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Stip, Macedonia: The City under the Isar

Just over the Bulgarian border in Eastern Macedonia, the city of Stip is home to 52,000 people making it the region’s second largest city. As a key educational, cultural, and economic centre Stip makes an interesting place to visit.It lies on the banks of two rivers, the Bregalnica and the Otinja, surrounded by hills but dominated by the Isar hill where a medieval fortress once protected the city’s inhabitants.Stip is not a city, which boasts about its culture and heritage and consequently most visitors pass it by en route for the capital Skopje, however it is an attractive town with warm and friendly locals and well worth making that stop over.

Getting There

Stip lies on the crossroads of the Kocani, Lakavica and Oyce Pole valleys. It is only 91 km from the centre of the Bulgarian capital Sofia and is best accessed by car or train. Once in the city you can get around on foot or by public transport is organized in suburban services and inter-city.

A Dip Back in Time

Once called Astibos, Stip was once the capital of the ancient Paeonian tribe who lived to the west of the fertile Axius basin round about the 5th century BC. It was first mentioned in documents written by the historian Polien who told how the Paeonian emperors were crowned. Two other tribes lived in the area; the Derrones who worshiped their god of healing known as Darron and the Laeaeans who were heavily influenced by the Greek culture and minted their own currency. Around 480 BC these tribes in this area were attacked by the Persians but they managed to remain strong and well-organised people. Stip was also attacked by the Goths who destroyed much of the town around the 3rd century BC. It became part of the Macedonian Empire under Alexander I around 360 BC. The town soon became known as Estipeon and it flourished throughout the late Roman and the Early Byzantine era. Under the Roman Empire around the time if Tiberius, the town is documented as being the second stop over on the Stobi to Pautalia Roman road. By the 5th century Slavic tribes attacked on numerous occasions until one of the Slavic tribes, the Sagudats settled permanently in this area and renamed the town Stip (pronounced Shtip). The population became the first Christians in this area after the founders of the Cyrillic alphabet, Cyril and Methodius came to preach here in the 10th century. During the Middle Ages the area was conquered many times and eventually it became part of the Bulgarian Empire. In 1330 it was incorporated into the Serbian Empire and finally that of the Ottoman Turks. The Turks renamed the city Ishtib and made it the capital of the area. The town was under Ottoman rule for 500 years bar a two year liberation in the 17th century by the Austrians. The town once again became part of the Serbian Empire during the Balkan Wars and eventually it was absorbed into Yugoslavia. During WW2 it was attacked by German planes, which took off from Bulgaria. In 1944 the town was liberated by the Macedonian Liberation Army.

Must See

There are many interesting historic and cultural delights to view in and around this city. The well-preserved 14th century monastery and the old fortress on the Isar are well worth exploring. There is also some evidence of Ottoman architecture, most visible in the 16th century Bezisten, which is an enormous building made from stone. It was once a Turkish bazaar but today houses a wonderful collection of art. The old parts of the town particularly the Novo Selo district have many examples traditional Macedonian architecture.


The Healing Spa

The Kezovica mineral spa to the south of the city boasts healing water with temperatures up of around 74°C, said to benefit those with rheumatism, problems to the nervous system, diabetes, arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure,. The spa water is the result of many dormant volcanoes and some of the water is vaguely radioactive. These properties aid the medicinal use of the water. The area comprises of a public thermal bath and a specialist hospital offering physiotherapy, which uses the spa water as part of the treatment. There is another spa used by local people in the Novo Selo suburb called L'dzhite and this also shares the healing properties of the main spa.

Religious Sites

The town has its share of religious sites with the beautiful 19th century St. Bogorodica church famed for its collection of outstanding icons. This church has a three aisle basilica, with striking icons, ornate frescos and impressive hand carved iconstatis. More evidence of the Ottoman legacy can be found in the 17th century Husa Medin-Pasha Mosque. It was constructed on a hillside on the remains of the St Ilija church and houses the tomb of Husa Medin Pasha. On the left bank of the River Otinja, the 14th century St. John the Baptist church is well worth seeing. Its walls are decorated with frescoes donated by a local landowner called Ivanko. Today the paintings are not in the best preserved state due to problems with the church roof; nevertheless they represent some classic religious pieces from the country’s early Christian period. The 14th century St. Holy Saviour church also on the left bank of the Otinja River also contains many ornate religious paintings with the best example being the Transfiguration and The Holy Trinity.

Ancient Ruins

The old ruins of Bargala just outside of the city are all that remains of the 4th century, fortified Byzantine town. The basilica, trade quarters, a water tank, a bath and the fortified walls with their impressive main gate have all been excavated and are in a well preserved state thanks to the work of local archaeologists. The Kale Fortress Isar lies between the two rivers in the town and its tall fortress walls are still intact. Several churches were constructed on this site during the Middle Ages, including the 14th century St. Archangel Michael. A second church was constructed a little later and dedicated to St. Nikola with a third being built in 1337 in honour of St. Vasilie. This church can still be seen today.