more relevant sign which indicated that we were on the right track.


Finally we were there :)


It cost us 100 MKD each to get in (about £1.30) and an extra 300 MKD (£4) to be allowed to take photos. The guidebook had warned us about this in advance so that wasn't a nasty shock. It was a fascinating place, so I think the photos were worth it.

The first sight we came to was the Roman theatre.


It was absolutely enormous. Tim was brave enough to climb to the top of it, which gives some idea of the scale.


I personally found climbing up to the first step to be daring enough! It wasn't quite like visiting an English Heritage site in the UK would be, where the attractions would be behind barriers with signs requesting you not to touch and decorated with health and safety warnings about steep steps. This was more like a Roman-themed adventure playground where visitors could climb anywhere and everywhere that they wanted.


Excavation at the site is still ongoing but there is already a lot to see. After climbing down from the theatre we were able to walk along the main street (complete with sewer system), see a small and large basilica, the portico of the former courtroom and what used to be the town fountain.









By the far the most impressive part of the whole site though were the beautiful mosaics on the floors of the basilicas, which were created some time between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. The town was struck by an earthquake at some point in the sixth century and subsequently abandoned.










It was about 3pm by the time we had finished exploring the ruins and so we decided to walk back into Bitola to see the sights of the modern town and find somewhere to eat. Bitola turned out to be a very pleasant place, with a big wide shopping street (where we managed to buy a Macedonian-English dictionary for just £6)...


...a beautiful old mosque...


...and a statue which doesn't hide the fact that it's of Philip II of Macedon.


All in all we had a really lovely day and are excited about travelling on to Ohrid tomorrow. Unfortunately the weather forecast for the entire region is exceptionally bad for the next week, with the tail end of the cyclone seemingly due to remain over the entire Balkans for the foreseeable future, so we will have to see what tomorrow brings.

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