The Shipka Memorial Church is the most beautiful church in Bulgaria that you’ve probably never heard of (or at least never visited). It’s easy to miss compared to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral that is conspicuously located in the heart of downtown Sofia. Nestled discreetly in a small grove of trees at the foothills of the Central Balkan mountains, I had driven by it three or four times before I even realized it was there. One time, on the way from the Shipka Pass to the nearby town of Kazanlak, I saw one of the church’s shiny golden domes peeking out of the trees in my rear-view mirror.
If you give a Bulgarian man some grapes, he’ll want to make wine. After he drinks the wine, he’ll want to use the pressed and fermented remains of the grapes to make a traditional brandy called rakia. This is easily the most famous cliché about Bulgaria, but in my experience it’s not that far from the truth.
And so I found myself pitting plums in a remote village one Saturday afternoon this summer, taking part in a long tradition of fermenting grapes in Bulgaria. With last year’s wine nearly finished, we were starting the preparations for this year’s rakia.
Much of modern-day Bulgaria and Northern Greece was inhabited by loosely organized Thracian tribes during the first millennium or so before Christ. Legend has it that they have made wine along the banks of the Maritsa river for the last 5,000 years. The ancient Greek poet Homer partially corroborates this in his epics written around 800 BCE. From The Iliad:
Prepare a feast for your councillors; it is right and reasonable that you should do so; there is abundance of wine in your tents, which the ships of the Achaeans bring from Thrace daily.
In The Odyssey Homer even describes the hero Odysseus using “sweet black wine” from the Thracian city of Maroneia to escape being torn limb from limb and eaten by the one-eyed Cyclops named Polyphemus.
Now, at least 3,000 years later, the Katarzyna Estate winery continues the Thracian tradition by making its wine just a stone’s throw from the Maritsa river in Svilengrad, Southeast Bulgaria.