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Meeting our Match in Melnik

We kept driving south to almost the border of Greece to a small town, known for its wines, Melnik. It was touted in the guidebook as a quaint little getaway town for urban Sofia-ites. No, it’s not a Unesco World Heritage Site, but it’s actually on the tentative list, so the Bulgarians think it’s important. That’s not why we went, though, we went to taste some wines.

When we arrived, we almost drove right past the town. Thankfully Jim noticed a pension sign, and we stopped to find a bed for the night. Our hostess, Eveline, looked exactly like what I expected all middle-aged Bulgarian women to look like, covered in many, many colorful layers.

Eveline was a hoot. She only knew the important words in English, you know, money, bed, bathroom, breakfast, passport, and wine. What else is there? As she was laboriously trying to copy down all the information on our four passports, we tried to get her to teach us a few important Bulgarian words. We learned that the word for “thank you” is “blagodaria”, but the “b” and the “l” are separate syablles.  As we were trying to write this down, she kept yelling at us, “Merci.  Merci.  Merci!” In other words, why bother to try and figure out the Bulgarian, the French works just as well.

The old stone church in Melnik, Bulgaria.
The locked church in Melnik.

Eveline got us all arranged, then after a glass of her own home-made wine, sent us walking downhill to the town. A few blocks down the road and we hung a left at the dry canal.

On both sides were roads and paths with boutiques, hotels, and restaurants. We wandered up to the church, which was padlocked, and wended our way through half-timbered houses and shops. It was a quiet evening, with hardly anyone else around except for the local residents, but that probably can be attributed to the time of year and the fact that we were there Sunday evening.

Looking for dinner, we were called to from a graying man. He called to us in many languages, and then asked us where we were from. When we answered “America,” he just grunted and walked away, assuming we’d follow. We weren’t sure how to take that.

He offered us a table outside, but it was getting chilly and we wanted to watch the goings-on, so we sat inside. He brought us menus and waited for our order. Up to this point, we were not sure if we were really welcomed or even wanted, but as per my usual, I asked him what I should eat.  This he took very seriously not finding the perfect meal on the English menu called to the barman to help him out, sat next to me, and explained what I should order, fried cheese and fried pork meat.  Ok!

Soviet era building in the center of Melnik.
Soviet-era building in the center of Melnik.

From that moment on, he was not exactly warm, but overtly friendly. He plopped a small wine glass down on our table and yelled, “Taste!” We did. It wasn’t to our taste, but he rang his bells, and seemed much happier from that moment on.

Meantime we got down to the business at hand and started eating our dinner which was delicious, especially the fried cheese. It had some red pepper sauce drizzled on top of it. Mmmmm. Soon a group of Bulgarians came in and sat at the next table. They were loud and having a great time. At one point, they were dueling with hard-boiled eggs. They would hit the top of the other person’s egg and whoever’s cracked first, lost. We got right into the midst of it and Lisa’s egg lasted the longest.

When it was time for dessert, once again the waiter came to the rescue. He said that we had to have the sheep’s yogurt. Ok…..we ordered it. It came covered with some greenish-black fruits and a drizzle of honey on it. For me, it quickly stimulated my gag reflex, but the other three loved it. I mean loved it! They couldn’t stop regaling its virtues. Of course, we had to ask what the fruits were and the answer is one of my favorite lines of the trip, “zellini smokini!”

We still couldn’t figure out what the fruits were, so he went to the back and came out with one of the jars we’d seen for sale in the shops and houses around town. We tried them over and over, and came to the conclusion that they were figs. They tasted pretty good.

Other than the pension owner and the restauranteur, we didn’t try any of the wines that the town is famous for. There wasn’t as much of a tasting culture as a buying culture. However, we figured the customs police wouldn’t really allow us to take the 2 liter plastic bottles of wine out of the country anyway. We really needed to get the bottled stuff. We did have wine with every dinner, however.

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.


Saturday 5th of June 2010

Definitely will be one of my favorite dining memories...I'm still saying zellini smokini!