Melnik: Rich History, Breathtaking Pyramids, And Great Wines
Have you ever been to a place, where you thought you’ve seen everything there is to see, only to return back and discover that you’ve seen nothing of the beauties this place has to offer?
It turns out I have.
Like so many other tourist spots, the smallest town in Bulgaria, Melnik, sees its share of visitors, who only wander around the sites everyone has heard about. Most of them don’t even bother straying away from the main street of the warmest Bulgarian town.
Most travellers have heard about Melnik mainly because of its natural phenomenon, the Melnik Pyramids, as well as its delectable Melnik Wines.
But even in the smallest of towns, there are secrets only the locals know about. And unless there is someone who knows the place like the back of their hand guiding you, there’s no way in hell an outsider would see everything it has to offer.
I was lucky to be guided around the treasures of Melnik by its kind people and here are the stories I want to share with you about the fascinating history, the breathtaking views, and the delectable wines of the region.
What Is Melnik Most Famous For?
This is what most people know about Melnik:
Situated in the South-West of the country, near the borders with Greece and Macedonia, it is the smallest town in Bulgaria with a population of only 200 people.
Years ago, it was a rather important city with nearly 25,000 population.
Wars, the main road being moved away from the town, and an infection to the vines, causing a huge portion of the population to lose their livelihood, shrank the size of the town drastically. People escaping the town destroyed their houses and the possessions they couldn’t carry with them.
The main source of income was and remains wine production and trade.
The region is world-renowned for its red wines. Probably the most famous lover of the locally grown Broad-Leafed Melnik wine (Shiroka Melnishka loza) was Winston Churchill.
As the warmest town in Bulgaria, Melnik’s climate is mild and very suitable for people with respiratory, kidney, and rheumatic health problems. And of course, it is perfect for vine growing and wine aging!
The fascinating rocks you see everywhere around Melnik are made of sandstone. Nature’s forces and time have created the unique formations, known as The Melnik Pyramids.
What Do Most Travellers Visit In Melnik?
A huge number of restaurants, eateries, and wine houses are situated alongside the main street of Melnik.
Waiters invite passersby to come in for a sit-down meal or a wine tasting. It is hard to resist such offers.
It’s no wonder that most people spend their time in Melnik tasting wine and local specialities, such as banitsa and yoghurt with fig jam.
However, Melnik is not only a great culinary destination but also an architectural park.
It hosts several important buildings from the Bulgarian National Revival period, numerous churches, and the ruins of the 12th-century house of the ruler Despot Slav. This means, that when building a new house in town, the owners have to comply with the architecture of the monuments and build their new home in the same architectural style.
The largest, richest, and most visited house in town is the Kordopulov House.
It is the largest national revival house on the Balkans and a private museum. Its history is full of mysteries, betrayal, and drama. Sure it is worth a visit, but try to beat the crowds to fully enjoy the exhibits!
Having the huge rooms, lit by the sun all day long, where contracts were sealed by the Greek merchant and his sons, all to yourself is definitely worth it.
The ruins of the St. Barbara Church, located just beneath the Kordopulov House and built by the family, can’t be missed or mistaken and are worth a short stop, too.
Several Lesser Known But Interesting Facts About Melnik
Now we’re venturing into unknown territory.
Prior to my visit, I had no clue about the following facts. Since it is very difficult to find this information online, I decided to share it with you so you can fully enjoy the magic of Melnik as much as I did.
For example, you’ll be amazed to find out that there are multiple centuries-old plane trees in Melnik.
The oldest one dates back 800 years ago and greets everyone, who enters the town. Another huge 700-year-old plane tree sits in the very centre of Melnik on a small square. Several other magnificent trees are growing just a few meters after the town’s last house.
Another fun fact is that beside the relatively wide main street, backed with shops and restaurants, there are no real back alleys in Melnik.
The houses on the slopes of the hills are built so close to each other, that it feels like they are hugging. There’s no room for a single tree to grow, let alone a street to pass between them.
What about the town’s history, you might wonder?
Melnik is almost 1,200 years old!
During this time, it was ruled by Thracians, Slavs, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, and Ottomans. Basically by everyone who passed by.
During the town’s best days, there were over 70 churches in and around the city. Nowadays, most are in ruins and only three of them are still functioning.
The Gems You Have To Search Real Hard To Find Around Melnik
Prior to my visit, I had never even thought that there are such magnificent traveller’s gems to be discovered around Melnik!
So listen carefully because very few people can tell you this.
If you find the sign, pointing from the main street in the direction of the St. Nicholas Plateau, and you’re up for a little hike and some stunning views, follow the narrow street (or rather, a path) up the hill. In about 20 minutes of sweating, you’ll reach the top.
St. Nicholas Plateau hides the ruins of churches, monasteries, a fortress, as well as the most breathtaking views of The Melnik Pyramids. Hence, the somewhat difficult hike is totally worth the effort.
The biggest and best-preserved church on the plateau is the St. Nicholas Church. It dates back to the 12th century and was built on the same grounds as an earlier Thracian sanctuary.
On the edges of the plateau the walls of the Despot Slav’s Fortress, equipped with five couples of watchtowers, have provided the perfect defence to the town since the 13th century. The fortress walls and the high sandstone rocks, surrounding Melnik, made sure no one could approach without being noticed.
Parts of the fortress walls are preserved but most didn’t survive the 1904 earthquake. It was the strongest 20th-century earthquake in Europe. It damaged critically most buildings on the St. Nicholas Plateau. The rocks slipped down the hillsides and were later used as building material for the houses, hence disappearing forever.
On one side of the plateau, the town has cuddled between the sandstone hills. On the opposite side, there are even more of the magnificent sandstone formations, known as The Melnik Pyramids.
In one of the valleys, Zli dol (Evil Valley), in the late 19th century 12 local citizens were hung by the Ottomans for conspiracy.
Watch your steps and stay away from the edge of the plateau. You don’t want your ghost to join them, right? No picture of the pyramids is worth risking your life!
The last of the buildings you can visit is the St. Virgin Mary Spileotisa. It is a small monastery, which was recently renovated.
Beneath the building, after a few metres along a steep narrow path, there’s a small man-made cave. Whenever a nun felt she had sinned (in her thoughts, what were you thinking!), she would self-punish herself by spending time in the cave.
Learn About What Melnik Is Most Famous For At The Right Place
If you’ve resisted the urge to taste the home-made wine, sold along the main street of Melnik, the best place to learn about vine growing and wine production in the region is at The Melnik Museum Of Wine.
Established in 2013, the museum hosts a small exhibition of wine production tools and machinery, information signs, and wine drinking vessels.
Tip: buy a ticket which includes wine tasting to fully enjoy the experience.
Even if you’re not a huge wine lover, don’t miss to try the dry red wine, produced from the locally grown Wide-leafed Melnik Vine. It is indigenous to the region and attempts to grow it anywhere else have failed numerous times.
The most famous Melnik wine aficionado was Winston Churchill.
Historians say that a British officer, stationed around Melnik during World War II, bought several bottles of the wine and brought them back to England. The officer and Churchill were acquainted and shared a common love for good wine.
Later it is reported, that 500 litres of the delectable Melnik wine were delivered each year for a 10-year-long period to Churchill’s personal cellar!
More Hidden Gems To Discover In Melnik
After the wine tasting, if you’re willing to visit more of Melnik’s sites, a few other buildings might be of interest.
Going up the main street, you’ll pass The Historical Museum of Melnik. It hosts a small exhibition, where you can clearly see the difference in the clothing and lifestyle of rich wine producers and merchants and the ordinary folk.
The building of the former konak, the Turkish city hall, is currently being renovated. Local museum workers hope their exhibition will afterwards be moved there so that they can display a larger number of museum pieces from the area. Currently, they can only be seen in the capital city of Sofia, out of their context.
Next to the konak is the Uzunovi House. Currently, it is a hotel, but previously the building served as a Turkish prison. It has an open backyard, where prisoners were allowed to go out for some fresh air and their daily walk.
The ruins of the Bolyarska House, the home of the ruler Despot Slav, whose fortress on the St. Nicholas Plateau you hopefully visited, can be seen from almost everywhere in town. The house was three stories high and even in its current state is very impressive.
If you’ve gone up to the Bolyarska House, now follow the tiny path down to the St. Antony Church.
Built in 1868, it’s one of the last functioning churches in Melnik. It is also the only one in Bulgaria, dedicated to this saint, and one of two in Europe, dedicated to healing mentally ill.
It is believed, that spending between one and forty nights, depending on the severity of the illness, would heal the sick person.
The walls of the church are not covered in scenes from the bible, which are typical for East Orthodox churches. Instead, paintings of flowers cover the walls to establish a tranquil atmosphere in the small church. Still, for the violent patients, a chair and metal chains are provided.
The Best Way To Remember Your Day And Tell Your Friends About Your Adventure In Melnik
Returning back on the main street, on your way out of town, don’t forget to buy a glass of home-made fig jam as a souvenir from your visit to Melnik.
I’m sure you’ll want to remember your day in the tiny Bulgarian town. Tell all your friends over coffee (or wine!) about the gems you saw and explore even more next time you visit Bulgaria.
I’m sure, once you visit, you’ll want to return for more!
And, as you saw, there are so many sites to explore even in the smallest Bulgarian town.
Who knows what other treasures lie hidden just in front of your eyes?
Are you willing to discover them?
Disclaimer: the trip to Melnik was organised by the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism as a part of a campaign for popularising lesser-known destinations in Bulgaria. The expressed opinions are, as always, my own and were not influenced by the invitation.