Melnik


“OMG THERE’S SNOW!” Yelled Jodon as he stood at our window over looking the small town of Melnik. “What??” I crashed my way across the hotel room to look outside. Our hotel was perched on the side of a hill right in the middle of the one-street town of Melnik. Our bedroom window looked out over the rooftops of the restaurants in the city. From where we were, we could pretty much see the entire town. It was our first morning in Melnik, and overnight it had snowed. The little rooftops, the river bank, the trees and the mountains were all lightly dusted with snow. It was like a perfect little Christmas village. 

With less than 300 residents, Melnik is the smallest city in Bulgaria. It also happens to be the wine capital of the country. The town is just one street long. One street filled with micro-wineries, restaurants and little shops that sell homemade jams and honey. The town is nestled in a small valley between jagged beige mountain peaks. A few of the wineries have spent years carving out small caves in the mountainside in order to store their wines at perfect temperatures. Low tables with traditional linens and short wooden stools are set among the barrels. Visitors are encouraged to sit, relax and taste the young wines straight from the tap. It’s freakin’ adorable. 

Most of the restaurants in the city also serve their own wine: something grown and bottled just a few kilometres away on a hectare or two of land. The wine is stored in label-less bottles or in plastic jugs by the litre and served in large glass decanters. The restaurants all look like traditional hunting lodges. Wood panelled rooms, with mounted taxidermy stag heads and antler furniture. The rooms are dimly lit and filled with antique decor. Hunting rifles hang on the wall along with countless bottles of aged wine. Bulgarian folk music wafts through the room. Everything feels cozy and warm; a welcome escape from the falling snow outside. 

We joked that during our stay in Melnik we supported every family in town. The place was deserted. As far as we could tell, we were the only tourists in town. We walked up and down the empty streets leaving only our own footprints in the snow. Locals looked surprised to see us as we stomped in from the cold to join them for a glass of wine or a hot lunch. They scrambled up from their chairs, adjusted their clothes and hair and put on a smile as we entered. I bet sometimes days go by without any customers at all. We drank wine at one restaurant, then had lunch at another. We stopped at the different museums, and tasted wine in the mountain caves. We bought wine from one shop and jam from the next. At the end of our two days we figured we’d hit nearly every building in the city. 

It was a perfect way to spend the last days of our trip together. Melnik was our last stop in Bulgaria and our last stop travelling just the two of us. To end off our adventures, we were meeting up with Kelsey and Peter for some fun in Greece before heading home for Christmas. Until next time Bulgaria! 

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Prizren


Driving through the Albanian Alps was the first time I’d seen snow on the trip. The mountains looked unreal, floating above a layer of fog, delicately capped with snow. 

“Look!” I yelled at Jodon over headphones. “The mountains!”

It was exciting seeing real mountains again: jagged, snowy, treacherous mountains. It felt like home, it felt like winter. But it also came with a reality I was not prepared for: things were about to get very cold. 

It was zero degrees as we stepped off the bus into the dark streets of Prizren, Kosovo. I did NOT pack for this. If it was possible, our hostel room was colder than the outside world. Central heating is practically non-existent in Prizren. All of the homes and restaurants have wood-fired stoves that act as warmth for the rest of the space. Standing next to it is wonderful. The stove lets off a lot of warmth, and the burning wood makes the whole place smell like Christmas. But dare to walk into the next room and you might as well be a giant human popsicle! 

Luckily for us, however, the forecast called for sunshine and a high of 8 degrees during the day. Combine that with a hike up the mountain and the cold became tolerable. Which was good, because Prizren is too beautiful to miss. 

Prizren is small. It’s easy enough to see the highlights in just a few hours, and spend the afternoon eating 1 Euro bureks and reading a book over a hot mug of apple, quince kompot. 

My favourite sight was Dusan’s Fortress, a medieval fort on top of a hill that once served as the capital of the Serbian Empire. It’s only a 15 minute walk to reach the fortress gates, but the view is spectacular. From the walls of the fort you can see the whole expanse of Prizren (much larger than I would have thought). The small river running through the centre of town with its rows of old stone bridges, the multitude of minarets that cut into the city’s skyline, and snowy Pashtrik mountain in the distance: Prizren is not lacking in beauty. We arrived at the fortress just as the call to prayer began. The sounds of a dozen or so dueling mosques bounced around the city in a cacophonous echo. We sat on the edge of the wall, taking in what little warmth there was and listened to the prayers below. 

These days the sun sets early in the Balkans. By 4:30 the light is gone and the temperature dips below freezing again. It took all of my effort just to make it to dinner. We spent our evenings huddled up in coffee shops and sharing beers with new friends.  

Our time in Prizren, albeit short, made me want to explore more of Kosovo. The area has such an intense history and yet the people are some of the nicest we’ve met on our trip (The hostel owners at Driza’s House were incredible!). We heard that the capital, Prishtina, is WELL worth the trip, and yet, time is sadly not on our side. Our journey south must continue. Onward to Macedonia!