Worth a Trip: Kokino & Kuklica
The northeast is a little-visited part of North Macedonia, and indeed it feels like time has stopped here, but there are a couple of sights worth visiting and it works well as a day trip out of Skopje. It's wise to have your own wheels, since it's a tough place to get around on public transport.
Heading out of Skopje and past Kumanovo, you'll find the northeast's crowning jewel – the Kokino Observatory. A Bronze Age, archaeo-astronomical site, this megalithic observatory sits atop a volcanic hill, at an elevation of 1013m; it's a truly marvellous place. The cracked volcanic rocks were easily shaped for marking the points of the rising sun at the summer and winter solstice, and the spring and autumn equinox. You'll need your own transport to reach Kokino, 19km northeast of Kumanovo: follow the signs for Staro Nagoričane, then for Kokino. The observatory is signposted.
On the way back onto the main road, stop off at the Church of St George in the inconspicuous village of Staro Nagoričane, some 15km northeast of Kumanovo; this 14th-century church has some magnificent frescoes and outstanding architecture. The frescoes, apparently dating back to 1317–18, are the work of Michael Astrapas and Eutychios, notable artists of the time, and these are quoted as their most significant creations. Note the depictions of the life of St George and the Passion of Christ.
A good lunch can be had at the Fratelis Fish Restaurant, amid green lawns and running streams. The Macedonian speciality of carp baked in salt is really quite delicious, and goes well with some chilled white wine. Aside from that, there are the usual traditional specialities, all prepared well. Book in advance on weekends.
Before heading back to Skopje, visit the rock formations at Kuklica. Natural erosion and its varying effects on the area's volcanic rocks are behind the formation of these bizarre 'rock dolls', which are estimated to be nearly 30 million years old. The tall structures look like human figures; the two central figures have been interpreted as a couple getting married couple, and many stories and myths have been attached to the formations. The site was in poor shape at our last visit, full of rubbish and burnt benches, but the stone formations are worth seeing if you're in the area.