Traditions Bulgaria

TIME FOR RAKIYA

If you have at least one Bulgarian friend and they have still not treated you to home-made rakiya, there are two possible explanations. They are sick – too sick to drink. Else there must be something very wrong with your relationship.

Rakiya is one of the national beverages of Bulgaria and the home-made stuff is held in the highest esteem. In fact most Bulgarian only drink mass produced rakiya in restaurants or when their home-made variety runs out.

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IF ORPHEUS PLAYED BAGPIPES

The Rhodope, some insist, are the mountains where Orpheus roamed, charming all things living and non-living with the magical music of his lyre. If that mythical hero were to reappear, he would surely play the bagpipes.

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WALKING ON FIRE

The unusual, almost Native American-like drum rhythm and the bagpipe tunes echo over the silent crowd, gathered around a large circle of live embers glowing into the night. All eyes are on a tiny group of barefoot men and women in traditional clothes, who dance slowly at the edge of the circle, holding icons.

"They are in trance," says one of the onlookers.

"No, they are afraid," whispers another.

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TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE

When the tide of expats flowed into Bulgaria about ten years ago, the newcomers discovered that they weren't the first foreigner to arrive, settle down and feel comfortable in the country following the collapse of Communism. At that time, Eastern Orthodox Bulgaria had already welcomed another vagabond; St Valentine, the Roman Catholic patron saint of romantic love. It was not a big deal, in fact, as all around the world, regardless of their religion, people celebrate their love with chocolates, red satin hearts and teddy bears.

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THE TIME OF THE KUKERI

A mediaeval fortress known to only a handful of people and a completely unknown museum of mining – Pernik's tourist landmarks wouldn't exactly justify a detour from the main road to Thessaloniki or Skopje. What's more, this town of 80,000 is known for certain quirks more likely to put off rather than attract. The local driving culture has become a generic name for the no-holds-barred, catch-me-if-you-can manner in which Pernik drivers use their old Volkswagens as offensive weapons. The townscape of this mining community is dominated by deserted smelters and slag heaps.

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SAINT TRIFON WHO?

No matter where you are – Los Angeles, London, Paris, Moscow, Bangkok or Tokyo – 14 February is celebrated in the same way. Crossing cultural and religious boundaries, Valentine's Day everywhere includes red hearts, chocolate, champagne and Mariah Carey singing "Without You."

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MERRY CHRISTMAS IN A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

RETURN TO CHRISTMAS PAST

Fiona Williams shares memories and a good English Christmas dish

A graduate in archaeology and ancient history, a teacher of English as a foreign language and a Montessori nursery school teacher, Fiona Williams has been in Sofia for just over a year with her husband, Steve, the British Ambassador to Bulgaria. While expecting their two daughters and son to join them for the holiday season, Fiona will be hanging up the Christmas stockings that she bought here 24 years ago.

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GET BORN, GET DEAD

In Bulgaria they hang dead people on trees, not to mention walls, doors and, in particular, on the gate of their former home. Not literally, you understand, although my five-year-old daughter is inclined to believe otherwise. These necrologs are sheets of paper each depicting the deceased and mostly set out in a standard format. The word is derived from the Greek necro meaning dead or death. Uniquely, the first of these paeans to the dead to be posted does not include a photograph, there being a set period of 40 days before it is deemed correct to include one.

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IT'S ALL IN THE NAME

Anyone spending even a short time in Bulgaria will notice that sometimes the locals start acting strangely. They queue to buy carp. They slaughter lambs. They jump naked into rivers in the coldest of winters. They make queer concoctions. They begin hitting the booze at noon on a workday. And they don't worry about getting fired, because their bosses are drinking along.

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FIRE WALKERS

It's nighttime on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, not far from the Turkish border, and the glowing circle of wood coals on the beach is like a miniature sun. An old woman in a red-and-white gown holds aloft a battered Orthodox icon depicting a man and woman. Her face in rapture, her feet bare as she stands inches away from the burning embers, she tells the story of the nestinari.

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WANTING TO DO THE HAJJ, BUT ENDING UP WITH A HADZH INSTEAD

A cross from Jerusalem or a phial of water from the Jordan: these are the most likely souvenirs from the Holy Land that you will get if a Bulgarian friend of yours goes to Jerusalem for Easter. Whatever feelings you may have about such kinds of presents, bear in mind that you should congratulate the one who gives them to you with Chestito hadzhiystvo and address him at least once with "hadzhi".

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ST VALENTINE VERSUS ST TRIFON ZAREZAN

You may not particularly like Bulgarian streets because of their narrow pavements, missing flagstones and parked cars, but you will probably not notice these shortcomings on 14 February. Shops and pubs are decorated with hearts and pink balloons, women are more beautiful than usual and young people are kissing on every corner.

And then you encounter a group of Bulgarians who are obviously slightly tipsy. The mixed company loudly praises Trifon Zarezan. Several yards further you come across a baffling scene.

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