Scent of figs and old wine

The architectural reserve of Melnik is the smallest town in Bulgaria

The town of Melnik is an architectural reserve which huddles in a valley towered by high sandy cliffs.

The smallest Bulgarian town, Melnik - with a population of less than 200 people - was first mentioned in written sources in the early 11th century as a border point between the Byzantine Empire and Bulgaria. The first to live in the region were the Thracian tribe of Medi, to which the legendary gladiator Spartacus belonged. Centuries later, the Slavs settled in the area naming the town Melnik, from the word 'mel' for white clay. It is namely clay that the fantastic red golden sand hills surrounding the town are made of.

Melnik was thriving in the early 13th century when it became the capital of an independent feudal domain. Plethora of churches and monasteries were built during that time and commerce and cotton and tobacco production flourished. Melnik fell under Ottoman rule in 1395 but thanks to the local notables the town was not ravaged. In mid-17th century, Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi described it as a “lively hamlet of one- and two-storey spacious houses with tiled roofs and many home baths and well-groomed gardens”. The town was liberated from Ottoman rule by the band of Yane Sandanski in 1912. At the time, a large part of the town was destroyed in a fire and its Greek population moved southwards while Bulgarian refugees from Aegean Macedonia settled down.

Today, Melnik is an architectural reserve. Bulgarian National Revival-style houses, astounding with their exquisite architecture and ornaments, are located amphitheatrically along winding streets with scores of wine-cellars and souvenir shops. One of the architectural landmarks is the Kordopulov House with a wood-carved Venetian-style ceiling, which was built by a well-off Greek merchant in 1758. It houses an exhibition of a typical Melnik cellar dug in the cliff, with huge wine casks. Another well-preserved building is the Pashov House of 1815 which houses the History Museum. Of the plenty of temples, the most interesting is perhaps the Metropolitan Church of St Nicholas the Wonderworker.

Melnik has been famous for its red wine since antiquity, and its residents still rely on wine for a living. Vines grown on the hills around the town yield dark red grapes of the unique variety Shiroka Melnishka (“broadleaved vine of Melnik” in Bulgarian), which produces full-bodied wine with a tangy touch and ripe cherry and herb flavour. Melnik wine is exported all over Europe. In October, the whole town is filled with the scent of freshly picked ripe grapes complemented by the other local delicacy - fig jam, while the autumn sun shines down with gentle warmth.

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