Сандански (Sandanski). The name is quite new and was given in the 20th century - Yane Sandanski was a national hero, who fought the Ottomans for an independent Bulgaria. Before, the place was known as Sveti Vratch, which means 'Holy doctor'.
When heading north from Thessaloniki in Greece direction →Sofia, you will pass Sandanski around 30 km north of the border. Sandanski itself is the south-westernmost town of Bulgaria. It's almost the same distance to the border crossing to →Macedonia west of Sandanski. The town stretches along the beautiful, deep Struma valley right in the middle of the Pirin mountains. The valley has a distinctive climate. Since it's not far from the Mediterranean Sea, Sandanski is warmer and much sunnier than any other place in Bulgaria. Additionally, there are some hot spas in and around Sandanski.
Thanks to its special microclimate, Sandanski is a famous health resort. There's also some industry in and around the town, but guidelines regarding emission etc are extraordinarely strict. Sandanski is the centre of the region and therefore houses the appropriate institutions and shopping facilities. The town itself is laid out as a spa, but you will miss historic or other interesting sites. However, the town makes for a perfect base for touring the surrounding mountains, the marvellous city of Melnik (see below) etc. In the valley as well as in the mountains, agriculture dominates. As a result of the favourable climate, tobacco, vine, tomato, figs, pomegranates, nuts etc can be cultivated.
Sandanski was probably already founded around the year 3000 BC as a small Thracian settlement. The famous leader of the Slaves' revolt in Rome, Spartacus, is said to be born in Sandanski. In medieval times, two brothers, both of them practising doctors and helping the poor, lived in Sandanski. Later, the two brothers were beatified for their engagement with the poor. Therefore, the town was renamed Sveti Vratch (Holy Doctor, see above) and kept the name for many centuries. Besides that, Sandanski has always been a rather small local town with lots of agriculture and some spas.
Getting there / transportation
Most trains running between →Sofia and Thessaloniki in Greece stop in Sandanski - the distance to both cities is almost the same. The train station of Sandanski is west of the town centre and a bit away from it all. The best way to get around in the mountains around the town are buses. A minor but very scenic road leads from Sandanski to the east all the way through the Pirin mountains to →Smolyan in the Rodopi mountains.
There aren't any highlights in Sandanski, but the place is good for a pleasant stroll through the centre of town. The town stretches from east to west with пл. България (pl. Bulgariya, Bulgaria square) as the central square and a long pedestrian zone called ул. Македония (ul. Macedoniya, Macedonia st.).
When in the south-west corner of Bulgaria around Sandanski, one shouldn't miss a visit to Мелник (Melnik). Melnik is a small town, although the term 'microtown' would be more appropriate. As a matter of fact, Melnik is Bulgaria's smallest town, but this was not always like that. Some 100 years ago, around 20,000 people lived in Melnik - today there are only 300 people left in the city.
|The centre of Melnik....or what is left of it|
Since many of the old houses in town are more or less well preserved, Melnik appears to be something like a ghost town. The place was and is famous for the cultivation of tobacco and its heavy red wine. In addition, the sandstone mountains in the vicinity are quite impressive (see picture). In the 13th century, Melnik marked the border between the Bulgarian empire in the north and the Ottoman empire in the south. For a short period of time, it even became the capital of Bulgaria and, besides that, a very wealthy place. The town consisted of 3,640 houses and 72 churches. Furthermore, it was the place where the first Bulgarian school was founded. The Ottomans weren't driven out of Melnik before 1912. The revenge of the defeated Ottomans couldn't have been worse: The place was burnt down completely. All that was left were 96 houses and five churches; until now the town hasn't really recovered.
Things to see in Melnik include the largest National Revival Style building (the distinctive Bulgarian 18 to 19th century style), which was built for a Greek wine merchant in the year 1754. It's possible to see the interior of the building, too.
|Near Melnik: Roshenski Monastery|
Just a few kilometres away from Melnik there's a small village called Roshen. Probably more famous than the village itself is nearby Roshenski monastery, which was built during the 12th century. The monastery is still active, very small but fine. Actually, Roshenski monastery is exactly what one might expect from a monastery. The place is surrounded by bizarre sandstone formations, called Melnik pyramids.
Melnik and Sandanski are just another proof of the diversity this small country can offer. A place which shouldn't be missed. And somewhat of a hidden treasure: As for today, not many travelers find their way to Melnik.
Especially in and around Sandanski it's not a big problem to find cheap hotels or pensions. Choices in Melnik seem to be limited, so it might be a good idea to opt for another place outside of Melnik.
- www.foodnotbombs.net/sandanski.shtml: Images and impressions from Sandanski. In English.
- bulgaria.domino.bg/sandanski: Extensive website about Sandanski, Melnik and the entire area around - countains even useful city maps etc, English.
- www.lebivino.com Website of "Leb i vino" (Bread and Wine), a folk band from Melnik. The website includes some audio files of their traditional music from the Pirin area, which is definitely worth a try. English, French etc.
Do you have or do you know a good website about Sandanski and/or Melnik? Don't hesitate, let me know! After checking it, I would love to add it to the link list. You can submit a link by using the →contact form. Note that commercial websites will be treated differently.