1. Celebrating July Morning
On June 30, every free-spirited Bulgarian is talking about celebrating July Morning — the ritual of going to the Black Sea and spending a night at the beach to greet the first rays of July’s sunshine. This tradition started back in the years when Bulgaria was under the communist regime. Western influence was forbidden, including listening to music coming from outside the Soviet Union. Playing and owning a Beatles tape could get you into serious trouble. Celebrating the new day in July started as a rebellious act, inspired by Uriah Heep’s song, “July Morning.” Back then, many Bulgarians wanted freedom, new beginnings, and a better future.
Today, even the younger Bulgarians who were born after the communist regime or have vague childhood memories of it, celebrate this ritual. To me, it symbolizes going back to our roots while appreciating wild and unspoiled beaches.
Hitchhiking to the seaside on the 30th is a must — after all, this event got its roots from the hippie culture. Partying all night by the sea, smoking weed, engaging in meaningful conversations about life with strangers or having passionate sex on the beach are common ways Bulgarians celebrate July.
2. Chasing bad spirits away (kukerstvo)
It is in within the first months of every year when strong, mostly single, Bulgarian men put on heavy goat fur costumes, cover their faces with ugly masks and dance around parading with loud bells (chanove) hung on their belts. All costumes are handmade, usually with natural materials, and have a clear aim: scare all impure energies and make them run away. No demons can stand the pungent goat furs and the bell’s powerful echo.
Kukerstvo is an ancient polytheistic ritual that celebrates the ending of winter and the beginning of the agricultural year. These creepy costumes manage to unite Bulgarians around a really positive purpose — cleansing ourselves and our hometown, and welcoming new life into our earth and souls.
3. Attempting nestinarstvo (fire dancing)
Each year in the beginning of June, barefoot dancers from across the country gather around a dying fire, spread its embers in a circle and start dancing on them, enchanted by the bagpipe’s song. Seeing this mysterious ancient ritual on a video is not enough. After seeing nestinarstvo in person, I couldn’t stop thinking, “So what is their trick? Did they spray their feet with something?”
I was hoping for the dancer to give his secret away, to show me how to cheat. Instead, he just started dancing and I almost gave up on the idea of trying it myself when I felt how the heat evaporated my dripping sweat before those salty drops could even hit the ground. My hand grabbed his for courage and my legs jumped in the fire, three times, with nothing to protect my delicate sissy-feet. The hot fire was making me dance like one of those cartoon elephants seeing a mouse.
Trying nestinarstvo is risky and many inexperienced enthusiasts end up in a hospital after taking the dare. In my experience, there was a lot of adrenaline in my body and only one tiny red dot on my left foot after my dance. Upon seeing the dot, the meaning of the name of the tradition suddenly hit me — “the mark of courage.”
4. Picking roses
Not all Bulgarians have to go through fire to tell our friends brave travel stories — surviving a rose thorn prick on our pinky fingers can be serious enough, okay? Rose picking is an awesome adventure many Bulgarians go on. All top fashion brands put Bulgarian rose oil in their perfumes because they recognize Bulgaria as the only country that can deliver such high quality.
From the end of May until the beginning of June, many gardens in the Rose Valley will allow visitors to get involved in the picking process. They explain and show all about the production process in both the old and the modern days, from picking to evaporating. Getting my feet in the mud and smelling all those lovely roses while enjoying the view of Stara (Old) Mountain definitely brought me back to my natural roots.
Tasting those petals is a must, as they are delicious. I should, however, warn you not to eat them while picking. As soon as I started munching too many petals, someone from the garden ran to me shouting: “No! Don’t eat them! You will shit yourself!”
5. Vacationing at monasteries
My childhood memories consist of traveling around the country and sleeping at almost every major Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Our summer vacations were spent bathing in rivers, pretending to be archaeologists at abandoned archaeological sites, eating basic food, and getting up early for prayers. The monastery lodging taught me to respect a very different, more modest lifestyle than what I was used to.
Nowadays, a lot of monasteries are struggling as there hardly are enough monks or nuns to maintain them. Monastery lodging is inexpensive and basic, but it is a good cause that supports the existence of these religious settlements. Most of them are surrounded with stunning nature and provide a purely authentic experience — this is the real life of these monks and nuns. Here, travelers are pilgrims, not tourists.
6. Attending Jeravna Festival
Every end of August, we Bulgarians get to hop on a time machine and travel back in time. This time machine is called Jeravna Festival and it takes only passengers who are wearing a national costume, regardless of their nationality. Everybody who signs up for this unique experience must be ready to leave their cell phone, laptop, camera and other modern possessions behind. Time travelers will eat only authentic Bulgarian food, learn about traditional crafts, dance horo around the fire and observe some fire dancing (nestinarstvo).
As an owner of a few antique national costumes, each year I count the months until the adventure in Jeravna village. This is where my hundred years old exponents are revived. Bulgaria’s national costumes are real masterpieces, especially the female ones — every woman used to sew and embroider her old unique dress. Her piece was to reveal the stories and status of her family in a language only inhabitants of the same region could understand.