Bulgaria is hardly on the list of the world's most famous carnival destinations such as Rio, Venice and New Orleans, and even less famous local ones such as the carnivals in Greece. Its distinctive kukeri, or mummers, dances are not always performed at the beginning of Lent, when carnivals are generally held.
A city in the Stara Planina mountains fills the gap: Gabrovo, a place famed for the locals' quirky sense of humour and telltale frugality.
Unlike its more famous sisters, Gabrovo's carnival does not celebrate the beginning of Lent. It takes place during the third weekend of May. It is part of the International Festival of Humour and Satire, organised by the Gabrovo city council and the town's own House of Humour and Satire, probably the only museum in the world dedicated to... fun. It is in fact part museum, part gallery packed with cartoons, art and sheer buffoonery located in a weird, cold space that is all marble and 1970s architecture.
Gabrovo's carnival starts when the mayor cuts the tail of a Gabrovo cat, a nod to the lore claiming that frugal locals used to cut off their cats' tails to save heat when the animal would enter or leave the house (no cat is harmed in this ritual). The Gabrovo cat is also the carnival's mascot and can be seen all over on logos and promotional materials.
"We want a metro in Gabrovo!," "We want school for astronauts!," "We want a public bathhouse!": a troupe mocks Gabrovo citizens
The carnival procession lasts for several hours on Gabrovo's central street, and includes floats, groups of masked children from the town and the countryside, brass bands, guests from abroad and individual participants like the elderly couple who never miss a carnival and each year appear in different attire.
Gabrovo's carnival has deep roots. Its former name Oleliynya is a tongue twister even for a Bulgarian. In the 19th century it used to be celebrated at the beginning of Lent. It included Bulgarian traditions such as bingeing on sweet and fatty foods, and dancing a horo when everyone was allowed to ignore the established rules that strictly regulated which people of what sex, age group or marital status could dance together. After 1878, when Gabrovo became a powerhouse of Bulgarian industry and European influence intensified, Western traditions were introduced. Ordinary citizens would participate in a carnival procession, and the city elite would attend masked balls.
The Communist coup of 1944 put an end to Oleliynya. Bulgaria's new rulers were unapologetically anti-bourgeois and anti-religious, and they were definitely short of a sense of humour and self-irony. They took life too seriously. Everyone in the early days of Communist Bulgaria was supposed to follow suit. In the new Bulgarian society there was no place for carnivals with their frivolity, their lax approach to established mores and their penchant for satirising the powerful of the day. The citizens of Gabrovo had to keep their tongues strictly in their cheeks.
In 2019, when the carnival's theme was Masks Up!, former deputy leader of GERB, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, was mocked for buying a suspiciously cheap luxury apartment
It took the people of Gabrovo 20 years to revive their carnival. In 1965, when the regime felt more securely in power and had somewhat mellowed, the carnival returned to town. Officially, and in line with the propaganda of the times, the event was restored by a group of young workers but there were some crucial differences. The revived carnival was on a new date that had nothing to do with religion and the old traditions. Satire was allowed as long as no one made fun of the Communist Party.
Nevertheless, the event became extremely popular as, like a true carnival, it served its main function: to provide some relief from the daily grind.
In 1990, Gabrovo's carnival disappeared again. This time it was the hardships of Bulgaria's transition to an open-market democracy that put the event on hold. Gabrovo, the same as most places in the country, suffered from economic crises, unemployment and emigration.
Trend for masking as art masterpieces reached Gabrovo
The carnival was revived in 1998 with EU funding, and has been growing stronger with every year. Preparations for it begin long before the actual event, and a special workshop spends weeks designing and building the thematic floats. Satire reigns free and participants eagerly mock local, national and international politics, trends, fashions, morals and problems. No one is spared from Boyko Borisov and Tsvetan Tsvetanov to Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Thousands of visitors from the city and all over Bulgaria watch, drink, laugh and make merry.
The next Gabrovo Carnival was to be on 16 May. This year's theme was Gabrovo 2020: Between East and West.
A float makes fun of Kornelia Ninova, leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party
Some troupes show out-of-season kukeri dances, which invariably include a man dressed as a dancing bear entertaining the public with his antics
A troupe brings some Rio vibes to Gabrovo's event
Rock dinosaurs at the Gabrovo carnival
Many kindergartens and schools participate in the parade, despite the controversial performances by other troupes
This couple is a regular to the Gabrovo carnival. In 2019, they mocked grafting politicians who ignore ordinary citizens
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners