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!

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.