Traveling by camper is always an adventure, especially in the Balkans. During our round trip in Bulgaria we encountered many surprises: high expectations resulted in a disappointment, unexpected experiences left us speechless.
A good example was our visit of Melnik. According to the travel books, this is one of the three top tourist destinations in western Bulgaria. The unique architecture in this place – with 300 inhabitants the smallest town in Bulgaria -, the medieval Rozhen Monastery and the picturesque sand pyramids in the surroundings (photo 1) were the main reasons for listing it on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage List.
But … Melnik itself turned out to be two dusty cobbled streets on both sides of a dried-up canal. It‘s true, the old reconstructed houses were beautiful, but they were all transformed into hotels and restaurants with wine-cellars (photo 2). Wines and other home-made products were sold in street stalls along the street. Yes, interesting to see, but very, very commercial.
We did not spend much time here and continued our trip for another 6 km to the village of Rozhen, where we wanted to visit the Rozhen Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God.
We knew that there was no official campground, but we were informed that we could spend the night on the parking lot of a motel nearby. And yes, indeed, Hotel Restaurant Dinchova Kashta opened its gates for us. We got a nice place for our camper and the caravan of our friends, electricity and the key of a hotel room, where we could use the (perfectly clean) bathroom. The price for one night? 10 € per couple!
In the late afternoon we walked to the Rozhen Monastery, one kilometer away. The road passed through the picturesque village of Rozhen and continued by a steep footpath to a large plateau, from where we had a great view of the surrounding sand pyramids and eroded rocks, chiseled by millennia-long erosion (photo 3). The evening sun was illuminating the bright sandy cliffs against the dark mountains and the cloudy sky. They looked like ancient towers, giant mushrooms and obelisks in a fairy tale.
Passing by a lonely church (photo 4) and the burial site of the Bulgarian revolutionary leader Yane Sandanski, we saw the monastery complex that looked like a fortress. No wonder when you know its history: it was built in at least 890!
The monastery is one of the few medieval monasteries well preserved until today. Although it was destroyed by fire in the early 17th century, it was rebuilt in the beginning of the 18th century. Several old monastery buildings, made of stone and dark wood, surrounded the spacious courtyard of the monastery that was almost empty. The old dining room of the monks, dating back to the 17th century, was quite impressive with its long and narrow wooden table. Although it was not allowed to take photographs in the church itself, the exterior frescoes clearly showed the artistic skills of the fresco painters.
Walking slowly back to the village, we had another occasion to admire the sand cliffs with their fantastic shapes, flooded with sunlight.
Back in Dinchova Kashta, we had a wonderful traditional Bulgarian dinner (photo 5). The friendly waiters showed a heart-warming hospitality, showing us around in the winery, where we bought a few bottles of the famous Melnik wine. By the way, this was reportedly a favorite wine of Sir Winston Churchill: he bought 500 liters annually!
All this made our stay in Rozhen one of the highlights of our trip – beyond our expectations!