Religion

WHO WERE CYRIL AND METHODIUS?

The image of two men, one young and sporting a dark beard and the other older and white-bearded, with books and parchments in their hands, are to be found all over Bulgaria. There are countless statues and posters, church murals and icons. Their images multiply on 24 May, when long processions of students crowd the central streets of every city carrying posters, usually decorated with flowers.

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EASTER IN RILA MONASTERY

The chatter of the small group of people at the gate of Rila Monastery in the cold spring evening is of the sort you can hear anywhere and anytime: hellos, how-do-you-dos, smalltalk, but neither the place, nor the people nor the occasion are ordinary. Monks in habits, practicing Eastern Orthodox Christians and a couple of clueless foreign tourists are gathered at the gate of Bulgaria's most revered monastery and most visited UNESCO-site long after business hours to wait for a car to arrive.

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RHODOPE'S 'SACRED TRIANGLE'

Triangles fascinate the imagination. Throughout history, the geometric shape defined by Euclides as three points that do not lie on the same line has been laden with religious and spiritual symbolism. It has also been connected to topography, such as the Egyptians pyramids, the so-called ley lines, and the Bermuda triangle, supposedly marking energy vortices.

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HOLY MOTHER OF GOD FROM... HASKOVO

The statues that adorn Bulgarian squares, streets and historical sites represent this nation's modern history in miniature, but not always in the way their creators intended. Monuments built in 1878-1944 are elegant and relatively small in scale, in the best traditions of realism. Communism was the time of gigantic monstrosities of exposed concrete and steel that tended to symbolise the Communist Party's grip over society rather than evoke patriotic feelings. In the 1990s, few monuments were erected in Bulgaria: times were hard, and there was no money to spend on basics, let alone statues.

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BULGARIA'S VILLAGE CHURCHES

At the heart of traditional villages with old houses or in drab Communist-era developments fighting depopulation, village churches dot the Bulgarian countryside and offer a variety of stimulating experiences. Some were built centuries ago and others are newer. Some are covered with masterpieces of church art and other were decorated by self-taught artists. Some are museums and other still serve their communities. Some offer proof of strange rituals or important events in their parishes and keep alive the memory of the times when the now empty villages bustled with life.

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CATHOLIC BULGARIA

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union. Bulgaria had just freed itself from two centuries of Byzantine domination and actively sought international recognition of its political and religious independence. Even by the standards of medieval communications Kaloyan was slow to respond. He wrote back to the pope three years later, when it emerged that the Byzantine emperor would not recognise him as king.

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BULGARIAN EASTER

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Easter in Bulgaria, which this year falls on 28 April, is one of the best times to get to know the country and its culture. The weather is generally good, spring is in full bloom and travelling outside the big cities is a pleasure.

To make the best of the Bulgarian Easter, you should have some understanding of how do Bulgarians celebrate it.

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VILLAGE WHOSE CHURCH STAYS OPEN

The villages in Bulgaria that are abuzz with life are generally located around cities in the plains, like those surrounding Plovdiv. Their houses were mostly built after the 1960s, so more often than not they do not offer much for the curious visitor to see, besides the ubiquitous memorial to some local Communist and a few stalls with fresh homegrown produce.

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CRAZY EPIPHANY

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? You may not, as it was so long ago, way back in 2014, but if you are in Bulgaria around the 6 January, you might think that for some obscure reason this peculiar nation enjoys excruciating challenges featuring icy water. It is all over the media and probably in your city, village, or neighbourhood: swarms of young men in swimming trunks jumping into a river, lake or even the sea. In one particular town, called Kalofer, they even dance the Horo, waist-deep in a freezing river.

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STARA ZAGORA'  S MUSEUM OF RELIGIONS

The Romans believed that some places are inhabited and protected by their own spirit, a Genius loci, and consequently filled all the corners of their empire with altars and reliefs dedicated to these entities. The belief in Genii loci is no more, but if these spirits were real, one of them would definitely call a certain location in central Stara Zagora its own. For millennia, nations and religious have come and gone, and yet generations of people have continuously used a particular place as a sacred location.

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FLOWER POWER: WHY PALM SUNDAY IS ONE OF BULGARIA'S MOST POPULAR FEASTS

Welcome to Tsvetnitsa, or Flower Day, one of Bulgaria's most beloved times of the year.

Tsvetnitsa – or Vrabnitsa, Willow Day, – is the local name for Palm Sunday, the feast celebrating Jesus's entry into Jerusalem. Early in the morning, priests all over Bulgaria bless branches of willow – a regional substitute for the palm branches laid on the streets of Jerusalem in the New Testament story. Then they distribute them to churchgoers throughout the day; it is believed that having at least one branch of blessed willow at home will protect the household from all evil.

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FOR WHOM THE FIREWORKS BLAZE

Midnight was approaching, but for the moment it seemed that Easter would never come. On the top of the hill, in front of the church whose silhouette is known to every tourist in this country, a priest was well into a long and tedious sermon on faith, the importance of unification, and a bit of current (meaning 2016) politics, and he showed no signs of being near the end.

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HELL IS NO JOKE

The architecture? The silver-haloed icons of the Virgin Mary? The elaborate carvings of the icon doors? These may all be astonishing, but have you noticed the river of fire, on the outside western wall of most of the churches, flowing towards the gaping mouth of a dragon-like monster? Have you bent to see in detail the devils in the flames? Have you wondered what were the crimes of the sinners they torture?

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SOZOPOL'S FEAST OF ST NICHOLAS

When the summer is over and the last visitors for the year have gone, Sozopol quickly returns to its former life as a quiet fishing town. The hotels are boarded up, the restaurants are closed and the streets are empty. In itself, this is an incredible sight, especially if you've seen what Sozopol looks like in August. In wintertime, salty wind blows along the empty seaside promenades, and the voices echoing between the traditional houses in the old quarter belong not to the guests of the many B&Bs, but to their elderly inhabitants.

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MOVABLE EASTER

Last year, an early-April trip to Poland provided an interesting insight into the calendar system. Heavy snow still covered the streets and temperatures were unusually low, causing concerns about climate change and the well-being of the storks who had already returned, only to find frozen fields and lakes deprived of any food. In Poland, as well as in the Catholic and Protestant parts of the world, Easter had already been celebrated at the very end of March, and Easter bunnies made of snow were still sitting in the gardens of some creative people.

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BRAVING EPIPHANY

To be a man in Kalofer, a town of less than 3,000 inhabitants, is hard. Squeezed between the slopes of the Stara Planina mountains, Kalofer was supposedly founded by a legendary hothead brigand, Kalifer Voyvoda, and his men. There were so few women around that they had to steal brides from nearby Sopot. The hilly terrain was never good enough to allow them to do more than scrape a living (though the melons are still excellent) and shepherds had to cope with both wolves and dangerous precipices to keep their flocks alive.

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