The tiny town of Melnik is famous for its red wine and its for its singular perch high in the Pirin Mountains, encircled by eerie sandstone cones. A former Greek outpost, Melnik today numbers less than 300 inhabitants, down from a whopping 20,000 in 1880. Its precipitous decline was probably the result of a blight that attacked the vineyards and a certain amount of ethnic cleansing.

It was standing room only on the bus from Sandanski to Melnik, and we were jammed in the narrow aisle with our big backpacks. When the family behind us got up to leave, two elderly gentlemen swiftly hoisted our packs onto their laps--just one of many random acts of kindness that sweetened our days in Bulgaria.

On the bus we met Rada, who offered us in room in her home, up a narrow path at the top of a hill overlooking Melnik. We had only begun unpacking when plates of food began arriving on the doorstep-heaping bowls of purple grapes, figs, cantaloup, peaches, apples, feta cheese and homemade bread!

Left: The best place to enjoy "Melnik red" is the wine cellar of M. Manolev, cut into the side of a mountain at the top of the town.

Right: Our room at Baba Rada's comes with a very small and high-speed striped kitten named "Divi." He introduces us to Rada's neighbor Stefana, who may be an oracle, and who is on a first-name basis with every life form in the Rozhenski Dal.

Stefana renames us "Marianna" and "Keef," and invites us to visit the church of St. Atanas. An unimposing pile of rubble from the outside, the inside is pure romantic fantasy. Frescoes portray the interior of a mansion, right down to columns and lace curtains, and the iconostasis is a riot or floral motifs and winged cherubs.

"Hajde! Hajde!" Stefana calls early the next morning, and we set out on another hike up Sveti Nikola hill. Along the way, she tells me that when she sits under a low canopy of trees, "the slavej (swallows) sing, while the kateritse (squirrels) listen and pray."

Left: We visit the ruins of Sveti Nikola (9th-10th c.), the Slavovata Krepost (fortress), the monasteries of Sveti Haralampiy and Sveta Bogoroditsa.

Right: Behind Sveta Zona Chapel, Stefana gathers "bodem" (almonds) that taste of burnt chocolate.

We can only say good-bye to Stefana and Melnik by promising that we will return again next year ...

The next morning, we hike up Rozhenski Dal and over the ridge to Rozhen Monastery, and return by the road, passing through the tiny village of Karlanovo.

We can only say good-bye to Stefana and Melnik by promising that we will return again next year ...