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How To Celebrate Surva In Pernik, Bulgaria

How To Celebrate Surva In Pernik, Bulgaria

My first impressions of Pernik, a post-industrial mining town situated just thirty kilometres out of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, are not very inspiring; large, abandoned warehouses and old Eastern Block apartment towers are pretty much all we see as the traffic crawls towards the town. Crowds of people have already discarded their cars and are marching along through the cold weather. We follow suit, ignoring the traffic police and finding an empty space to park on a bit of wasteland, not yet feeling the carnival atmosphere we’d been expecting.

But as we walk closer, passing lines of parked-up coaches and stragglers making last-minute amendments to their costumes, we suddenly hear traditional Bulgarian music being played out with the intermingling of what we later find out are the clattering of cow bells. When we turn the corner, the imposing Communist-style buildings that surround the centre’s square fade into the background, and we cram into place alongside thousands of people assembling for the procession.

Folklore rituals are alive and dancing, loudly!

It seems we have officially landed in Surva, the International Festival of the Masquerade Games, celebrated by thousands of performers from all over Bulgaria, the Balkans and — in more recent years — the rest of the international world. It’s the biggest of its kind and has been hosted in Pernik, Surva’s European capital, since 1965. However, the original roots of this Pagan festival date back to Thracian times where the Kukeri Ritual Games were held in tribute to the god, Dionysus. Luckily for us, their ancient customs and folklore are still being honoured for us all to partake in today.

The noise of the cowbells becomes deafening as most of the performers seem to be laden with huge, brass or copper bells hanging off their waists which they bang with sticks, or do an overly-animated jiggle so they’re used with maximum effect alongside their ritual dancing. And it’s not just their bells that make up their outfits: the predominantly male Kukers are elaborately dressed in colourful, handmade costumes with horned headdresses or decorative masks made from feathers, beads, sheepskin, beads and ribbons.

International Festival of the Masquerade Games in Pernik, Bulgaria

Masks play an important role in this custom and usually represent animals such as goats, bulls or rams, with some having two sides of a face characterising the co-existence of good and evil, the grotesque and the picturesque. Designed according to the ethnographic regions to honour the cycles of life, death and rebirth, the colours of red (fertility, sun and fire), black (Mother Earth) and white (water and light) have an important symbolic connection with the spirits. To touch a mask is considered good luck and offers protection for the coming year.

You can read the rest of this article over at Indie Travel Podcast