Since returning from my Christmas holiday I have done a lot of traditional Bulgarian things. I want to be really sure that I experience as much of Bulgaria as I can (handle), because I made the mistake of not doing that when I was abroad in college in Ireland. SO I have spent countless hours traveling around- mostly back and forth from Haskovo to Sofia- but have a lot of traditional street cred to show for it. Lets start at the beginning:
After the new year and into the Spring, towns across Bulgaria host Kukeri festivals. People from across the country (Balkan region sometimes) dress in costumes and parade through the town and put on dances/shows. People are mostly dressed as bears with bells or in traditional clothes. But there are lots of people in drag or strange, racially charged clothes. Apparently, the biggest festival is in Pernik, a small town about twenty minutes west of Sofia near the Serbian border. So I went with the big group of Fulbrighters and wandered around in the cold and ate kebabche (ahh... meat patty-type things?). There were a lot of vendors selling grilled meat and so that heavy, greasy, smokey smell sort of lingered in the air. You can see below the bells tied around the man's waist. Randomly, one group would start jumping around to sound their bells and then others would chime in and it would get so loud that you couldn't hear anything else. It was great, but it was too cold to enjoy properly. Towns host the festivals until March 1 (or maybe its April?), so I would recommend that one skip Pernik and go later in the year!
Rila Monastery is probably Bulgaria's most talked about destination. Its in every guide book, on every tourism web page, mentioned in every conversation about where I should visit. The Fulbright takes the fellows on a trip there every year, so needless to say I was really anticipating it. Of course, like all hyped-up things it was a bit of a let down. In pictures it looks so magnificent and huge. In reality, it was more peaceful and stunning. Interesting note- there is a fried dough place across the street from it where I got the best fried dough of my life!! The fry oil was clean- i don't really know how else to describe it- and it was warm and chewy and so good. So if you visit, don't miss that. Below is a picture of the well-fed and friendly cat at the monastery.
March 3rd is Bulgaria's National Liberation day, marking their independence from Turkish rule. On March 3rd, it is traditional for Bulgarians to go to Shipka- a village in the center of the country in the mountains. Shipka was the site of an important battle in the war and now there is a monument that Bulgarians climb and lay flowers. All of my students had done this at least once in their lives. So, I set out with another fulbrighter to do the same.
First we went to Kazanlak, a big town that is only about 30 mins from Shipka. Kazanlak hosts a rose festival in the summer, so I expected it to be in the mountains and picturesque. It wasn't. Though, from some angles it reminded me of Ireland.
From Kazanlak we took an intercity bus to Shipka. The bus was German and still had city maps of Nuremburg on the walls. I was told contradictory things before my trip- some people told me that the monument began in town, others told me it was far outside of town. We decided to believe what wanted to be true and just took the bus into the town. When we got off, it was snowing and the town looked like a completely run down middle of nowhere nothing town. We were somewhat shocked... and scared. But upon wandering though, we found out that it is a really beautiful town. There are a lot of old houses and its surrounded by mountains.
Even though we didn't make it to the monument (which is 13km outside of town), we walked up a bunch of stairs in the snow through the mountains to this beautiful church. There were a lot of Bulgarians doing the same thing, some were carrying flags. Despite the slight change in plans, I felt like I got the experience that I was after.
After this I went on a weaving weekend... but I will talk about that in a separate post.