In your holiday in Bulgaria you will appreciate our dramatic mountains, haven-like monasteries, Roman and Byzantine ruins, and the excellent coffee you'll be offered wherever you go!
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Approaching the village of MELNIK on the bus from Sandanski, the nearest major town, you catch glimpses of the wall of mountains which allowed the townsfolk to thumb their noses at Byzantium during the eleventh century. The village hides until the last moment, encircled by hard-edged crags, scree slopes and rounded sandstone cones. With its whitewashed stone houses on timber props festooned with flowers, its cobbled alleys and its narrow courtyards, Melnik is stunning – but socially and economically it’s fast becoming a fossil. In 1880 the village had 20,000 inhabitants, 75 churches and a thriving market on the Charshiya, the main street. The economy waned towards the end of the last century, and the Balkan War of 1913 saw Melnik burned to the ground and its trade routes sundered. Nowadays there are only 570 inhabitants and the village survives on wine making – the traditional stand-by – and tourism.

Melnik’s backstreets invite aimless wandering and guarantee a succession of eye-catching details. Its oldest ruin – known as the Byzantine or Bolyar House – is sited on the high ground immediately east of the centre, and was clearly built with defence in mind. It was probably the residence of Melnik’s thirteenth-century overlord, Alexei Slav, who invited rich Greeks to settle here. Southeast of the Bolyar House you’ll see the balustraded tower of the Church of Sveti Nikolai. Inside, a wooden bishop’s throne decorated with light-blue floral patterns offsets a fine iconostasis, on which white-bearded St Nicholas himself is prominently featured.

The houses that belonged to the village’s Greek entrepreneurs, rebuilt during the National Revival, are now Melnik’s most impressive buildings, and none more so than the old Kordopulov Mansion (Tues–Sun 8am–noon & 1.30–6pm) situated on the eastern outskirts. The stone-walled house protrudes from the hillside, its windows surveying every approach. The spacious rooms are intimate, the reception room a superb fusion of Greek and Bulgarian crafts, with an intricate lattice-work ceiling and a multitude of stained-glass windows.

Several steep and slippery tracks lead up the hillside immediately south of the Kordopulov house onto the Nikolova Gora, a wooded plateau bearing the ruins of a couple of monasteries and, at its western end, a medieval fortress. The view from the latter – with pyramidal sandstone formations rearing to the left and right – is spectacular.

A more strenuous walk heads northeast towards Rozhen monastery. You can either take the asphalt road to Rozhen from the west end of Melnik village (1hr 30min), or the more direct path over the mountains (1hr). For the latter, follow the gulley at the eastern end of Melnik village, take the right-hand fork after a kilometre and a half, and look for a steep path which ascends the hillside to your left. Views of rippling mountains reward the effort, although the subsequent descent to the monastery has been narrowed by soil erosion, and can be unsuitable for those who don’t have a head for heights. The monastery itself has a beautiful, balconied courtyard, and the village of Rozhen below is just as pretty as Melnik, although less developed.

Of the half-dozen places to eat, the best are Loznitsite on the main street, offering traditional meat-based dishes in a stone-built house; and Menchevata Kashta further east, which offers a broad range of Bulgarian food and a few vegetarian options – try gyuveche po makedonski, local vegetables baked in a pot.


Cities and Towns