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Beginner’s guide to Macedonia: Stip – the Macedonian Provence

Stip is located in the eastern part of Macedonia, between the hills Isar, Merite and Kumlakot, at an altitude of 300 meters. There are two rivers flowing through the town – Bregalnica and Otinja, which divides the town in two.

Stip is one of the oldest Macedonian towns, mentioned as early as 1st century A.D. as the Paeonian town of Astibo, spread across today’s territory. There are partial remnants from ancient architecture in the form of the aqueduct in Kemer.

Come to Stip, walk the bridge of the Bregalnica River, where the Paeonian kings were crowned. The distance from Skopje is 100 km and it only takes an hour if you travel by car. But there is also a bus line from Skopje, which continues to Radovish, Strumica, Kochani, etc.

Don’t wait for the highway Skopje-Stip to be finished. Come, even you have been here before. You can also travel by train. It’s slower, but it’s a special experience, especially the train station.

Even the air has the smell of history and tradition here

I often think of the sad story of Blagorodna (Blashka) Bureva, the star of the Stip Theater in “Pagliacci” – the first opera performed in Macedonia in 1925. When she was leaving with her husband, an opera singer in Vienna, after being married by 10 bishops, there was a huge crowd gathered at the train station.

They all waved goodbye to them, while the newlyweds took the train to Veles. But it was a sad and short story. “After two unsuccessful marriages, her life ended anonymously and quietly. She died on 6th November 1977, and before few of her cousins from Stip arrived to the chapel in Belgrade, only Kiro Gligorov, future president of Macedonia, and his wife Nada stood beside the casket. The great opera star that made every citizen of Stip proud, left this world miserable and forgotten by everybody, even her own people” – said Elena Josimovska through excerpts from Bureva’s memoirs – wonderful testaments to the golden era of the Stip Theater before the war and the life in the town.

Come to Stip because there are things to be seen and experience and because even the air has the smell of history and tradition here. Some of the important people that were born, lived or died here include: Todor Aleksandrov, leader of VMRO; Ljubomir Miletic, rector of the University of Sofia and president of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences; Vancho Mihajlov, leader of VMRO; soldiers Mishe Razvigorov and Pancho Mihajlov; Emanuel Chuchkov, member of the presidency of ASNOM, doctor of geographical sciences; Mihajlo Apostolski, academician and commander of the main headquarters of the Liberation Army and the Partisan squads in Macedonia; Archbishop of Ohrid and Macedonia, Mihail; Kiro Gligorov, Yugoslav official and the first president of independent Macedonia; Aco Shopov, poet, translator and diplomat; Nikola Kljusev, the first prime minister of independent Macedonia;
Jordan Mijalkov, former minister of internal affairs that was killed; Vancho Prke, national hero; Zan Mitrev, cardio-surgeon; Sasko Kedev, cardiologist and politician; Ljubcho Georgievski, first president of VMRO-DPMNE, former vice-president and prime minister of Macedonia; Rade Rogozharov, actor and musician; Dule and Koki, musicians; Ferus Mustafov, musician; Dragoslav Shekularac, famous football player; etc.

The first secret organization of VMRO after Thessaloniki was formed in Stip. There were more than 300 hundred churches in the town and its vicinity. The “Saint Nicholas” church in the center of the town is one of the most representative religious objects. It was built by Andrea Damjanov and is the headquarters of the Bregalnica diocese.

Come to the church and feel the spiritual admiration while standing in front of the grand iconostasis made of valuable icons, most of them painted in 1890 by Dimitar Papradishki. Look around the gallery of icons made by famous painters from the 17th – 19th century, old books, silver crosses, cups for services, psalms, gospels and other religious objects.

The “Saint Archangel Michael” church was built in the first half of the 14th century, and the “St. Ilija” – in 1381 (it was transformed into a mosque in 1822). There is also the Catholic Church, a mosque and the Ashaj shrine.

Come to Stip to see, or be seen at, some of the many cultural events with prominent Macedonian and Balkan artists organized by Trajche Kacarov – a writer with many awards, whose dramas are played throughout the Balkans.

Come and sing a ballad or a romantic song, as the shoemaker Tode Simeto once did with his old Venetian mandolin to complement the silent films that were once projected, as Bureva recalled.

Experience the soul of this town known for its tradition of serenades, part of which were the prominent Macedonian poet Mihail Rendjov and the well-known doctor Chepreganov, among others. A memoir of Bureva’s is a testament to that: “a third of the people from Stip played the mandolin, guitar or violin, and Stip was dubbed the “Macedonian Provence”.

Stip is still a town of the song. Since 1989, there is a festival of pop music, called “Makfest”, taking place every year. Come in November during the festival and the traditional “Pastrmajlijada” and feel the atmosphere of the “Sunday carnivals and night gatherings” in the restaurants and bars in Stip.

Go to the bazaar in Stip, or the “Bezisten” art gallery, which is a monument of culture from the 16th century that was the main marketplace for luxurious products and is a wonderful place for concerts, art exhibitions and promotions today. See the clock tower from the 17th century, also a monument of culture.

Come, and the people will show you the old promenade where the beautiful Marika Indjekarova first showed off her “a la Nita Naldi” (a popular film actress) hairstyle during the 1930s. They will also tell you about their long-time coexistence with the Jewish and about how they were deported to the concentration camp Treblinka on 11th March 1943 (551 people from 131 families).

Come to Stip to get “blown away” by the winds that are blowing 270 days a year. Some will say – big deal! Well, it is a big deal because that’s why Stip has clean air.

Houses like wonderful mansions

In 1661, Turkish traveler Evliya Celebi went through Stip and described it in his travelogues: “a town besieged by Gazi Mihalbeg-zade Ali-Beg, a warrior with two hearts and 20.000 soldiers, but failed to conquer it the same year. Eventually, the soldiers were broken and incapable of fighting, and were prepared to retreat. However, one morning, the soldiers that were in the pits on the western side, came to the coast to take some water for their morning washing and the prayers, and noticed that six ducks came out from under the fortress and swam there. Then, the ducks returned under the town walls and disappeared.

The soldiers observed the ducks’ movement for 2-3 days and eventually notified the head commander. They returned again for water on another morning and waited in a secluded place. They noticed that several naked and armed people from the town troops coming out from the pit where the ducks were coming out and were about to spy on the army. The soldiers captured them immediately.

So, those who wanted to capture one of ours to get information about our army became the ones who would provide information to our army. Ali-Beg took those men to lead an army of 3.000, entered the fortress through the pits, shouted “Allah - Allah” and conquered the town in a fierce battle.   

Celebi’s description of Stip is one of the biggest of all Macedonian places he wrote about. He wrote that Stip “is a beautiful town on the south side of the fortress, between two streams and two hills, in a flat field full of vines and gardens; there are 2.240 beautiful houses, built from a solid material, all covered with stone plates and look like wonderful mansions”.

Of course, you should also visit the Isar fortress (the present appearance is from the 14th century), the main landmark of Stip, which amazes with its beautiful panorama of the entire town from 120 meters over the place where the river Otinja flows into the river Bregalnica. Stone monuments dating from 2nd to 6th century were discovered there, as well 30 meters of the tunnel leading from the river to the Isar’s top that were discovered in 2009, which only confirmed the thesis that Stip was conquered by the Ottomans through a secret tunnel under the fortress.
You should go to the mountain Plachkovica (with its peak Lisec at 1.754 meters), which is located around 40 km from the town, with its rich flora and fauna, with several species that live only there. There are three beautiful canyons in the mountain: Kamnik, Kozjak and Zrnovka, nicely marked for walking. Also, visit the Great cave and the caves Kjup, Ajduchka, Turtel and Ponor, rich with cave ornaments and easily accessible.

In the village of Goren Kozjak, located in the base of Plachkovica, visit the ancient town of Bargala and see the remains of this, once very important settlement.

You should also go to the Office for protection of the monuments and culture and the Museum, where collections and items from archaeology, ethnology, history and art are kept. The archaeological collection has over 1.200 exhibits, from the Neolithic era to the 18th century. One of those exhibits is the oldest human skeleton in Southeastern Europe – the so-called Slave of Macedon.

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