Heading South in Bulgaria
Following a short stay in Sofia it was time to keep moving south, as the Athens Marathon was just a few days away.
Since we were running low on the number of days we were allowed to stay in the Schengen area (which Greece is a part of) we needed to be able to make the drive to Athens on the same day that we entered Greece. This is how we ended up spending a couple of nights in Melnik, which is just north of the border between Bulgaria and Greece.
Along the way to Melnik we made a quick detour to Rila Monastery, one of the most popular attractions in Bulgaria.
The UNESCO listed Rila Monastery dates from the 10th century and is named after St. Ivan of Rila. St. Ivan was a hermit who lived a life of solitude, performed miracles, and supposedly made friends with wild animals and birds.
The monastery was built after St. Ivan’s death and grew over time, becoming a key institution for the preservation of Bulgarian language and culture.
Melnik is a small town (purportedly the smallest in Bulgaria) and is popular among visitors who come to drink locally produced wine and to see the unique geology. Surrounding the town are eroded sandy cliffs that are called the “Melnik Pyramids”.
On our first day in Melnik we hiked up a trail at the end of the town to get a view of the landscape from above.
Enjoying the view.
The sandy soil around Melnik is favorable for growing grapes. Just above town we found the “Shestaka Wine Cellar,” a family-run winery that has been in operation for six generations. We ducked inside the cellar, which was made from hollowing out a cave in the side of a hill.
The owner gave us a quick history of the winery and then poured us a couple of glasses straight from the barrel. Here, three varieties of wine are produced from the Melnik grape using traditional methods. The wine was definitely a little different than we are used to but we enjoyed the experience.
In contrast to the small Shestaka winery, there are several newer wineries around Melnik that are large operations with fancy tasting rooms. As we drove around it was clear that large investments are being made towards turning the area into a wine destination.
We stopped by Zlaten Rozhen, a winery that opened in 2010. The winery has a huge production facility and a very nice showroom and tasting room. When we arrived we were the only visitors (it was a Thursday and apparently the wineries are a weekend destination).
An employee led us to the upstairs tasting room where she poured us samples of four different wines. The winery produces wines using the local Melnik grape as well as non-local varieties including Cabernet and Syrah. The wines were quite tasty and before we left we bought a few bottles, which were 18 Lev (~$10) or less.
Admittedly, we didn’t know much about Bulgaria before we got there and didn’t really know what to expect. After spending nearly a week there we were pleasantly surprised and we’d like to return and explore the country further.
In our next update, we make our way to Greece, the southernmost country of our European Road Trip!