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 its 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.
Melniks 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 Melniks thirteenth-century
overlord, Alexei Slav, who invited rich Greeks to settle here. Southeast of the
Bolyar House youll see the balustraded tower of the Church of Sveti Nikolai.
Inside, a wooden bishops throne decorated with light-blue floral patterns offsets
a fine iconostasis, on which white-bearded St Nicholas himself is prominently
The houses that belonged to the villages Greek entrepreneurs, rebuilt during
the National Revival, are now Melniks most impressive buildings, and none more
so than the old Kordopulov Mansion (TuesSun 8amnoon & 1.306pm)
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 dont 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.