"Melnik is finished," a Bulgarian researcher noted dryly, in the 1880s, about this small town in what is today southwestern Bulgaria. For the modern visitor, Vasil Kanchov could not have been more wrong.
Melnik is now a household name, a place cherished by both Bulgarians and foreigners for its well-preserved Revival Period architecture, strong local wine and surreal surroundings of white limestone pyramids. Its location, just off the E79 route from Sofia to Greece and a short drive from Bansko, Bulgaria's premier winter resort, increases the town's popularity. Climate has a hand in it, too. Even in the coldest of winters, Melnik remains relatively warm, as it is so close to the Aegean that its microclimate has a certain Mediterranean feel.
On the surface, Melnik is one of the best museum-town experiences in Bulgaria. Tall traditional houses fill narrow ravines and riverbeds between even taller limestone pyramids. Dark, strong wine made of the local Wide Melnik Vine mature in deep cold cellars, dug into the soft rock. The spacious, lavishly decorated rooms of the Kordopulova House, Melnik's main museum, inspire fantasies of times long gone. As with most museum-towns, Melnik looks as if it comes straight from a fairy-tale.
Look closer, and you will detect a certain feeling of sadness in Melnik, the melancholy of a place that is long past its prime and is now trying to survive on the remnants of its former glory.
The famed Melnik wine matures in cellars dug in the soft local rock
The town – officially the smallest in Bulgaria, with 325 citizens – relies heavily on tourism and home wine-production. Its inhabitants are now dependent on what their forefathers built, and those old inhabitants of Melnik created much more than is visible today. Not all that long ago, the town was home to thousands of people of all nationalities, faiths and walks of life.
Melnik appeared in the early Middle Ages and, as it was an easily defended location by a popular Balkan road, it was hotly contested between local powers, mainly Bulgaria and Byzantium. The city often changed hands and at several times was the capital of autonomous rulers. The Melnik of this age was extensive and fortified, with dozens of churches and strong houses, some of which survived, inhabited, until the beginning of the 20th Century. Bulgarians and Greeks both lived there, and Bulgarian kings and Byzantine emperors sometimes resettled rebellious aristocrats who needed punishment in Melnik.
The city went through a period of decline in the first centuries after it fell under the Ottomans, after 1395. It gradually began to revive in the 17th Century, due to its location and the production of wine and tobacco. When Ottoman traveller and bon vivant Evliya Celebi visited Melnik he saw a beautiful village, full of lush vineyards and gardens.
In the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, Melnik prospered and grew. This was when spacious mansions like the Kordopulova House appeared, providing opulent living for the wealthy wine and tobacco producers and merchants. It was also the time when Melnik again become a fortress – only this fortress was not made of stone and mortar, but of language, culture and religion. The area around the city was Bulgarian-populated, but Melnik was another affair. Significant number of Turks and Gypsies called it home, while the majority were Greeks and Bulgarians.
Wine tasting at the end of the tour in the Kordopulova House
The Greek culture prevailed as it was seen as more sophisticated. For decades Bulgarian families spoke Greek even in their homes, eschewing the local Bulgarian-language school for the Greek one. The lure of Greekness was so strong that even Bulgarian villagers who resettled in Melnik would soon start to converse in the foreign language.
This situation changed after the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, when Melnik and its region joined Bulgaria. The Turks left. The Greeks left. The Bulgarians who sided with the Greeks left, too. The city shrank, and many houses were left empty. When Bulgarian historian Professor Vasil Zlatarski visited Melnik in 1916, he saw "a true ruin: from 2,000 houses (with about 10,000 inhabitants) there are hardly 200 inhabited houses; everything else is ruined or half-ruined from fires, or whole houses stand whole, but without windows and doors."
By that time, however, Melnik had already been in decline for decades. It all began with the changing of the transport routes, about the mid-19th Century. Traffic along the Struma Valley, where the modern E79 runs, intensified and Melnik, isolated in its forbidding labyrinth of stone pyramids, was forgotten. The city was often inhospitable even to its own inhabitants, with rains turning its narrow alleys and streets into torrents of muddy water. People began leaving for better and more prosperous cities in the region, like Seres in modern Greece and Gotse Delchev, Sandanski and Blagoevgrad in modern Bulgaria.
By the 1880s, Melnik was already a place of dilapidation and dust, with no sanitation. The wine was still good, though, as Vasil Kanchov attests, in spite of the fact that some producers would dye it black artificially or would, for some reason, add gypsum to it. What Kanchov did not know at the time was that phylloxera had already reached Bulgaria and was approaching Melnik. Soon, Melnik lost its last source of income, its wine.
Production began to revive in the interwar period, and Winston Churchill is reported to have been a connoisseur of the local wines. The other impetus for at least a partial revival came in 1968, when Melnik was declared a museum-town – and the tourists arrived, hungry for the beauty of the old-time atmosphere, and thirsty for a glass of the strong, almost black, wine.
Interior of the Kordopulova House. Advertised as the "largest Revival Period mansion in the Balkans," it was built in 1754 for a wealthy Greek family. Its underground cellars had the capacity to hold 300-400 tonnes of wine. The mansion has four floors. The most spectacular room has decoration of woodcarving and coloured glass windows. It was used as a drawing room and has an overview of Melnik. Most of the furniture in it is genuine
"In spite of the crisis, inside is warm": the owner of this traditional restaurant uses funny adverts to attract paying customers
Traditional houses and sandstone pyramids: Melnik is instantly recognisable
A detail from the façade of the former konak, or administrative building from the Ottoman era. After years of abandonment and decay, plans for the restoration of the building are underway
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.