Chances are, you may have seen some photos of the stunning town of Melnik. It has been honored by many global publications such as Atlas Obscura, Forbes, the Washington Post, to mention just a few random ones. And there is a good reason for this - for a town of only 385 inhabitants, which makes it Bulgaria's smallest one, Melnik packs abundant uniqueness and a formidable history. And just wait until you try its wines!
The drive from Sofia is easy and picturesque. As you leave the city, the mountains get closer and closer - first Rila, and soon Pirin in the South and eventually the Rhodope in the East. Before you know it, you are winding your way through the picturesque Kresna Gorge and soon you are in Melnik, and you can almost miss it before you realize that the first bigger street you drive by is also the main street and one of the few streets in town. You are now in the town of Melnik - and merely 15 miles from Greece.
As you make your way up the main street, one of Melnik’s main attractions - the sand pyramids - loom in the distance. The street is lined up with handsome Bulgarian national revival houses - all stone, red tile roofs, wide eaves, and coquettish balconies - stacked in dizzying rows on both sides of the tiny river and up the hills.
With the steady growth of visitors to the region, Melnik is still trying to shape its identity. I remember it as a beautiful and sleepy little town. In the past two decades, excited to have attracted busloads of tourists traversing between Bulgaria and Greece, it spruced its face up. The level of commercialization is entirely bearable, despite some kitschy oversized vinyl posters and neon signs. I am ready to bet that what happens next is Melnik will realize it doesn't need gaudy advertising in order to be desirable. It will shed the vinyl and let the hearty wines, gorgeous stone houses and stunning views lead it into a future where beauty and history are all that define it.
Two favorite highlights are the Museum of Wine and the Kordopulov House. And the Melnik pyramids of course - the soaring natural sand and clay formations, a result of the erosive effect of winds, sun, rain and snow - a breathtaking one!
The Museum of Wine is very small and easily navigable and offers a window into the art of wine making through the centuries. It displays a very good collection of old tools and information about the wine making process of the past.
The Kordopulov House is the largest preserved National Revival-style house in the Balkans, built in 1754 specifically for the purposes of wine trading. The architecture is eclectic, mixing Ottoman and Venetian elements. It’s perched high in the hills, comprising multiple floors of beautiful rooms, decorated with stunning wood carving and textiles. The underground cellar boasts a 12.5-ton wine barrel and 160 yards of tunnels, dug into the soft and sandy soil beneath the house, that serve as wine caves. Legend has is that you should make a wish and stick a coin into the wall. If it stays put, your wish will come true. I generously pull out one Bulgarian lev and diligently dig it into the wall - and it sticks!
But Melnik is far from just a visual feast. The gently rolling hills with stunning views of the surrounding mountains are home to a number of the most impressive wines in Europe. Some of the indigenous sorts, especially the Broadleaf Melnik vine, are as unique as they are ancient - rumor has it the wine made from it was Churchill’s favorite. In the past decade the wine growing and making is experiencing an impressive boom and a growing recognition around the world.
We head to Villa Melnik - it was highly recommended to me by a Boston friend in the wine-making business and I quickly see why. It’s a remarkable estate with stunning views. Every detail of the vineyards, facilities, and equipment reflects a deep love of wine and respect for it. In the next day or so you will see a dedicated blog post about it - it deserves way more than a mere mention. Recently, the US-educated and UK-trained daughter of the owner of Villa Melnik created the first wine route map of the region, which includes seven of the most impressive local wineries. I am determined to visit each of them this summer - stay tuned!