The Macedonian Tendency: A Few Good Reasons to Visit in Old Bitola

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Few Good Reasons to Visit in Old Bitola

A Cultured Café in Old Bitola
11/22/2007 (
By Christopher Deliso

Bitola, Macedonia’s lively southern second city, is bursting with cafés and bars, most centered around its central pedestrian thoroughfare, the Sirok Sokak, lined with neoclassical buildings and foreign flags hearkening back to Bitola’s heyday as the ‘city of consuls’ in the Ottoman Empire.

Today, however, most of the town’s cafés are more or less the same, modern and slick, trendy but with little spirit. Nevertheless, a few stand out, such as the three-year-old Café-Gallery Van, nestled in Bitola’s Old Bazaar. The inspiration of its owner, Vladimir Altiparmak, this cheerful place occupies the front room of a restored 200-year-old house, and is decorated with various artworks and photos, while classical music or jazz play softly in the background. The congenial Vladimir, who comes from one of the oldest Jewish families in Bitola, sought with his little café “to bring back the spirit and tradition of old Bitola that was destroyed in the old [Communist] system.”


Indeed, the Bitola that lingers in the imagination of Vladimir Altiparmak is that of the city before Communism took hold, and before World War II decimated the city’s traditional cultures. In 1943, Bitola’s Jewish community was all but destroyed when over 7,000 Macedonian Jews were deported to the Nazi death camps by the occupying Bulgarian army. At the time, Bitola was one of the cities in the southern Balkans with a notable Sephardic Jewish population; these people, descendents of Spanish Jews taken in by the Ottomans after the Inquisition in 1492, would play the major role in commerce and culture in not only Bitola, but Thessaloniki to the south, in today’s Greece. In the pre-war years, over 30 Ladino-language newspapers and magazines were published in Thessaloniki and read widely in Bitola, Stip, Skopje and other Macedonian towns.

Vladimir’s father, Boris, was educated in a French school in Thessaloniki in 1931. “I grew up under the old European cultural values of the time,” says Vladimir, adding that his father had guided the providential creation of Pelister National Park in the mountains above Bitola in 1948- the first such national park in Yugoslavia.

The building that now houses the Café-Gallery Van was in Vladimir’s family until the turbulence of World War II, after which it was claimed by the new Yugoslav state of Josip Broz Tito. After the end of Communism in 1991, and the independence of Macedonia, the Altiparmak family won back the 18th-century building in the denationalization process.


Vladimir Altiparmak seeks “to bring back the spirit and tradition of old Bitola” with his Café-Gallery Van.

However the building was in such a bad state that Vladimir had to really think about whether it was worth salvaging. After he decided to do so, he then had to think about what use he could make of it. In the end, his desire to help preserve the aesthetic of the Bitola of old led him to come up with the idea of creating a public space that would capture the spirit of the bygone city in both its architecture and exhibits.

When the determined renovator got down to work, however, he found that he was fighting not only a decrepit house, but also nature itself- oddly enough, when Vladimir went to cut through a wall, he found a thriving tree growing right up through the center of it. “The wall was pregnant,” he laughs. A photo now hangs on the wall nearby, attesting to the discovery.

Along with such photos of ten years worth of renovations, the café’s décor also includes very old family photos, paintings, church icons and other assorted displays set around an appealing interior of Byzantine brickwork, small bar and cozy tables, with a view of the shopping street of the old bazaar right outside. It’s a relaxing place, perfect for a mid-morning coffee and conversation, and is also used for occasional performances and events.


Visiting the café and speaking with Vladimir, whose family roots are from the Bitola and Krusevo areas of southern Macedonia, also brings up some unusual details from Macedonian history; his great-uncle, Teohar Neshkov, briefly became ‘minister of finance’ in the short-lived Krusevo Republic, the outcome of the 1903 revolt against the Ottomans. However, after less than two weeks Krusevo was overrun, the republic was destroyed, “and [Teohar] was cooked in an oven by the Turks,” laments Vladimir. The image of the dignified but ill-fated Teohar is captured in an old photo on display at the café.

For Vladimir, the little gallery-café represents the first of what he hopes will be many similar revitalization project in the old market area of Bitola, a neglected but still somewhat atmospheric place. “Most buildings in the Old Bazaar are still in bad condition because the state didn’t care about their upkeep,” he says. “But the neighborhood would not have value if the architecture is not preserved.”

However, it’s up to the owners of individual properties to make progress, as the city still does not have any plan for renovating with preservation of the old style in mind. And so, for now anyway, Café-Gallery Van stands out as the one place in the neighbourhood with a touch of singularity and culture. Nevertheless, the simple fact of its existence serves as an example of what the area, and Bitola as a whole, can aspire towards.


Café-Gallery Van

+389 (0)47 223-890

Ulitsa Dalmatinska 29, Old Bazaar, Bitola


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