Melnik is a very interesting Bulgarian town situated in south-west Bulgaria in Blagoevgrad district, 10 km east of Sandanski. Melnik is famous for a number of reasons and is a place where every Bulgarian goes on a vacation at least once: it is the smallest geographical settlement classified as a town; it is a town-museum with 96 buildings pronounced for cultural monuments; it has great traditions in wine making, due to the unique grape varieties cultivated in the region; and last, but not the least, Melnik is very famous for its sand and limestone pyramids – exceptional geographical structures for the territory of Bulgaria. Some of the most important buildings in Melnik are the Kurdopolova house, Bolyarska house, Pashova House, the St Nikola Monastery, Slavova Fortress, the Roman Bridge, and the Rojen Monastery. Rojen Monastery was built in the 12th century and is one of the few Bulgarian medieval monasteries preserved today. A true carrier of cultural and historic heritage, Rojen Monastery is one of Bulgaria's biggest landmarks. The Kurdopola House was built in 1758 and is the biggest house on the Balkan Peninsula from XIX century that has been preserved.
Winston Churchill has said that the Melnik wine is his favorite wine in the world. Most of the people in Melnik are occupied in the wine-making industry; almost all the wine produced here is premium because of the unique sorts of grapes. The town is producing unique tastes gaining popularity around the world. Recently there have been many reports on Bulgarian and Melnik wine made by the Wine Report, The Oxford Companion to wine, Hohn Hudson Pocket wine book, etc. All of them are praising the unique Melnik vintages and are also explaining how Bulgarian wine is getting more and more popular. Many different bottles have been recognized in international wine competitions, some of them were given gold medals.
The town dates back from Thracian times but the Romans have left the biggest trail in Melnik from antiquity – the Roman Bridge, still preserved, it is one of the landmarks of the town. The other thing Melnik is most commonly associated with are the impressive sand and lime pyramids spread around town in different shapes – towers, obelisks, swords, hay-stacks, temples, the Egyptian pyramids and most important – the incredibly resemble giant mushrooms.
EVENTFUL AND TURBULENT HISTORY. Time has not consigned to oblivion the legends and facts about old Melnik. Archaeologists claim that the Thracians were the first to settle in these parts. Later, the Romans passed through it and left a unique trace: the ancient Roman bridge preserved to this day. It is the Slavs, however, who are supposed to have first given the town its present name - Melnik, after the sand pyramids (mel) which envelop the town on all sides. It became a part of the Bulgarian state under Khan Pressiyan (836-852) and within a few centuries flourished greatly. In the early 13th century Melnik was the capital city of the independent domain of Lord Alexi Slav, an important and impregnable fortress and a brisk centre of arts and crafts, of building and trade. It continued to prosper under Tzar Ivan Assen (1218-1241). His charter for duty-free trade with the Dubrovnik merchants brought in together with exquisite goods and artisan skills also a culture imbued with modern humanism. Melnik became a centre where icon-painters, masters of ceramics, goldsmiths producing filigree works, and masons who built churches and houses thrived. The vicissitudes of history often changed the rulers of this outlying part of the Bulgarian state. Under Byzantine domination Melnik became the place where claimants to the Byzantine throne were exiled. They arrived with their families and riches, built houses and supported the development of arts and trade. The Ottoman conquest ushered in a period of several centuries of oblivion and decline. Yet Melnik again became famous. The spark of the Bulgarian National Revival (18th - 19th century) burst earlier into flame here than in other parts of the country. The town regained its past splendor. It again became a major cultural and commercial centre. In the late 17th century it emerged as a centre of church decoration and openwork woodcarving and some time later, as a centre of the fine mural painting. Many churches and Bulgarian schools were opened. Remarkable works of architecture were built; theatrical performance, quadrilles and waltzes began to be played in the parlours of eminent merchants, after Western fashions. Heavy caravans spread the fame of Melnik wines in the distant corners od Europe. It matured in deep cellars for several dozen years. It acquired thickness and flavour which made it much sought after in Salonica, Athens, Vienna, France, Spain and even in Britain. Several months after the Russo-Turkish War (1877 - 1878) the Berlin Treaty gave Melnik back to Turkey and the town lived through the Kresna Uprising (1878). The town gradually lost its sparkle, and during the Balkan war (1912 - 1913) which ultimately freed it, it suffered devastation by fire. Today Melnik is an architectural reserve, a historical town, a monument of culture. From the previously rich and prosperous town now remain what is left of the fortress wall of Lord Slav, houses and wine cellars, churches and monasteries. Amidst the exotic charm of the natural decor, they remind one of a romantic tale of olden icons and carved wood, of splendid frescoes and architectural gems.
THE NATURAL SCENERY of Melnik is truly amazing. Impressive and austerely splendid, the Melnik pyramids rank among the most remarkable natural phenomena in Bulgaria. On the area of 17 sq. km (near Melnik, Rozhen i Kurlanovo) millennia-long erosion has chiseled this unusual world. Depending on the strength of your imagination, you could see in them obelisks, ancient towers, giant mushrooms... etc. But the imagination of the Bulgarian master masons of the National Revival period inspired probably by the fascinating architectural style of the Melnik house.
THE CHARM OF THE MELNIK HOUSE
Its characteristic features are related to the geographic factor. The sheer screes and the limited terrain compelled people here to fight for every square foot of land. That is why the Melnik houses seem perched one above the other, so close as though they are whispering something to each other. Again, to cope with the slope, people here built the basement of stone at several levels where the thick wine matured. Above is the storey, towering gracefully, projecting and supported by many cantilevers. The white facades are framed with dark boards and the windows are grouped several together in an elegant fashion. The interiors usually exhibit ceilings of carved wood, chimney-pieces, decorative cupboards of colour woods, murals and even stained glass. But apart from the generally typical features, every house here has an individuality of its own, its own history and life.
THE FEUDAL LORD'S or BYZANTINE HOUSE precedes the architecture of the Bulgarian National Revival by several centuries. In fact it is among the earliest civilian buildings in the Balkans and is described in Bulgarian and foreign specialist literature. As legend has it, the castle was built for Elena-Olena, a royal relative. The child was sent here to find a cure for a serious lung ailment. The favourable air here helped and she recovered to marry the Russian Prince Igor. Archaeologists have found in the building elements typical of mediaeval Bulgarian construction and have listed it is a Bulgarian feudal fortress, probably built in the 12th - 13th centuries. Today only the Western and the Southern outer wall are preserved.
THE KORDOPOULOV HOUSE (1754) is a veritable gem of Bulgarian architecture of the National Revival, remarkably planned and executed. Its basement contains one of the largest wine cellars in the town equipped with special canals and ventilation. And above, the house receives the day's light from all four corners of the world. Also there are decorative murals and stained Venetian glass, exquisite carved ceilings and sumptuous Baroque decoration.
THE PASHA'S HOUSE was built in 1815 on the orders of the richest Turkish bey in the Seres and Melnik region, Ibrahim Bey. But it has reverberated to the steps of the Bulgarian revolutionary Yane Sandansky (1872-1915) who in 1912 proclaimed freedom to Melnik. The house is elegantly and impressively planned and executed with oriels and triangular surfaces on the roof. The wood-carved suns on the ceiling are the work of masters from the Debur school.
But the master-piece of the Debur school is the small internal icon stand in the church of the ROZHEN MONASTERY. The architecture of the monastery, is very impressive. It is only 6 km from Melnik in an easterly direction and has existed since the Second Bulgarian Kingdom in the Middle Ages. The church in its yard, built in 1600, was renewed and painted in the 18th century. It contains a wealth of splendid stained glass, openwork wood carvings and old icons. Part of them, together with the wood-carvings from the icon stand, were exhibited in the Charpentier gallery, Paris and in the Huegel villa in the town of Essen.
In Melnik one can also see the old churches St. Nicholas (13th century), St. Nikolai, the Miracle Worker (1756), St. Peter and Paul (1840), St. Anton.
Some of the bigger towns and interesting places in close proximity to Melnik are: Sandanski, Petrich, Blagoevgrad, Bankso.
The mix of all these things: tremendously beautiful nature, churches, monasteries, rocks, typical Bulgarian National Revival architecture, wine and culture gathered and preserved for centuries make Melnik of the most attractive tourist destinations in Bulgaria.