**UPDATE for 2017**
The Surva Festival in Pernik will be held from 27th-29th January 2017
I often say that Bulgaria surprises me with everything it has to offer and today was no exception!
Today I experienced the International Festival of Masquerade Games ‘Surva’, also known as the Kukeri festival. This is an old Bulgarian Pagan tradition where men dress in the Kukeri costumes and perform rituals to chase away evil spirits and welcome the arrival of spring. The costumes are made of animal fur from goats, sheeps and rams and are worn with scary masks which are usually red, black and white in colour. The mask colours are important as they each have a purpose; red to symbolise fertility, fire and the sun, black to symbolise Mother Earth and white to symbolise light and water. The Kukeri also wear heavy copper bells around their waists and they perform special dances to chase away the evil spirits. Traditionally it has only been men that can be Kukeri however now you will see some women Kukeri too. I think this is great as it says a lot about the Bulgarian culture. The women can also do a mans job but they look beautiful while they do it!
Seeing all this for the first time is a little bit overwhelming, firstly because they look quite terrifying, secondly because the costumes smell really bad and thirdly because they are so noisy! When the Kukeri perform the rituals you’re hit with these three things, the noise, the smell and the ‘dust’ thrown into the air from the animal fur as they jump up and down! This was my initial reaction, but of course, after being at the festival for a while I quickly got used to it and soon started to enjoy the madness!
The Kukeri festival in Pernik is the oldest in Bulgaria, starting in 1966 and since 2009, Pernik has been the European capital of Sourvakar and Mummer traditions. Also, this festival has been added to the UNESCO list of protected non-material cultural heritage which is incredible! Thousands of people take part and the weekend festival includes parades, plays, food stalls and a bazaar.
While I mention the bazaar, I’ve got a weakness for buying souvenirs, particularly things that are handmade. When we arrived at the festival centre the first thing we found were the masks. They had a message on the back which read “Take a mask, forget the evil, bring good luck and health to your home.” Bringing health and good luck to my home definitely seemed worth 5 leva! Of course, we decided to get into the spirit of the Kukeri festival and wear our masks all day too which was fantastic! I recommend this to anyone visiting next time.
You can also imagine my excitement when I saw rows of stalls selling little handmade Kukeri! Obviously I had to buy one of those! He’s now in my living room watching over me while I write! I also bought some beautiful handmade Bulgarian pottery. I love these colourful dishes and I can’t have too many. I have some that I use in the kitchen and others I use for keeping coins or jewellery, they’re just so pretty.
After doing our shopping we watched the parade, it was quite busy so we had to keep shuffling into little gaps in the crowd to see what was going on however once we got a good spot we were able to enjoy it fully! Word of advice, the area where the festival is held is in the city centre however there’s lots of grass and mud around. Wear some old trainers or hiking boots so you can move around easily without worrying about spoiling your shoes! Also, don’t expect it to be really well organised, it’s a bit hit and miss to really know what’s going on but that just adds to the charm. In fact, I liked that the Kukeri men were often walking around between the parades, it meant we got to stop them and take plenty of photos with them! And of course, wrap up warm, everything is outdoors and as the festival is always held on the last weekend of January it will be cold. Today we had a beautiful sunny morning but by the time we sat down to have some kebabche for lunch at 1pm it was getting very chilly.
If you plan to visit the Kukeri Festival in Pernik it’s always held on the last weekend of January (Friday-Sunday) and Pernik is located around 20kms from Sofia. It’s very easy to reach by car, we rented a car for the weekend, which was perfect. You can find out more about car rental in Bulgaria and make bookings here. You can also take a train from the centre of Sofia which takes about an hour and costs a few leva.
If you do go to Pernik make sure you share some photos with us! We’ve also got plenty more photos over on our Facebook page.