Fri, May 24 2013
Friday: first impressions
Even in the twilight they stun the eye: striated tan cliffs, topped with scrub verdancy, a lone pine on pinnacle, twists of pikes like sandstone Matterhorns. We are in a taxi from Sandanski, after a four-hour bus ride from Sofia the first Friday evening in April, on our way to Melnik for the weekend.
One enters upon the panorama unexpectedly, among chapparel hills; the road turns: a sudden hewn valley.
"It's natural," says Josh Kroot, a US Peace Corps volunteer from Pazardjik who has invited me to come to see the projects on which he and Audrey Amara, a US Peace Corps volunteer from Kazanluk, have been working since the beginning of 2005.
The two regularly go down to Melnik to speak with various viticulturists and oenologists about problems they as local producers have been facing in bringing wine and grapes to market. Most of the people they met while travelling with another Peace Corps volunteer, Joe Ferguson from Kolarovo. Though possessing only slight information about vine cultivation and winemaking, Audrey and Josh soon recognised there to be a number of ways to work with people in the region. Through the Peace Corps, they were put in contact with Volunteers for Economic Growth Association (VEGA), a group funded by USAID, which helped them to bring a wine expert from California to the region and evaluate the potential to create an organisation that would brand and sell the wine that was being made by small local winemakers.
"We're almost there," he says, "and after we drop our stuff off at Hotel Mario, we'll go to this great place for dinner."
Upon reaching the town - officially the smallest in Bulgaria with a population of 275 - one immediately remarks its picturesqueness: all the buildings must be built and maintained in the Bulgarian National Revival style. And it's clean, and fresh, and charming. A canal runs down its one main street, itself lined with guest houses, hotels and mehanas. Still at 8pm, one can make purchases from selections of local wines, honeys and fruit preserves.
We cross a bridge to reach Hotel Mario, where the proprietor enthusiastically greets us and shows us our rooms. He's warm, animated about his reunion with Audrey and Josh, chattering in Bulgarian about random occurrences, something.
I ask Audrey and Josh about the history of the hotel, and Audrey advises me to ask the man, who the two call Mario, as he'll probably tell me every detail since its origin. Later, on Sunday morning, I do ask, and find that his name is Petar "Pesho" Dimitrov (Mario is his son), and he's had the hotel for five years. Before that, he was a architect. Surprisingly, he talks more about how "it's the people who will make a democracy, not the state. You must do it yourself", as opposed to the hotel itself.
Our short walk up the main street takes us to Mencheva Kushta, a traditional restaurant, like all in the town. Though it's not cold outside at all - we're relishing the first week of true spring weather, and remark how much further advanced the trees are in their blooming here than in Sofia - the hearth inside heartens and warms.
Firstly ordering some of the house wine, we decide to share kyupolu (mashed aubergine salad), tsarska turisha (hashed lacto-fermented vegetables, a traditional saur-type preparation) and a combinirani sach. The two describe sach as a type of meat-and-vegetable dish served sizzling on a hot clay skillet.
"If Rice-a-Roni is the San Francisco treat, then this is the Melnik treat," said Josh, an SF native.
It comes, and the proprietor instructs us: "Tryabva da oburkvaite" (you're to stir it around).
For some reason, we were talking about vacuum-cleaners, and he seems amused when I confirm that the correct word in is Bulgarian "prahocmukachka", or dust-sucker.
To accompany our second round of wine, we decided on desserts, thick house sheep-milk yoghurt topped with green-fig preserves, and homemade icecream, which tasted of honey and walnuts.
Some hours of good conversation later, we are happy enough to head off to bed.
Saturday: the vines' struggle for survival
Saturday I awake early, at about 7.45am, to a clear sunny sky and the voices of calm local chatter below my window.
"I want to live here," I think.
And Audrey was right: the wine of Melnik is a no-headache concoction.
After revelling a half hour in the non-necessity to arise and regret a cell phone alarm, I decide to explore the area, and set off on a 1.5 hour trek, up the road in the direction of the Rozhen Monastery. I hadn't planned to attain it, but simply wanted to see what was around the village. There is now a nice collection of photos of white budding trees of the Prunus genus on my camera.
I had spied a cemetery on an escarpment across the river, and resolved to visit in on the way back to the village. Crossing the ancient Rimski Most (Roman Bridge) to find the place, I walk a bit around some houses, chickens scratching around, but don't feel like traipsing through someone's fenced-off yard and turn back.
Audrey, Josh and I had agreed to meet at 11am. Someone had greeted us last night while walking to the restaurant; he turned out to be the man who would drive us around all day today. Kiril Ivanov moved to Melnik five years ago with his wife to open a guest house. Before that, he was a caller at a casino in Sandanski.
His white VW van becomes an intrepid 4x4 as we drive the village roads to Harsovo, Bulgarian popular music on the radio, quick motorings interspersed with regular unforeseen near-stops for the potholes.
Hills lined with vines, or remnants, sandy soil.
Our entrance to Harsovo is greeted with piles of rubbish on the left side of the road, and a village man standing besides a cow and her newborn calf.
Arriving in the centre, Konstadin Atanasov enthusiastically greets us. He's sitting on a bench with three other older men, chatting, enjoying the sun. You can see, feel the respect and admiration and love that the people here have for Audrey and Josh.
Atanasov, a native and again a resident of Harsovo, is the chair of the board of the grape-growing and winemaking co-operative that Audrey and Josh helped create. Among other posts, he was a former state oenology expert, and worked in countries including Tunisia and Switzerland for the company that is now Ciba.
I have been warned that he's a bit old school, preferring to talk man to man. I wonder what he'll make of a female journalist.
He decides to join us in the van and directs us to his vineyards on the outskirts of Harsovo. Along the way he points out acres of vineyards that someone recently purchased, someone not of local origin.
"This person is a robber," he says, referring to the unknown way in which the purchaser obtained enough money to purchase such a quantity of land.
"These were vineyards," he says in laborious English, pointing out scraggling vines and remnants of furrows that line the hills, "and these, and these. Now there aren't. The people are old, and can't work. Now, a robber, who got money from somewhere, came and bought the land, and makes vineyards."
Kiril drives us up some chunky dirt path to attain Konstadin's vines.
"He's great. He'd take this thing anywhere," says Audrey.
We arrive at Konstadin's family's plot of vineyards, about a kilometre out of Harsovo, on the side of a hill with a view of the late Emil Kyulev's villa. It's windy, blowing.
Asking about his background, Konstadin and I discover that we both speak French. This facilitates conversation, and he frees his mind's workings.
He shows us how the area is divided into sections: the entire vineyard area is divided among a number of people from the village, many somehow related to him. Someone owns a few rows, another owns the next few, a third the next few, and so on. And, one might have a few rows here, a few there, and a few yonder.
Konstadin is one of these. He tells us how some people don't take care of their rows, and they become just pathetic-looking rows of sticks. Also due to the neglect, disease can spread easily among the parcels of various owners.
"Few men are of the age where they can take care of the vines. They're not cultivated like they should be," he mourns.
"I don't produce wine, only grapes," he says. "There are two caves to which I sell grapes, and when I give them the grapes, those cave owners make wine with them."
Taking up a twig in his hand, he shows how the vines should be pruned, leaving only two buds on at the branch's base. He explains how, in order to make grapes suitable for good wine, the vines have to struggle, to not be lush, leafy things, but to think that they must put all their energy into their progeny - here, the grapes - in order to assure the continuation of their lifeline.
"The vine is like a lion, it fights to survive. To make it fight, we prune."
His grapes are of a high quality - 22 degrees of sugar, "which is sufficient for a nice wine".
Love for these vines shines through his eyes, as he proceeds to walk through the vineyards. He indicates spots where there should be vines, and demonstrates how he propagates new ones in their place.
"It's like this," he instructs. "You make a little hole, and take a branch and stick it in the hole. We don't do grafts here, because there are too many roots in the ground." So he takes a living branch - a cutting -, sticks it in the ground, it eventually will root and, after five to 10 years, he said, be suitable to produce wine grapes.
Numerous areas over the whole hillside have received this care of his.
His wife's sister owns some sections of the vineyard, but, as Konstantin explains, "she hasn't worked it and it's going to disappear". Like on other hillsides visible, fading vineyards remain as lines of near-brush.
In other areas, Konstadin rehabilitates these dying vines.
"Three years ago, these vines were like old, dead sticks. The first year, nothing; by the third year, grapes came."
He explains how, from each vine, three to four kg of grapes need to be produced to be profitable. He gets about 1.5 tons per decar, which is the amount necessary for vineyards.
For some reason, the varietal - Shiroka Melinishka Loza - isn't good on the market, he says.
I'm not sure why this is.
As Audrey, Josh, Konstadin and I load back into the van to return to the centre of Harsovo, Konstadin explains to me the history of the grape co-operative.
I have a hard time hearing him and writing as we jolt around over the dirt tracks that lead to the pot-holed main road.
We decide to break for lunch; Konstadin regrets not being able to invite us over, as his wife is sick. The only restaurant in town doesn't have any food, because it's not tourist season, so we have to drive to Katountsi, a town about five km away, to eat.
On the way there, Josh tells me a bit about what the objectives of the co-operative really are. He explains how the viticulturists try to sell their harvests, but often have a hard time making any money off their productions, due to price gouging by the purchasers. The co-op wants to gather together enough growers to be a collective bargaining power against the buyers.
It started in October 2004, when the growers-residents of Harsovo called a public meeting to discuss their displeasure with the prices intermediary buyers had been paying them for their grapes. It was at this meeting that Konstadin suggested forming a co-operative, says Josh, that would bargain in favour of the residents of Harsovo.
"This would protect them against bait-and-switch pricing, in which buyers advertise one price for grapes, then gradually lower it as grape producers bring their grapes to market," Josh continues. "Nineteen producers initially agreed to join. The Melnik's Vine 2005 Co-operative was registered on March 10 2005 in Blagoevgrad District Court. It has since grown to include 34 Harsovo grape growers."
This is the organisation of which Konstadin Atanasov is chair; he is joined by five board members.
Unfortunately, he continues, "the other board members are unable to take over entirely for Mr Atanasov because of the heavy demands that non-mechanised vine cultivation impose".
Having just been given the tour of Konstadin's vineyards and their care, this makes perfect sense. Nearly everything is done as it would have been 100, 150 years ago.
Audrey and Josh actually didn't meet Konstadin until August 2005, when they were in the region evaluating wine and tourism development potential with Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance Bulgaria director Aideen Mannions. Here the two Peace Corps volunteers agreed to aid the co-operative and assist in the creation of a business plan.
Josh would later tell me about Konstadin's heart attack in September 2005, at which his daughter, who lives in Holland, brought him to her for surgery and recovery, he only returning to Harsovo in February.
During this time, Harsovo's mayor Stefan Parlakov "picked up a lot of the slack", as Josh put it. Over the winter, Stefan and Josh began to work on the business plan.
About 10 minutes after leaving Harsovo, we arrive in Katountsi, and our conversation about the co-operative comes to a pause. Restaurant Doksis at the Hotel-Resort Liapchev wins our leva as the first, and possibly only, place there appears to be to eat. We choose to sit outside, as it is sunny and warm, but the wind is blowing so... And the restaurant doesn't have half of what is on the menu, and what we do order - a shopska and an ovcharska salad, fried chicken bits - turns out to be on the lower side of decent. The salads are fine, but the breaded chicken tidbits gleam like a second Exxon Valdez. Josh can barely tolerate it. We soon escape.
Back in Harsovo, we meet Konstadin and decide to sit at the one cafe in town and discuss. The cafe is closed between 1pm and 3pm; we arrive at about 2pm. No matter, we take advantage of the empty tables outside. At about 2.30pm the owners re-open and the denizens gradually return.
This discussion is important for Josh, because Konstadin and he need to decide on steps to take for the business plan, for the future of the co-operative. They mostly discuss in Bulgarian; I catch about 70 per cent of it; it seems to be going in circles, much due to Konstadin's stubborn old-school personality.
I take advantage of this to ask Konstadin again about what he had been telling me in the jolting van ride. It concerns a formerly common-use village distillery for the residents of Harsovo to distill their own rakias. It had been seized, like many of the other buildings, due to a decree about 10-15 years ago that property must return to its original owner, he says.
It had been necessary to prepare documents to obtain these soon-to-be restored properties, he continues, but they didn't have the money to prepare them. Now, the mayor of Sandanski has ultimate control over the town's distillery's fate.
Konstadin mentions that the mayor of Sandanski wants to put the distillery up for auction. This, he says, is part of why they formed the co-operative. In the 1930s, there had been another grape co-operative, this one with power, which not only controlled the distillery, but also common bread ovens, a cellar and some other area buildings.
In 1948, after the creation of VinProm, these were given over to the state, and the state took control of the co-operative.
In 1959, the numerous small co-operatives in the area made "a big step", he says. They joined together to form a large one based in Sandanski. Now, Sandanski has governance over the former Harsovo co-operative's buildings.
Konstadin takes a break here to show me the house where the original Kooperatsia Melnishka Loza saw its creation. It's an agreeable, somewhat run-down, smaller classical-style building with a plaque on it commemorating the founding. I am moved.
"There are a lot of obstacles that hinder us. I wanted to inform Strasbourg, but I got sick," he says, referring to the European Union and to his September heart attack.
His current goal is to go to surrounding villages - Lozenitsa, Melnik, Vinogradi - and rally up support and members for the new grape-growing co-operative. He wants to find a lawyer to go to the state archives and find the original documents of the 1932 incorporation.
"When we get together seven people, per Bulgarian law, we can restart the 1932 co-op," he insists. This is his dream, his purpose, to restore and make flourish something that will continue that to which he has given his entire life: grapes.
"I want to, until I'm no longer alive, have this co-operative." He sighs. Says to Josh: "This is very difficult, captain."
The people are old, he says; they can't do much for the co-operative. He avers that when the locals can come together and form an fruit and vegetables association, they can receive subsidies from Brussels, and survive.
During his fervent discourse, another older local man has joined us, sits listening to Josh and Konstadin, keeps inviting us to his house to drink some of his wine.
Konstadin seems annoyed.
Audrey, Josh, Kiril our driver and I go with the man. Konstadin stays at the cafe. He has to visit with a cousin of his who has also stopped by.
We arrive at the house. The man has introduced himself as Kiril Simeonov Dimitrov, and has lived his whole life in Harsovo, growing grapes and making wine, among other work.
Kiril prods us into the foyer, into the kitchen, insists that we sit at the table: on chairs that he drags up, not on the two beds that side the table, which look to be the typical place for seating. Taking some random glasses from the counter, he rinses them out, sets them on the table before us. Searches out two little pitchers, a jar of canned beef that his snaha (daughter-in-law) made. He fills the pitchers with his wine - a red and a white - and gimps back to the table, insists on pouring our tumblers to the brim. I try to desist, begging only a half glass - "I'm small; I want to try both the red and the white" - to no avail.
He goes to the sink and washes dust off the jar of beef. Audrey, Josh and I eye each other, wondering if and how we're to eat home-canned meat. I've read enough Joy of Cooking to have ideas about the pathogens that could be harboured in this concoction. Cookbooks recommend boiling for 20 minutes before consumption.
Fwomp, fwomp goes the meat, as it suctions out onto the two plates. We eye each other again.
Kiril plomps down the plates on the table, sets out four forks: we're guests; he won't eat any. Cautiously we try the meat; it's tender, tasty, in a, per me, delicious beef-broth jelly. We're still alive, so fears of bacteria prove needless.
"Nasdrave!" we cheer.
Kiril's wine is amazing: fresh like a natural product should be, not manufactured-tasting. It looks somewhat thin, and we are deceived. Lush, a tad sweet, fruitful nose, a perfect balance of coarse and soft. I mark in my notebook that the white is "dancing".
I think we're all surprised.
He makes the white from a mixture of the cepages Brestovitsa, Keretsuda and Chaoush, and the red from Rubin and Merlot.
The Kirils somehow discover that our driver knows the daughter of our host. The latter becomes teary as he talks about his family.
He insists that we drink more, finish the meat. He looks worn, older than his 60-some years. Life here has not been easy. We appreciate his hospitality.
As we drive out of Harsovo at about 4.30pm, we pass by the cafe. Konstadin is still there, discoursing, insisting, dreaming.
Back in Melnik, the sun shines warm, and the wind is almost non-existent.
We three Californians decide to wander about the village a bit. As we do so, people greet Audrey and Josh, express their pleasure at seeing them again, ask about the project, life.
Climbing up a hill takes us to Shestaka Izbata, run by winemaker Mitko Manolev. Josh greets Mitko, and wants to talk with him about desires and plans to increase viticultural tourism in the area, something that Mitko would like to do, but the man is busy with other customers, and we take a seat on a split-log bench overlooking the valley.
"I think that his wine is my favourite," says Audrey.
People have climbed to the top of one of the cliffs across the valley, and we debate doing the same. Audrey and Josh tell me about the ruins of an old church and a fortress. I'd like to see them, but am tired. Maybe tomorrow.
Instead, Josh takes me to the Kordopoulov House, which is now a house-museum. The four-storey building was constructed in 1754 for the wine merchant Manol Kordopoulov in the Revival style of the era. I admire its beautiful tile-decorated ceilings and curious-shaped fireplace hoods..
Josh is debating to which restaurant we should go for dinner, and decides on "the good one". I'm glad that he hasn't decided on a possible bad one, whatever that may be.
His choice turns out to be Mehana Aleksova Kushta, another smallish, traditional-style restaurant.
Audrey soon joins us, and we proceed to order the house red, a salata snezhanka, a salata tikvichka c kiselo mlyako (grilled courgettes in garlicky yoghurt), an order of chicken hearts, and braised lamb.
The dishes arrive Bulgarian-style, when they're ready, and we share. He's right; it is good. Josh and I are both excited about the kidney that comes with the meltingly tender, somewhat shredded lamb.
I hone my drawing skills by sketching a traditional-style house in my notebook, and am probably overly pleased when it turns out resembling its model. Ah, simple pleasures.
Stimulating discussions, heartening food, blessed wine.
We decide to return to Hotel Mario, and share a bottle. The bottled stuff isn't as good - maybe, not as real, down-to-earth and complexly simple - as what we've drunk from pitchers.
Sunday: finding the right path
Sunday morning I again awake early, at about 8am. Shining sun, but I know it will be cool, and remember my gloves.
I decide to climb the facing hill, and go ask Hotel Mario's Petar for directions to a path. He says something about after the third bridge, I take a right between some traditional-style houses, and will see a path. I also think: "All the houses in Melnik are traditional".
He proceeds to effuse about the things to see on top of the cliffs, about the frescoes in the ruined medieval church.
I set off, pass the third bridge and take a right. And don't see a path. And wander. And ask. And don't see. And wander. And ask. And someone says that it's by the church (the one that is currently in use, not the medieval one). I return to the church, and decide that seeing a few empty water bottles and crumpled tissues in brush on the side of the hill is enough of a path for me.
It is a path, as the plants do not exist on this narrow strip of dirt. Still. I'm climbing, hands on the ground, grasping at branches, hoping they'll hold, boosting myself up ledges using rocks as footholds.
"This cannot be the path," I think. I become hot, and remove my jacket, but don't want to remove my gloves because of all the scratchy plants.
Eventually, my "path" crosses with a main path - one wider than 20cm - and I proceed to the top of the hill, no longer afraid of falling off a precipice.
The first ruin I see is of the 12th-century St Nicholas Monastery, out on a promontory over another valley.
Because I'm up there, I decide to see everything from one side of the hilltop to the other. The walk to an older - but not old, not in ruins - chapel on another promontory is pleasant, lined with spring flowers that I love: muscari.
At the ruins of the church with the frescoes, I climb on one of the walls and take a picture of my shadow.
Attaining the ruined 13th-/14th-century Slav fortress on the opposite end of the hilltop, I am becoming tired and decide to take the clear path down the hillside. It's easy and quick and dumps me into the village, right next to the current church, where it should have been originally. I don't know how I missed it.
Audrey, Josh and I congregate on the verandah of the hotel's restaurant again at 11am. As our bus to Sandanski doesn't come till about 12.45pm, there is time to grill them about what exactly their involvement is in the Melnik wine world.
Actually, the bus passes through Melnik on the way to Rozhen Monastery at about 12.30pm. We'll catch it on its return trip, thus, the time is only approximate. It arrives at 1.08pm. No problem, as we arrive in Sandanski with five minutes before the 2pm bus to Sofia.
The ride home passes with talking, reading, looking out the windows, planning a future get-together.
Josh would like to stay in Bulgaria after their Peace Corps contract ends in June to work for a few months with the co-operative. This, of course, depends on visas and his still-unknown plans for the autumn.
As to Audrey, she will be returning to California to begin a journalism job, and will also study linguistics and Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the University of San Francisco. She will continue working on the project from there.
And as to Melnik, the area's wine, and the young co-operative, the only thing we can really do is hope that it will not become misled or lost with the arrival of the European Union, that dreams will succeed.
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