The Long Ridge Down

Empires of any kind eventually slide, having risen within the shifting and fickle orbit of political, social, economic and religious realities. It’s in the nature of things to fade so that what once seemed eternal exists only as memory, or as a scattering of stones. The traces mark the land with ruins and clues, half-hidden or submerged, sometimes mysteriously beyond comprehension, the relics of an earlier order enacted from the same ground.

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Bulgaria, nestled in the Pirin Mountains, is a place called Melnik, regularly referred to as the smallest town in the country. The writer Yuri Trifanov went even further in his 1967 short story set there, entitling it ‘The Smallest Town on Earth.’ The appellation bears little relation to the settlement’s current state of affairs, however, instead referring to a previous grandeur discernible in the restored houses and what’s left of the monuments dating from a time when Melnik was one of the cultural and spiritual centres of the entire Balkan peninsula.

As equally curious as its fall is the landscape that Melnik rose beside, though the two are inextricably entwined. Melnik remains curtained off until the very last second when a parting in the steep palisade of sandstone towers suddenly reveals its staggered houses spanning a dry riverbed that winds through a narrow valley. It is a strange and beautiful landscape of imaginary forms: sheer pinnacles of sand; pyramids crested with bent and stubborn trees; long slopes of scree falling away to the mist-veiled valleys. During the Byzantine Empire, Melnik was naturally protected by these encircling spires and insulated from the emperor’s influence. This led to a long tradition of powerful, nearly autonomous feudal rulers epitomised by Despot Alexei Slav. From the year 1209 onwards he forged an independent mountain realm, consolidated through a series of vast fortress walls perched along the ridges, and using his considerable wealth to found monasteries, churches, and craft guilds in great numbers. His private residence, built around 1215 and still in use as a dwelling until as late as 1912, is amongst the oldest civilian buildings still standing in southeastern Europe.

Over the centuries Melnik developed as a wealthy crafts centre, specialising in the working of copper and gold and the fashioning of ornate pottery and jewellery. But its real wealth came from the cultivation of vines. The dry red wine, fermented from a type of grape particular to the region, was stored and aged in vast subterranean cellars hewn from the hillsides and traded throughout the Balkans and Adriatic provinces, then further afield to England and Austria. It was from this very town, so the story goes, that Winston Churchill ordered 500 litres of barrel wine each year.

An oak-clad ridge that overlooks the southern edge of the town reveals the eminence of Melnik in earlier centuries. Walking it when the mountain mist obscured the houses below seemed apt; the narrow stretch of sandstone ridge high above the valley belongs exclusively to another age. It holds onto the remnants of the Saint Virgin Mary Spileotisa chapel, the Saint Haralampius monastery, the Sveti Nikola basilica, and the ramparts of Aleksei Slav’s monumental fortress, all built at the turn of the 13th century. Walking the path between the ruins I was taken with the silence that accompanied the falling and moss-covered stones. The mist rolled in around me and I tried to imagine the assembly of the pious that would have climbed the steep slope through a gulley of oaks to reach these places of worship upon the peaks. A parade of parishioners walking the same earthen path that I followed.

Until the very end of the 19th century Melnik boasted 70 churches, monasteries and chapels, 1300 individual homes and 20,000 residents engaged in a labyrinthine web of trade and commerce. Throughout the long centuries of the Ottoman Empire it had remained an important Christian ecclesiastical centre. But now only a couple of churches remain in use, more than enough to meet the spiritual needs of the 250 people who live there. In the town museum there is a black and white photograph of Melnik taken in 1912 that clearly shows the tiers of closely packed houses rising in serried rows up the hillsides. But when the mist finally cleared from the ridge that I wandered I counted at most only a hundred still below.

Melnik’s decline came swiftly. The Balkan Wars of the early 20th century brought division and emigration to a pluralistic community where Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Vlachs and Roma had lived. A virus peculiar to the Melnik vine strain devastated the grape harvests and the centuries-old wine cellars stood cavernous and empty. And while Melnik had long straddled the main trade route from the great Mediterranean port at Thessaloniki to the Balkan and Central European hinterland, the stroke of an engineer’s pen shifted the direction of the new road about to be built just far enough away to isolate Melnik yet again in its fortress of sand.

The pyramids and pinnacles that enclose the smallest town in Bulgaria are slipping, grain by grain, into the valley. Each winter storm and surging spring squall sheer a few more from the peaks. Eventually the mountains will flatten and fall, to be taken up into some new and arising geological mystery. And they’ll carry the last of Melnik’s memories and relics along with them.

15 thoughts on “The Long Ridge Down

  1. It’s salutary to be reminded that human history is the proverbial blink of eye when compared to the Earth’s geological evolution. The erosion of Melnik’s incredible sandstone ridges demonstrates that this evolution is ongoing and that the very landscape that appears so permanent is actually far from immutable.

    I’ve read about Churchill’s Bulgarian wine somewhere, maybe Patrick Wright’s excellent cultural history of the ‘Iron Curtain’.

    Those underground wine cellars sound a bit like the ones they have in Slovenia – according to Marjan’s new guide book!

    Cheers Julian

    1. Thanks, Pete! Even the walls of the house that have been standing for around 800 years seemed so slight when looking at the sandstone mountains around the the town. Certain places have the knack of putting time and distance into perspective, and this was one of them for me. Walking through the lanes there is sand always underfoot, testament to the slow and constant erosion.

      I’ll have to look into the Wright book; I’ve heard of it but never seen it. You can actually buy bottles of wine labelled ‘Churchill’s Wine’ in Melnik, though I’m uncertain about the veracity of their contents! And we’d like to get back to Slovenia as soon as possible, the caves providing another bright lure to go with the rest. The most recent of Marjan’s guides that we have is in Slovenian, which presents some problems, but there are some glorious accompanying photos.


  2. Wonderful post Julian. You’ re a gifted storyteller who can write about insects, life in small villages or lost civilizations. I really loved this Balkans piece- by reading it you can get a real sense of the place and its mysterious surrounding atmoshpere.

    A rare chance to get a glimpse of a faraway place-lucky to have come across your blog.


    1. Thanks so much, Pablo, for the kind words. I’m delighted that you liked the post, and grateful for you taking the time to read. I’d hoped that Notes from Near and Far could travel between places both large and small, distant and close, rural and urban, but the idea was dependent upon readers like yourself being interested in following along. So thank you, I’m lucky to have you on board…

      Best wishes,

    1. Great to hear from you, JE. And many thanks for the compliments. I can’t recommend that region of Bulgaria enough if you’re ever thinking of a visit to this part of the world. There is a wonderful mixture of rural tradition and astonishing landscapes to be found in the mountains, valleys and plains. And a number of fascinating, and still in use, monasteries that are decorated in exquisite frescoes. Some beautiful traditional music has emerged from these places as well. A wonderful country to wander…thanks for taking the time to read.

      Best wishes,

  3. Too bad I gave up teaching European History more than a decade ago, Julian! Otherwise, I would have given this beautifully crafted essay to my students as a required reading material, and a reaction paper to be submitted the next day. Wonderfully written as always and the pictures make me pine for a visit. You never know…

    Rex Raymond

    1. Well if you ever decide to return to teaching European history, I’m more than happy to send a few things along!! A pleasure to hear from you, Rex, as always. And you’re more than welcome to drop by if you find yourself over here. There’s plenty to discover in the Balkans, and even more in its hidden corners! Thanks for reading and hope all is well with you.


  4. Julian, you have such a talent for bringing us right there with you. Thank you for being the creative and knowledgeable guide that you are, as you take us through this fascinating place. It’s just beautiful. Are the tunnels and cellars still accessible?

    1. It’s my pleasure, Cait! And thanks for the very generous compliments; I’m glad you liked the place. The tunnels and cellars are indeed still accessible. The one pictured is around 300 years old and continues to store barrels of wine. There’s been a recent upturn (however minor in relative or historical terms) in the town’s fortunes, due primarily to low-key tourism and daytrippers coming for lunch in such a spectacular setting. Also the grape vines have recovered over the decades and are still tended and wine continues to be made in the traditional way by storing it in the caves and cellars which stay at a constant, year-round temperature of 14 degrees celsius. Some of the barrrels are vast, let alone the cellars. During the Ottoman Empire the tunnels were extended, some of them running hundreds and hundreds of metres into the hillsides, in order to create safe refuges or ways of escape in case of attack. Melnik is a fascinating place and well worth some time if you ever happen to be in this part of the world! Thanks for taking the time to read, Cait; it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

  5. Thank you for taking me so vividly to a facinating place I’m not ever likely to experience in person. Living in Canada in general and where I do specifically, where ‘historical’ is 1950’s machinery submerged in the muskeg, I am always facinated by places with a continuous history that possibly predates the written word; places where geology has actually had time to affect local geography in a tangible way and so has its influence on the necessary adaptations of the human denizens.

    Being primarily a visual person, your images add so much to the experience for me. I have no problem imagining “the assembly of the pious that would have climbed the steep slope through a gulley of oaks”. I’m intrigued by the intricate brick work in the 4th image and the contrasting natural sculpting of the cellars.

    I’m excited that the vines are regaining health and knowledge that literally threads through centuries is still being applied in the wines’ rendering and probably to existance in this unique and beautiful place. Perhaps I’m romantisizing it all, but I feel that there is so much these people could teach us ‘unhistoried’ folks about the value of tradition and endurance.

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Cindy, and I’m so pleased that you enjoyed the visit to Melnik! Also, many thanks for your very interesting comments. Having grown up in Canada I know precisely what you mean when you talk of its lack of ‘history’, and over the course of my time in Europe I’ve become increasingly fascinated with that continuous and visible history that rises from the land and continues to form the basis of national identity in so many countries.

      What also interests me about your comment is related to my own relationship with Canada. Growing up I wasn’t at all curious, or even really aware, of the long and interconnected relationship that the First Nations people had had with the land that I lived in. Perhaps it was to do with the education system, or growing up in the suburban commuter rim of Toronto. Who knows. But after discovering and exploring traditional European ways of life and communities, I began to realise how I’d neglected the very part of Canadian history that was beginning to mean more and more to me: the spiritual and sustainable relationships that might be forged with wild creatures and the land that are core to many indigenous philosophies throughout the world, despite pressures and compromises. I hadn’t been taught this other kind of history, and I wondered what that loss would entail. As you so rightly suggest, there is a great deal to learn from those who have maintained traditions, often against a global shift towards sameness, and how varied are the communities and histories that have endured.

      The brickwork is beautiful, isn’t it. Alexei Slav’s house is a great example of traditional Byzantine architecture that was common for many centuries leading up to the Ottoman Empire. The layers of stone are always interlaced with thin rows of brick, with clay tiles placed upright between the stones for decorative motifs. This basic design can be found from Istanbul to Prespa, and a long way north as well; an astonishing historical feat that speaks eloquently to the idea of continuous history and endurance that you thoughtfully raise.

      Many thanks for taking the time to read. Much appreciated, as always.

      1. It’s rather poignant that the invisibility of historical human habitation in our own land is exactly what we should strive for as an earthly species. Admirably, the First Nations people have left little evidence of their thriving societies, living with the land as a part of it.

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