Are you the type of traveler who is constantly seeking new adventures and off-beat experiences? Do dynamic festivals featuring local culture, albeit sometimes bizarre traditions, pique your interest? Then the Kukeri festival in Bulgaria, which involves masks, monsters, and a lot of fun, might be just the event to plan your next vacation around. Although traditionally celebrated over the New Year, Kukeri festivals take place various times from early winter to midwinter throughout Bulgaria, so make sure to plan your trip accordingly.
History of the Kukeri Festival
Kukeri, pronounced “koo-kuh-ree,“ is a centuries-old tradition intended to chase evil spirits away. This tradition is believed to have roots in ancient worshipers of Dionysus. According to legend, hundreds of years ago, the region was plagued with evil spirits that tortured people, the worst of them being the plague. Scaring the monsters away with elaborate costumes and high-frequency bells was the solution.
Men and boys, and increasingly women and girls, dress up in elaborate costumes to portray the Kukeri monsters. They are deck out in animal skins and furs with bells tied around their waist and wear masks decorated with different fabrics, mirrors, sequins, and other elements. The costumes are intended to be as ugly as possible to scare away other monsters. In addition to the costumes, large bells are tied around the waist and play a significant role in the festival. These magic bells each have different frequencies, which were originally thought to each scare away a different evil spirit.
Originally, groups of Kukeri monsters would go door-to-door and perform dances in front of hosts. Today, however, it is more traditional to perform and bigger festivals and organized events. In addition to the dancing and performances, other mythological creatures were used to teach morals to children. The dancers are also believed to be welcoming fertility for people, animals, and agriculture, including a good harvest.
When and Where to Go
So when exactly does the Kukeri festival take place and where are the best places to experience the festival?
The largest Kukeri festival in Bulgaria is called the Surva Festival, which takes place in Pernik, about 30 miles outside of Sofia. Surva is a three-day midwinter festival involving a competition between Kukeri groups from around the country. This iteration of the celebration takes place at the end of January or the beginning of February to celebrate the passing of winter and the onset of summer fertility. This extends back to more ancient times when the Thracians ruled this region and Kukeri was celebrated as an agricultural new year. Pernik has been hosting Surva since 1966 and attracts participants and spectators from all around the world.
Small villages around Bansko and Razlog, which sit at the foot of the Pirin mountains in southwestern Bulgaria, celebrate Kukeri on January 1st, keeping in line with the tradition of it being a new year festival. In yet another mountain village, known as Shiroka Laka, the celebration takes place at the beginning of March to the backdrop of mountain peaks. Here, the Kukeri monsters walk around and try to touch bystanders with hands covered in ash.
What to Expect
Bulgaria is a largely rural country and the villages where Kukeri rituals take place are often remote. For a less daunting experience, the Surva festival is easier to access and will showcase a diverse array of folk traditions. However, for the daring and adventurous, consider renting a car and drive between the small towns to explore the various displays of the Kukeri celebrations complete with fantastical masks that you won’t soon forget.
Stay at local hotels and guesthouses to maximize the authenticity of your experience, perhaps even hiring a local guide to learn a little bit more about the history of the festival while there. The mountainous landscape should provide the perfect backdrop to your winter wonderland trip experiencing ancient and mythical traditions of the Balkans.