Europe, Bulgaria, Southwest Bulgaria

Melnik and Rozhen Monastery

No Comments 21 July 2010

Melnik and Rozhen Monastery

Southwestern Bulgaria is something of a spiritual heartland to the country, particularly for its associations with the Macedonia Question. Speaking of spirits, the Monkey’s were raised when he visited Melnik, one of Bulgaria’s ancient winemaking regions.

Melnik, Bulgaria
Melnik, in Bulgaria’s southwest corner, is a charming village set amongst odd sandstone cliffs. Once a major trading center many times its present size, Melnik’s status eroded during Ottoman times. Today, many of its characteristic white houses with brown wooden trim and red tile roofs house guest rooms and “mehanas,” or taverns, where visitors while the night away with drink and food. Melnik is part of the Bulgarian section of Macedonia (the region [see below], not the country). The Monkey visited Melnik on several occasions.

Vineyards near Melnik, Bulgaria
The landscape around Melnik can be beautiful, desolate, and otherworldly all at the same time. Here the Monkey looks out over some of the vineyards that produce the grapes that make Melnik’s famous wine, which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once ordered especially for his son’s wedding.

Though not yet as renowned as other Eastern European producers like Greece and Hungary, Bulgaria is in fact one of the world’s oldest vinicultural locales. Archaeological research, including finds of primitive wine presses, suggests that vines were first planted and wine first produced in present-day Bulgaria between 6000 and 3000 BCE, and ancient Thracian wines (most of Thrace, an early civilization that bordered ancient Greece, is Bulgarian) were praised by Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey. And Dionysius, the Greek god of wine and ecstasy, is supposed to have come from the Rhodopi mountains of southern Bulgaria.

Back in Melink, the nearby Damianitsa Winery has been turning out some impressive wines in recent years that are slowly earning their rightful place among the world’s other fine wines.

Wine cave, Melnik, Bulgaria
At one point or another, most visitors to Melnik find themselves having a glass of wine and a chat with “Six Fingers,” a local winemaker who runs a bar in his cave-cum-wine-cellar (see below). The Monkey was no exception (not that you can tell much from this photo!).

Shestakas, Melnik, Bulgaria
The vintner known as “Six Fingers” in his cave standing by a few casks of his wine, which usually comes in three simple varieties: dry red, sweet red, and white. With cheese and bread, the wine tastes even better!

Near Melnik is Rozhen, home to the Rozhenski Monastery visible in the flats behind the Monkey. Further off are the jagged Pirin Mountains. This is the heart of Bulgarian Macedonia.

Rozhen Monastery, Bulgaria
The Monkey isn’t crazy enough to try to summarize the history of the Macedonian Question in a photo caption. But with this photo, he acknowledges this topic which became especially troublesome after 1878, when the Great Powers rescinded the Treaty of San Stefano that had granted control of Macedonia to Bulgaria. With the territory once again “up for grabs,” various nationalist movements began a bitter fight in the region. The most notorious of these was the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), which, as historian James Pettifer notes, was “the most feared secret society and terrorist organization in Europe” during the early 20th Century. IMRO at that time was an ultra-nationalist group whose goal was to foment a mass uprising to establish an independent Macedonian state. Because the ancient region of Macedonia had been split among many of the post-Ottoman Balkan states, IMRO’s aim brought it into conflict with authorities in Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (which later became Yugoslavia). Southwestern Bulgaria—that is, Bulgarian Macedonia—has a strong tradition of support for IMRO, which the Sofia government has repeatedly sought to repress. One IMRO leader, Yane Sandanski, is buried near Rozhen Monastery, the symbolic center of Bulgarian Macedonia.

Martenitsi, Melnik, Bulgaria
The Monkey inspects a number of martenitsi hanging from a tree in Melnik. The exchanging and wearing of red and white martenitsi to celebrate the arrival of spring each March 1st is just one example of Bulgaria’s lively folk traditions. Tradition holds that upon seeing a stork, you must remove your martenitsa and tie it to a blossoming tree. If you don’t spot a stork (a symbol of spring’s onset and fertility), you should remove your martenitsa at the end of March and tie it to a tree, or you might face the curse of Baba Marta, the mythical old lady of spring who can be either a purveyor of good tidings or bad luck. Throughout Bulgaria the Monkey encountered tree branches decorated with martenitsi old and new.

This Monkey adventure has been viewed 1458 times since the 2010 website relaunch.



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7,262,675 (2008)

Land area:

110,550 sq. km.


Sofia (pop. 1,113,674; 2005)


In 2006, Bulgaria ranked 55th in the UNDP Human Development Index and 66th in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $4,089.22. Public debt accounts for 10.5 percent of total GDP, while 14.1 percent of Bulgarians are beneath the poverty line.

Main language(s):


Monkey's name:

Maimunka (my-moon-ka)

Fun fact:

Bulgarians nod their heads up and down to say “no,” while they shake their heads from side to side to signify “yes.” That is, unless they adjust their head movements to accommodate for visitors accustomed to the more conventional non-verbal cues. Either way, head symbols can be a confusing affair in Bulgaria.

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Recommended reading

A Concise History of Bulgaria
R.J. Crampton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
This short book has become the go-to summation of this Balkan country’s long and complex history. A perfect introduction to the country.

Beyond the Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944
E.P. Thompson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)
A fascinating exploration of a British mission to rendez-vous with Bulgarian Partisans and raise a force against the Nazi-allied royalist dictatorship during World War II. Reads like a spy novel at times, but also a memorial to the author’s brother, who was killed in the effort.

Communism and the Remorse of an Innocent Victimizer
Zlatko Anguelov (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2002)
Part personal memoir, part exploration of the all-encompassing nature of Bulgaria’s Communist government, this book poses uncomfortable questions about the banal, everyday forms of repression and victimization that take root under coercive governments. Anguelov’s observations resonate far beyond Bulgaria’s borders…

The Balkans: A Short History
Mark Mazower (New York: Modern Library Paperback, 2002)
As the title says, a short history of the Balkan region. A helpful intro to this corner of Europe.

The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999
Misha Glenny (New York: Penguin, 2001)
A rather epic undertaking by a former BBC correspondent for Central Europe, this book traces the tumultuous two centuries of the Balkan states’ struggles for independence from the Ottoman Empire, the emergence of pan-Slavic tendencies and their tribulations, and the reign of various regimes of the right and left during the 20th Century. A worthwhile read—don’t let its dimensions frighten you…

Description of a Struggle: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Eastern European Writing
Editor: Michael March (New York: Vintage Books, 1994: Out of print)
A great anthology of short stories from the former Eastern Bloc, providing an evocative snap shot of the early post-Cold War era. Stories are organized by state, with the Bulgarian Victor Paskov’s tale of “Romanian” exiles in the Paris Metro a particular highlight.

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