Melnik: The City of the Sand Guards

13.06.2012 § 1 Comment

Translated with permission from otbivki.com, a Bulgarian-language travel and adventure blog. Melnik is a city approximately 200 km to the south of Sofia, near Sandanski, on the southwestern tip of Bulgaria.

The road is winding before us like a snake in the sun. The white strip of asphalt zooms past expansive vineyards and quiet houses, racing against time towards its final goal. It leads us ever South, leaving the villages of Lozenitza and Harsovo somewhere behind us. We’re approaching Melnik…

The pyramids are the first to greet us. We call them the “sand guards” because they resemble a line of soldiers guarding the city. In their embrace lie nestled the white houses of Melnik – the smallest Bulgarian settlement with city status. It turns out to be warm, unpretentious and somehow full of humble, harmonious beauty.

The houses, topped with roofs of red tile, are located at the base of the sand pyramids and the main street follows the Melnishka river which flows through the city. Even the main street of Melnik is almost too narrow to drive down. While we look for our hotel, we’re impatiently scanning the neighbouring houses, their windows barred with cast iron grates, the groups of tourists, sipping wine in the sum, the mehani* with their tables covered in multicoloured cloth…Everything here reminds one of ages gone by, but I suspect the analogy with the past is sought on purpose since it encourages tourism. All the hotels have thematic names: “Bolyarka”, “St. Nikola”, “Despot Slav”, “Bulgari”, while the houses are preserved and restored in the architectural style that’s typical for the city.

After settling in at the hotel, we venture out for a short walk in Melnik. It is unusually warm and sunny for the end of March. It’s early for the wine tour around the local bars, so we look at the houses, the city’s main square and the stalls on which the local grandmas have arranged a multitude of jars big and small.

In the Melnik square you can buy jam of wild strawberries, peaches, green tomatoes, blueberries and even…olives. Also on offer: locally made honey, pickles and preserves, as well as Melnik wine – thick and rich, aromatic and strong, sometimes even a bit bitter. The price of wine starts at 5-6 Leva (4-5$) per one-litre bottle. Personally, I bought some wine from Mitko Shestaka, who has a wine cellar and a guesthouse in town. Even though I sampled other local wines, I liked Shestaka’s wine the best. In Melnik you can sample a new wine at every corner. Outside the mehani, you’ll be offered wine on the street, since clearly everyone here is in the business of making “the gods’ favourite drink” – everyone from the well-established local wineries to the grandpas selling their own red or white wine in plastic water bottles.

In the early afternoon we take the hiking trail up to Rhozhen monastery. To get to it we cross the centre of town again and turn left just before the St. Antonii church, past Hotel “Bulgari”. We’ve read that the path is very picturesque, but its actual beauty surpassed all expectations. On exiting Melnik and heading through the Rhozhen valley on the hiking path, we step into a parallel world. The world of the sand pyramids, the canvas of nature’s generous imagination.

Caressed by the sun, these rock formations are one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. The sensation of looking upon them, so majestic and insurmountable, is magical. It is in such moments that you realize how small and unimportant you are beside such grandeur and beauty, and how little time you’ve been allotted to be happy in this life, here and now…

Getting to Rhozhen monastery takes about 1-1.5 hours one way (the way there is harder than the way back because it rises). The markings are white and green, and they follow the curves of the trail. At the beginning the trail is level and doesn’t require much effirt, but it’s followed by a steep climb which leads to the top of the plateau, forming a great vantage point to the beautiful sand pyramids.

Not long after that, the trail narrows, forcing us to climb in single file. We reach a chasm at whose bottom we can see wondrous rock formations in a variety of shapes and colours. Some have hats made of rock while others are covered in greenery.

From here to the monastery the trek is 10-15 minutes. The path descends and gradually leads to a plain full of blossoming trees. Spring has already arrived in this part of Bulgaria.

Rhozhen monastery is surrounded by the white hills of Melnik and the majestic and still snow-capped peaks of Pirin. Despite being one of the oldest monasteries in Bulgaria, it is extremely well preserved and maintained. Once they cross the threshold of the monastic complex, visitors find themselves in a quaint, spacious courtyard, where they can see the main church, “Nativity of Mary”, built in the 16th century. It impresses with its original frescoes, glass painting and woodworking. Here is housed the miraculous icon of the Blessed Virgin, which legend claims protects the monastery.

The way back seems easier, but also longer. Both of us dream of one thing – a cold beer. That’s why immediately upon our arrival in Melnik, we park it on the main square, in the mehana “Hubava kruchma”. We thirstily order two pints of “Pirinsko”, since the choice here is between one of “Zagorka”, “Kamenitza” and “Pirinsko”.

It’s around 5 o’clock in the afternoon. The city is just as quiet, with only the murmur of conversation from the tables around us interrupts Melnik’s afternoon nap. The beers arrive, along with the owner of the mehana – Iliya Gurchev. He’s around 60, but that doesn’t stop him looking 30 – he jokes with us, he smiles, and most of all, he has not forgotten how to flirt.

After our introduction, Iliya brings a round of white wine. It’s bitter with hints of wormwood. And then, just like that, we start talking about life in Melnik.

“It’s nice here. But you know, one gets used to the good things quickly. You stay in one place for three days and it gets tedious.” Iliya sighs, eyeing the white hills above, “They’re unique, no?” he asks, looking at us but seemingly to himself. “I’ve never been above the city. They say it’s pretty. If you go up, please come back and tell me what Melnik looks like from above.”

We promise we’ll go up. Iliya tells us of the remnants of Despot Slav’s fortress and the monastery “Virgin Mary Spiliotis”. It’s hard to believe he’s never gone to see them. But that’s the way with the things we have – it’s hard to learn to value them.

According to Iliya, there are about 300 people living in Melnik at the moment. They rely entirely on tourism. According to our new friend, the city is most often visited by French, Italian, Czech and Polish tourists.

“They all eat and drink as if it’s their last,” Iliya shakes his head, indignant, “They make like they like nature, but they’re always in the mehani.”

But Iliya is not complaining. Alongside his livelihood, he relies on tourists to help him realize a long-standing dream of his. Iliya’s saving up for a Mercedes. He has no idea where he’ll drive it, but he’s determined that it’s the purpose of his life. Well, we’re all entitled to our unusual, slightly mad and daring dreams…

In the evening, as we climb above Melnik, I don’t stop to ask myself whether Melnik residents have really got used to what they have to the point of not noticing it. Nature here is different, notably on account of the sand pyramids surrounding Melnik like an army, ready to defend it against any external threat or danger. The best views of the city are from the “Virgin Mary Spoliotis” monastery. It was built in 1209-1211, but it was destroyed after an earthquake that sent most of the monastic complex into the chasm below.

Above Melnik you can find other interesting places that are worth a visit, such as the remnants of “St. Nikola” church and the Despot Slav fortress. The road above Melnik forks in two – one side leads to the monastery and the other – to the Medieval church and the fortress. The church of St. Nikola dates back to the beginning of the 13th century. This is Melnik’s oldest church, but only a fraction of the walls, the central arch and the priest’s throne have been preserved. Of the Despot Slav fortress, which was once a massive military complex, now only ruins remain – parts of the fortification and the water cistern. The fortress was partially restored after an archaeological survey in the area, with analysis showing four distinct periods of expansion: an early Byzantine period, two Medieval periods and the fourth, linked to the rule of Despot Slav (1208-1230).

Our next day in Melnik begins with a traditional breakfast consisting of banitza, airan and coffee. We had planned to visit the most well-known houses in the city before leaving for Sofia, but unfortunately the history museum, housed in the Pashova house (dating back to 1715) is closed. Its working ours are supposed to be 9 am – 5 pm, Tuesday to Sunday (closed on Monday), but we were unlucky. That’s why, instead of the history museum, we visited the Kordopulos house. Entrance costs 2 Leva and includes a wine tasting.

We saw the cellar first, found in the basement of the house. It’s cool and smells of wine. One of the walls bears the handprint of the house’s first mistress. The year is 1754. To this day the wine is kept in cellars dug into the sandy rocks, with pennies stuck to the walls for luck.

This house belonged to a rich Greek merchant family, Kordopulos. For centuries they made and sold wine, which explains the opulence in the family home, which has not only summer and winter gardens, but also a sauna. The sitting room impresses the most – a room with 12 uniquely stained windows and a ceiling decorated with elaborate woodcarvings.

The last of the Kordopulos clan – Manol – was a highly educated and forward-thinking man, an engineer and wine technology expert. He was a close friend of Yane Sandanski, whom he hid in his home during the struggle for liberation of the Macedonian Bulgarians. Manol Kordopulos died in the years before the first Balkan War (1912), when the Ottomans massacred the bulk of the city’s elite as they were pulling out. Today the Kordopulos house has been converted to a museum, visited by thousands of tourists per year.

Melnik sends us off the same way it greeted is, calmly and with a smile. The boisterous laughter of merriment is heard from somewhere…I feel great. It’s like someone hit the restart button and reprogrammed my mind with positivity. At least until next weekend. Until my next escape. Until next time dreams will seem closer than they really are. Like Iliya’s dream to buy a Mercedes. To him it’s very real, because he honestly believes in it. He needs only a few more years to realize it. As we were leaving, he said goodbye with the words, “If you ever come back to Melnik, come find me. I’ll take you for a drive in my new Mercedes”…

Where to stay:The city has many houses that serve as hotels and mehani. We stayed at hotel “Bolyarka” (60 leva per night). The hotel is pleasant, although the service was average. The rooms are small and too close together. As a plus, it was clean and the food in the mehana downstairs was delicious. You can find more information about the hotel here: http://en.melnikhotels.com/

By: Elina Cankova

* механа (mehaná, pl. mehaní) is a traditional Bulgarian establishment, a cross between a restaurant and a pub, that tends to  serve typically Bulgarian drinks, salads and meals. They are often built in the Revival style with colourful tablecloths and awnings of bare timber

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