Traditions Bulgaria

WHAT IS DZHULAYA?

How often do you hum, while driving or doing chores, Uriah Heep's song July Morning? Is it on your Spotify? The answers are probably "never" and "no." Uriah Heep was an English rock band that was formed in 1969, named after Charles Dickens's infamous character. It did make a name for itself in the 1970s, but remained largely unknown.

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LET'S PICK SOME ROSES

Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places. Here, in the so-called Valley of Roses, the pink, rather unremarkable Rosa damascena blooms in May and early June, filling the early morning air with its thick, dizzying aroma.

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KUKERI AND THEIR DANCES

From Venice to Rio, carnivals are a time honoured tradition to celebrate the end of winter with a riot of noise and dance, with masks and a temporary subversion of established social roles. The Bulgarian version is the kukeri dances.

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WALKING ON FIRE

One of the emblematic sights associated with Bulgaria is a group of barefoot men and women clad in traditional village costumes dancing over live embers. This is nestinarstvo, or firewalking, a supposedly Christian rite, where firewalkers dance themselves into a trance and eschew the perils of fire.

Now firewalking is performed at tourist locations and even in restaurants, but the only place to see the real thing is in the village of Balgari in the Strandzha. It happens on the night of 3 June, the high day of Ss Constantine and Helena.

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BULGARIA'S TRADITIONS

When Bulgarians worry about the influence of globalisation on their culture, the preservation of their traditions is one of their main concerns. While it is true that some of the rites that are a part of life in Bulgaria have been affected by globalisation and mass culture, this is hardly the first time when they have been threatened with extinction. 

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THE GIRLS OF RIBNOVO

They call it the Valley of Pink Pants. But this affectionate nickname of a toponym refers to just one village, set inside a pocket of the western Rhodope: Ribnovo. Ribnovo sits at 1,152 metres above sea level, but this is not the only reason for its image as a bit of a fortress and a destination for the culturally curious. As a friend put it before we visited: Ribnovo is another planet. He was from Breznitsa, a toned-down version of Ribnovo, right across the Mesta Valley, so he should know.

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POSTCARD FROM ELENA

"First we waited for the British tourists, then we waited for the Russians and now we are waiting for the Romanians." This was how, a decade ago, a guesthouse owner summed up the hopes and disappointments of small-time entrepreneurs in Elena, a town in the Stara Planina mountain range, about 40 kms from Veliko Tarnovo. Back in those days, EU-funded development of "green" initiatives and rural tourism was all the rage in Bulgaria, especially in economically struggling areas.

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BULGARIA'S DONKEYS

When was the last time you saw a donkey when travelling in rural Bulgaria? For many, Bulgarians included, this is a pointless question. The sight of a grey or brown donkey quietly grazing or pulling a cart is taken for granted in this nation's countryside, both as a charming relic of the past and as a sign that many people in EU-member Bulgaria are still too poor and/or too old to afford farm machinery or cars.

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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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YAMBOL'S MUMMERS

Situated in the plains in southeastern Bulgaria Yambol is generally off any tourist map. Few Bulgarians would visit unless they have grandparents or friends living in one of the most depressed post-Communist cities in the country. Except for a weekend in late February/early May when the town host Kukerlandia, when a major festival of mummers attracts national and, increasingly, international interest and participation.

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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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DAY OF FLOWERS

Palm Sunday in Bulgaria, which is on 24 April this year according to the Eastern Orthodox Church, is an event that offers a glimpse of yet another contradiction in society, between half-forgotten traditions, religion and pure joie de vivre.

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WILLOW SUNDAY OR FLOWER DAY

If your first visit to Bulgaria happens during the Sunday before Easter, a curious sight will attract your attention: long, patient queues form in front of churches in busy cities, quiet villages and popular monasteries. People wait until they eventually reach a table where a priest – sometimes solemn, but usually indifferent – distributes bunches of willow twigs.

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CHIPROVTSI'S CARPETS

A smiling man offering to sell you a traditional carpet supposedly woven by his old mother herself – everyone who has been to any part of the Middle East has met the omnipresent "genuine" rug dealer.

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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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WHAT IS BOZA?

Foreigners in Bulgaria love Shopska salad and banitsa, and many are filled with strong emotions at the smell of tripe soup with lots of garlic and chilli peppers. But if there is an item of the local cuisine which arouses unanimous suspicious among Westerners, it is boza.

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ST GEORGE'S DAY IN POMORIE

Small, insignificant, yet packed with tourists in summer but empty in winter, Pomorie changes completely on 6 May. Then, the townsfolk flock to St George's Monastery, on the outskirts of town, to celebrate the feast of its patron saint.

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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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14 FEBURARY DILEMMA

The question "What to do on St Valentine's Day?" can be frustrating. For those in a relationship, there is the what-to-buy-this-year horror, while for some singles there is the feeling of loneliness. The anti-globalists become incensed at the heart-shaped mania that is taking over the world and the cynics point to the billions of dollars generated by the sales of romantic lingerie, chocolate and holidays. It is hard to deny that most of the red or pink trivia sold everywhere before 14 February – plus the music on the radio and the movies on the TV – are outrageously kitschy.

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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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