“How can there be no taxis?” I demanded. “This is North Macedonia’s second largest city. Wikipedia called Bitola the transportation hub of the region. What gives?”
“To be fair, there is a taxi. There’s just nobody in it.” Rich and I gazed at the empty yellow cab at the curb, the silent train station, and the handful of men quietly sipping Turkish coffee at the station café.
As usual in such situations, I felt decisive action was called for, so I departed in search of the ladies’ room. I eventually located it at the far end of the station, and by the time I returned, Rich was standing beside our bags with a stranger and a bemused expression.
“This guy will drive us out there,” he said.
“Is he a taxi driver?”
“I don’t know. He was walking by, and I thought he might belong to the yellow cab, so I said, ‘Taxi?’ And he said, ‘OK.’ Apparently he has a car and is willing to provide transport. He seems like a nice guy.”
“Famous last words.”
The stranger grabbed my suitcase and took off down the parking lot to a battered blue car. He wrestled with the latch on the car’s trunk, muttered what I assumed were a few choice Macedonian cuss words, gave up, and tossed the bags into the back seat. I climbed in after them, saying a quick prayer to St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers who are about to do foolish things.
You'll notice this map identifies Bitola as being in Macedonia, while the name of the country is shown as North Macedonia. In January 2019 a long-standing dispute with Greece was resolved by changing the name of the country to North Macedonia. My map program hasn't had time to catch up completely. Hope that clears up any confusion.
We were (I hoped) on our way to Vila Dihovo, a rural guest house in a tiny village just fifteen minutes outside the city of Bitola in the foothills of Baba Mountain in scenic Pelister National Park. The guest house was family run, served homegrown produce and homemade beer and wine, and let you pay whatever you thought was right for lodging and meals. The driver — what are the odds? — delivered us safely to Vila Dihovo’s front gate for a modest fee.
Our host Petar hurried out to greet us and grabbed our bags. We followed him into a stone building and up a set of wooden stairs festooned with a colorful little runner that had come loose from its moorings and was now a tumble of rucked-up fabric and scattered iron rods. I picked my way carefully along the bare wooden edges, wondering how many guests per week broke ankles here. Our small room was entirely filled with three massive wooden beds. “Are we sharing with another family?” I whispered to Rich. A modern shower stall, unable to squeeze into the minuscule bathroom, had inserted itself into the corner beside the largest bed, which was festively attired in purple seersucker sheets and a yellow canopy.
We were just in time to join our fellow guests for dinner on a porch overlooking the garden. Meals, we soon learned, were one of the true perks of the place. Not only was the food delicious, but the conversations with our well-traveled fellow guests — British, Dutch, German, and American — were interesting and convivial. After breakfast, the others took themselves off on serious mountain hikes while Rich and I ambled about the village, admiring the old stone houses and making friends with the local dogs. I kept wondering how people survived without so much as a corner store or café, even if there was a city just fifteen minutes away by car.
After a couple of days in the village, I was ready to embrace the more cosmopolitan pleasures of downtown Bitola. Settled during the Bronze Age, home to the ancient Greco-Roman metropolis Heraclea Lyncestis, serving as an international diplomatic hub under Ottoman rule (1382 to 1912), occupied in WWII by the Germans and Bulgarians … in short, Bitola has been at the crossroads of history ever since they invented history. While much of this was exceedingly uncomfortable at the time, today Bitola enjoys a rich legacy of architecture, archeological sites, and of course, cuisine.
Which is why I was so dismayed to discover, on a first pass through town, that nearly every eatery's sign included the word "pizza." I asked our Airbnb hostess, Victoria, if she could recommend anyplace for traditional fare.
“Most of the old dishes are only made at home,” she explained. “When people go out, they want something different.”
She did recommend a couple of restaurants, but the next day, she and her husband, Mladen, invited us to come for lunch on Monday so I could see how she made two classic Macedonian dishes: zelnik (spinach pie) and turli tava (vegetable stew with chicken). As you can imagine, we accepted with delight.
Monday morning, I joined Victoria in her kitchen as she began the pie dough. Unsatisfied with the texture, she repeatedly whacked the dough against the countertop to force out excess air. Note to self: this is the recipe I want to make when I'm having a very bad day.
While the dough rested up after its ordeal, Rich and I accompanied Mladen on an expedition to fetch the spinach. We detoured into a tiny storefront serving what Mladen declared to be Bitola’s best burek (pie stuffed with cheese, meat, or other fillings). Rich and I felt we owed it to our readers to do a taste test and returned at the earliest opportunity.
Mladen threaded his way through the old bazaar, a warren of small shops selling everything from clothes to kitchenware, and into the tarp-covered produce market. He explained that while a few things, such as bananas, were imported, most were locally grown and only sold in season. Lettuce was reaching the end of its time and would soon become tasteless. Cherries were just coming into their own, a bit expensive now, but delicious. Spinach didn’t seem to be available, so we would substitute blitva (a local green that’s like kale’s more delicate cousin).
Returning with the blitva, I rejoined Victoria in her kitchen as she completed the zelnik. The filling of egg, cheese, and fresh greens was simple. Making the special rippled crust was more of a challenge and good fun to watch.
Following local tradition, we began the meal with salad and rakia (fruit brandy), which we were assured was the best way to prepare the stomach for the pleasures that lay ahead. And I don’t think it was just the rakia talking when we all agreed that the zelnik was absolutely marvelous, the rich filling perfectly complemented by the delicate, rippling crust. The conversation flowed, turli tava emerged from the oven, and a bottle of wine went around. Eventually Victoria brought out her signature cake made with cherries from the tree shading the path to the door.
At last Rich and I rose, groaning, from the table, said our farewells and stumbled upstairs to our apartment for a much-needed siesta. As I closed my eyes, I remembered Victoria beating the dough against the countertop to get the air out, at which point I said to her, “As I always remind my readers, perfection is not a requirement.” She laughed and set the dough down with a gentle pat. No, I thought drowsily as I dropped toward sleep, perfection isn’t a requirement. In fact, it’s never really possible. But some days, like this one, come very, very close.
We've been on the road 68 days and are currently in Bitola, North Macedonia.
We plan to cross over into Albania tomorrow morning. This is where we expect things to get seriously offbeat.
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Thanks for joining us on the journey.
6/27/2019 08:07:28 pm
We might have passed you on the street. We were in Bitola 3 days ago and really enjoyed it.
6/28/2019 06:59:39 am
So sorry we didn't actually connect, Stan! But I'm so glad you had the opportunity to enjoy Bitola. It is such a fun town, and one so few travelers manage to get to.
I really enjoyed your post, Karen. I felt I was with you and Rich eating Victoria's Zelnik. Fantastic video.It made me even think I might have the skills to prepare it. You and Victoria made it looks very easy to make, but I know I would end up with the dough on the floor or the garbage hahaha. I guess I have to go to Bitola to try it.
7/2/2019 07:49:35 am
So glad you liked the post, Pia! Yes, this dough requires some manual dexterity, and I shudder to think what my kitchen will look like if/when I try making it at home. But the end result is worth it!
6/28/2019 12:41:19 pm
Wonderful market with such delicious fruit and veg - it does the eye good. It seems difficult to see where Greek cuisine ends and Turkish begins when so many dishes seem familiar. I confess to a great love of borek/burek stuffed with cheese. Love the cellar of homemade wine - no doubt delicous and organic.
7/2/2019 07:52:42 am
Yes, the markets here are marvelous and the food is a dizzying mix of East and West, due to this area's position at the crossroads of so many cultures. Right now a local slow food movement is just getting underway, as people seek to preserve tradition while experimenting with world food. And yes, the cellar was full of delicious, organic homemade wine, which I enjoyed drinking at dinner every night.
6/28/2019 02:58:59 pm
Love your posts and ever since you left Thessoloniki I keep expecting there to be dragons. Especially in the town with the really wierd library and now in the village. But you seem to find lovely people everywhere and wonderful food. I especially loved the Zelnik video and it looks really yummy. You have a real gift for finding the best things.
7/2/2019 07:56:51 am
Phyllis, I keep watching out for dragons, too! So far, aside from the occasional grumpy barista, we've been treated with kindness by everyone. The Zelnik was wonderful, and there's more fun to come. In my next post I'm featuring the Albanian version of that pie (and considerably easier to make!).
7/2/2019 12:01:34 am
Thanks to coworker who said “yes” to a total stranger upon arriving at New York airport several years ago,we found ourselves riding in a “non-taxi”. I was furious with her as there were numerous “real” taxis all around. I don’t like taking these chances! Not everybody who “seems like a nice guy” is a nice guy! Please tell Rich to use his sniffer to snif out delicious foods and depend on reputable companies to drive you’ll aroud rather than total strangers!
7/2/2019 06:04:56 pm
I miss St. Christopher, who was hugely popular when I was little and always seemed a comforting kind of saint to me. Yes, the Church saw fit to debunk him in 1970, as part of the general reorganization of the calendar of the Roman rite as mandated by the motu proprio, Mysterii Paschalis. And rightly so, as it seems likely that he never actually existed outside of myth and legend. He's still shown in church art around the world; in England there are more images of him than any other saint except Mary. In the Eastern Orthodox Church he's often shown with the head of a dog; we just saw one of these old icons in Albania. No matter what Church officials decree, I still enjoy the image of a character devoted to protecting others from peril.
7/2/2019 07:57:28 pm
Probably my favorite blog on this trip so far. It has a little bit of everything; food, city and country, the ride etc. I feel like Goldilocks. It is just perfect.
7/5/2019 05:54:57 pm
Kitty, I'm so glad you liked the post. Right now our days are so full of offbeat stuff, the greatest difficulty is deciding what to leave out. Thanks for your kind words; I'm delighted this was a Goldilocks moment for you!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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