From stunning scapes to heavy wine, there is a lot to discover in Bulgaria's smallest town
What is Bulgaria's smallest town? Bulgarian children learn the answer early in school. However, the reason both local and foreign tourists visit Melnik, population 194, is not its size. They cherish Melnik, in southwest Bulgaria, for its well-preserved Revival Period architecture, strong local wine and surreal surroundings of white limestone pyramids. Its location is just off the E79 route from Sofia to Greece, a short drive from Bansko.
On the surface, Melnik is one of the best museum-town experiences in Bulgaria. Tall traditional houses fill narrow ravines and riverbeds between even taller limestone pyramids. Dark, strong wine made of the local Wide Melnik Vine matures in deep cold cellars, dug into the soft rock. The spacious, lavishly decorated rooms of the Kordopulov's House, Melnik's main museum, inspire fantasies of times long gone. As with most museum towns, Melnik looks as if it comes straight out of a fairytale.
Look closer and you will detect a certain feeling of sadness in Melnik, the melancholy of a place that is long past its prime and is now trying to survive on the remnants of its former glory.
The reception room at Kordopoulov's House is furnished in the traditional Ottoman fashion: low benches and lots of fabrics, cushions and woodcarvings. The stain-glass windows, a luxury at the time, fill the room with natural light
The town relies heavily on tourism and small-time wine-production. Its inhabitants are now dependent on what their forefathers built, and those old inhabitants of Melnik created much more than is visible today. Not all that long ago, the town was home to thousands of people of all nationalities, faiths and walks of life.
Melnik appeared in the early Middle Ages and, as it was in an easily defensible location by a popular Balkan road, it was hotly contested between local powers, mainly Bulgaria and Byzantium. The city often changed hands and on several occasions was the capital of autonomous rulers.
The most prominent of those was Bulgarian Alexius Slav. A cousin of the Asenvtsi Brothers, who restored Bulgaria's sovereignty after two centuries of Byzantine domination, in 1185, he declared independence in 1207. At that time the last of his cousins died and the throne passed on to a man he considered an usurper. Slav held his stronghold, Melnik, for 20 years but eventually the area was incorporated in Bulgaria and he slipped out of history.
The cellars of Kordopoulov's House are a different experience. Dug in the sandstone bedrock, dark and perpetually cool, they were used for wine ageing and storage. A tour of Kordopoulov's House ends in the cellars, with a wine tasting and an option to buy local wine
Medieval Melnik was extensive and fortified, with dozens of churches and fortified houses lived in until the beginning of the 20th century. Bulgarians and Greeks cohabited, and Bulgarian kings and Byzantine emperors sometimes banished rebellious noblemen to Melnik.
The city went through a period of decline when the Ottomans conquered in the late 14th century. It gradually began to revive itself three centuries later, due to its location and the production of wine and tobacco. When Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi visited Melnik he saw a beautiful village, full of lush vineyards and gardens.
In the following 250 years Melnik prospered and grew. This was when spacious mansions like the Kordopulova House appeared, providing opulent living for the wealthy wine and tobacco producers and merchants. It was also the time when Melnik again became a fortress – only this fortress was not made of stone and mortar, but of language, culture and religion. The area around the city was Bulgarian-populated, but Melnik was another affair. A significant number of Turks and Gypsies called it home while the majority were Greeks and Bulgarians.
The town stretches along the banks of a capricious local river. Most of the year it is almost dry, but flash floods are not unheard-of
The Greek culture prevailed as it was considered more sophisticated. For decades Bulgarian families spoke Greek even in their homes, and sent their children to the local Greek school rather than the Bulgarian one. The lure of Philhellenism was so strong that even Bulgarian villagers who resettled in Melnik would soon start to converse in Greek.
This situation changed after the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, when Melnik and its surroundings joined Bulgaria. The Turks left. The Greeks left. The Bulgarians who sided with the Greeks left, too. The town shrank and many houses were abandoned. When Bulgarian historian Professor Vasil Zlatarski visited Melnik in 1916, he saw "a true ruin: from 2,000 houses (with about 10,000 inhabitants) there are hardly 200 inhabited houses; everything else is ruined or half-ruined from fires, or whole houses stand whole, but without windows and doors."
By that time Melnik had already been in decline. It all began with the changing of the transit routes in the mid-19th century. Traffic along the Struma Valley, where the modern E79 now runs, intensified and Melnik, isolated in its forbidding labyrinth of stone pyramids, was forgotten. The city was often inhospitable even to its own inhabitants, with rains turning its narrow alleys and streets into torrents of muddy water. People began leaving for better and more prosperous cities in the region.
Despite the tourist boom, many homes and buildings in Melnik are abandoned and on the brink of collapse
By the 1880s, Melnik was already a place of dilapidation and dust, with no sanitation. The wine was still good but the local vineyards would be soon decimated by phylloxera.
Wine production in Melnik began to revive in the interwar period. Winston Churchill is reported to have been a connoisseur of the local wines. The other impetus for at least a partial revival came in 1968, when Melnik was declared a museum town – and the tourists arrived, hungry for the beauty of the old-time atmosphere, and thirsty for a glass of the strong, almost black wine.
No other place on earth like it. I discovered Melnik because of its wine I had immediately fallen in love with it elsewhere in BG. Had to visit. Was treated to vintage from a cave on a warm day in May. Nothing in the world will ever surpass that experience. Bliss. That was in 1996 on my second trip to BG, which I will always treasure.