Project Description

During my stay in Sofia, I planned a day trip to Rila Monastery, probably the most famous monastery in Bulgaria. However, a full day in the monastery would have probably been too long. So I decided to visit the town of Melnik before going to Rila Monastery. Melnik is the smallest town in Bulgaria, with 208 inhabitants. It is situated in the southern slopes of the Pirin mountain in the middle of the famous pyramids of sand, 175 km south of Sofia. Ruins from antiquity unearthed during archaeological excavations testify of the long and rich history of Melnik.

I chose to book my trip with the agency Traventuria, based in Sofia. The agency promotes responsible travel and has environmental, economic and social objectives. Also offering many other trips throughout Bulgaria, I used their service several times and have been very pleased overall. I appreciated the kindness of my driver and guide Simon and his explanations greatly facilitated my understanding of the place.

LOOKING FOR THE FAMOUS MELNIK WINE

It is a long day ahead of us, my guide Simon and I. I thought for a moment that he was the only guide working for Traventuria, because it is the third day in a row that he is my guide, but as we are in low season, they are not many other tourist guides who work, which explains why I saw Simon repeatedly a few times during my time in Bulgaria. We leave early in the morning towards Melnik. Let’s talk about the history of this village, as my driver did during our journey.

The first written evidences of Melnik Fortress refer to the beginning of the 11th century. The first settlers on the territory of contemporary Melnik were the Thracians. A few centuries later came the Romans. The proof of it is the ancient Roman bridge, which is still preserved nowadays. Then, the Slavs came on this territory and called their settlement Melnik, because of the surrounding sand pyramids. The name comes from the Slavonic word “mel”, which means white clay.

In 1215, Melnik turned into a capital of an independent feudal principality, ruled by Despot (Medieval title) Alexius Slav. The ruins of his fortress are preserved to the present days, close to the town. In 1395, the Bulgarian lands as well as Melnik fell under Ottoman Dominion for almost 5 centuries, until 1912.

During the 18th century, in the age of the Bulgarian Revival, the town was raised to a new life. Melnik turned into a blooming town, significant in size and population, with a large market. The local tradespeople were selling their goods in Budapest, Wien, Genoa and Venice. Melnik also became famous in entire Europe for its good wine, which is still famous nowadays. This heyday ended when Melnik was denied entry to the independent Bulgaria and remained under Ottoman rule until the Balkan War of 1912. Armies have sacked the city, which explains its current state and its small population.

The most vivid architectural monuments which testify for the economic upsurge of the town at that time are also from the age of Revival. One of the oldest houses on the Balkan Peninsula is the Boyard House which was the residence of Despot Alexius Slav. In the middle of the 13th century a part of it was set on fire and destroyed, and during the following centuries it was restored and reconstructed. Other two houses which are architectural monuments of the Revival period are Pashova House and Kordopulova House, which we are going to see. Boyard House was unfortunately closed due to renovations.

We walk through this charming village on a small cobblestone street along the river (almost dry). A few minutes later, we can see Kordopoulov House on a small ridge.

Kordopoulov House was the largest residential building in Bulgaria at the time of Revival. Built in 1754, it belonged at the time to the Kordopoulov, a rich family who took care of Melnik wine production. Wine cellars are dug directly into the rock at the back and under the house. A constant temperature throughout the year, and good ventilation provide the best conditions for the preparation and aging of the famous Melnik wine.

The rooms are decorated in a mixture of styles imported from Italy and Turkey. The twelve Venetian and Oriental stained glass diffuse low light on Turkish furnitures and Bulgarian carpet in the living room. Each room has its own utility and there was even a prison where unruly servants and children were locked. It also contains a hidden closet to spy on visitors. The roof terrace even has its own sundial and a pretty stone mosaic. The cellar consists of tunnels reaching over 200 meters, contained up to 300 tons of wine when Kordopoulos wine trading was at its best.

Speaking of wine, the one from Melnik is known throughout Europe. Indeed, the single Bulgarian wineyard Shiroka melnishka loza produces grapes of exceptional quality, with aromas of blackberry, cherry and herbs. After a variable aging time in large oak barrels, the wine even develops shades of tobacco and leather. This is undoubtedly one of the prides of the area that I had the chance to taste at the end of the visit : a purple red color with garnet reflections, scents of ripe red fruits, slightly spicy finish and a rich and dense aroma, very elegant and long stay in mouth. A treat! Near the town are the Pyramids of Melnik.

These unique natural formations attract tourists from all over the world. It is thought that the limestone of which they are composed is the result of erosion, and the natural forces continue to alter their shape. These fantastically sculpted rocks have assumed the most varied shapes and details, looking sometimes like mushrooms, haystacks, minarets, alpine ridges and peaks, swords, obelisks, Egyptian pyramids, Gothic cathedrals, and so forth.

After the visit, we walk back to our starting point. Now, towards Rila Monastery.

REVIEW OF MY TRIP TO MELNIK

Visiting Melnik was in fact part of the tour “Melnik – Rila Monastery”. I had no other opportunities for sightseeing this town. To group Melnik with a well-known attraction as Rila certainly leads the casual visitor like me to discover a small and charming village whose existence was not even known! I recommend this tour to Melnik, especially as the path to get there is really nice, although a little long. If you have time on your side, enjoy a nice Bulgarian meal and even try one of the hotel nearby.