By Christopher Deliso
On Easter, the apple trees were blossoming in Staro Nagoricane, along the lower part of the village near the river, birds singing in the treetops and crickets buzzing in the fields. The little river marks the southern border of the village, separating it from Trnovac and surrounded by forest and fields dotted with Roman poplars.
In fact, the ‘spa’ of Staro Nagoricane is even named after Trnovac, because so many people from the latter own land around it. The hot, reddish waters bubble up from the ground and fill a long concrete basin, with jets of water driving forcefully from the center. There is even a shower spewing wildly just to the side.
The waters are said to be restorative and invigorating, and good for the eyes as well. People with circulatory problems, sports injuries, aches and pains or no problems at all come to lounge in the spa from all over the Kumanovo area, and even from Skopje. On weekends and holidays in spring and summer the spa can be quite crowded, and unfortunately picnickers retain the ingrained habit of not tidying up after themselves.
Still the spa, which features a nearby little restaurant in warm weather, is an unusual attraction in a remote corner of a village most visitors to Macedonia know nothing about. In winter, when the temperatures can get below freezing, descending into the steam of the churning hot waters – and back out again – is really a visceral experience.
Yet you would hardly know it is there. The spa of Staro Nagoricane is only reachable down a rocky dirt road that comes out onto the main paved one that bisects the village in two. The lower part until the river is filled with long green fields dotted with red poppies, enormous turtles in the grass, the odd wandering donkey and basketball hoop made of slabs of wood.
This part of the village of Staro Nagoricane descends to the river accompanied by a few crumbling village homes, filled mostly with elderly, bonneted women and men in vintage Yugoslav-era caps and dress from half a century ago. To see these small landholders at work, switching a cow, feeding the chickens or picking grapes for making rakija is to take a step back into an earlier time.
Above this stretch of farmland, and across the road that connects the Kumanovo-Palanka highway to the southwest with the road northwards to Dragomance, the Serbian border and the disputed church of Prohor Pcinski, is the other half of the village. Here’s where the action is: a tiny police station, convenience store with plastic table outside for optional drinking, and the occasional cow passing along the road- in short, the same scene one will find in hundreds of similar villages across the land.
Yet Staro Nagoricane is not so undistinguished: the 14th century church of St. George, built by the Serbian King Milutin, is one of the most important Byzantine-influenced churches in Macedonia. It is decorated with frescoes done by the great local painters, Mihajlo and Eftihie, who were also responsible for the artwork.within the Monastery of St. Nikita on Skopsko Crna Gora. The church has the characteristically musty, cool and dark feel one would expect from a 700 year-old structure, but a more ethereal energy to it also. Unfortunately, the church is usually locked; to see inside it, one has to be lucky enough to be there when its one priest is around, or else make arrangements with the Orthodox authorities in Kumanovo, about a 25-minute drive.By virtue of its proximity to the border, Staro Nagoricane has a strong Serbian character, and many residents have ancestors from Serbia itself. This can be detected in the dialect, the mannerisms, and the occasional scrawled national symbols.Staro Nagoricane retained its municipal status after the decentralization of 2004, encompassing several local villages. Aside from the church, it’s potentially most important attraction, however, is Kokino observatory. Located on a wild, windswept mountain outcropping northeast of the village, this mysterious ancient site of religious sacrifice and astral observation is the fourth most important such site in the world according to NASA, topped only Abu Simbel in Egypt, Stonehenge, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Although far less impressive than these sites, the value of the Kokino observatory lies in its cultural significance; it attests to evolved civilization in Macedonia from the Bronze Age. Atop the hill, one feels a strange energy and marvels at what bloody rites might have been conducted on the flat expanse ringed by weird rocks, from where ancient astronomers calibrated the movement of the sun, moon and planets. Reaching Staro Nagoricane is easy from Kumanovo, either by car or by minivan (located in front of the Kumanovo bus station). From the village, it is another 20 minutes by car to Kokino.