Surva: Visiting the Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

Surva: Visiting the Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

You can hear the Surva Kukeri festival long before you can see it. From a distance it’s a drumbeat, a steady, menacing warning against anything or anyone that might threaten peace and prosperity. As you get closer, it’s not just the drums that fill the air: it’s the bells. They don’t ring so much as they clang, a sound as celebratory as it is foreboding. And then there are the voices. They chant, they yell, they narrate with a power and intensity that reverberates through the crowds and refuses to be ignored. Together, the cacophony of sounds is so loud and overwhelming you’re swept up in it before you even see the festival itself.

And then, it comes into view.

Surva Kukeri Festival in Pernik, BulgariaThe monsters parade down the street with shaggy fur, weighed down by masks and bells and flanked by friends in brightly colored garments. Country flags wave proudly as groups await their opportunity to enter the performance arena, where they present a choreographed ritualistic dance to judges and festival attendees alike. When it’s over, they exit into spaces crowded with spectators eager to take pictures and admire the elaborate costumes.

There are few things we love more than a good tradition, and our global travels have introduced us to some of the best. Living traditions—those that are lovingly passed from person to person, from generation to generation—are our favorites. They offer a unique look not just into a culture but into the people at their core, those who stand on the shoulders of their ancestors while incorporating their own modern character. Our trip to Surva and Pernik, Bulgaria was longer in the making than we planned. We hoped to visit for Adam’s most recent milestone birthday in 2021, but a global pandemic had other plans, and we spent the evening eating takeout on our sofa instead of mingling with monsters. It was worth the wait. Experiencing the intense sights and sounds on display as thousands of performers celebrated tradition translated into the weekend of a lifetime and filled us with a profound gratitude to have been part of the fun.

What Is Surva—and What Are Kukeri?

Kukeri in Bulgaria, circa 1940s. Source: Wikipedia/Bulgarian Archives State Agency
Kukeri in Bulgaria, circa 1940s. Source: Wikipedia/Bulgarian State Archives
While Bulgaria is a young country by many standards, some argue that it is among the oldest countries in Europe when considering it was first established in 681 AD. Like many countries, Bulgaria experienced periods of thriving, falling to conquerors, and rebuilding, all of which impacts its age without taking anything from the rich culture and traditions they enjoy to this day. The town of Pernik, which is 20 miles away from Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia, hosts a favorite annual tradition during the last weekend of January when it welcomes the Surva International Festival of the Masquerade Games.

For centuries, Bulgarian culture has incorporated superstition. If a person suffers a misfortune, they might blame it on what they call uruki: the evil eye, or a spell. To ward off bad luck, Bulgarians call in the Kukeri. While it’s hard to know precisely how the term came to exist, some believe it is derived from Slavic words that translate to chaser of evil spirits—which is precisely their role. Dressing up in animal pelts with elaborate masks and heavy bells loud enough to scare off any lurking spirits, the Kukeri would parade through villages to usher in health, happiness, and prosperity for the year ahead. They look like something straight from the pages of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, intriguing yet intimidating, fearsome yet playful. The Kukeri aren’t unique to Bulgaria; the ritual can be traced to the Greek god Dionysus, and many Balkan countries have similar traditions and events.

Surva unites the people behind the Kukeri during a three-day festival that features parades, performances, and opportunities to showcase their local customs. The Kukeri costumes are the star of the event. Each costume represents a threat to anything that might disturb their peace. Some costumes tower twenty feet above the ground, literally looming above the crowds. Others are terrifyingly elaborate, featuring detailed masks clearly intended to frighten away evil spirits. The festival welcomes more than 10,000 performers from 20 countries and many thousands of spectators, and all of them are part of something special; in 2015, Surva was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This video from The New Yorker shares more information on the Kukeri tradition directly from the people who celebrate it.

 

What It’s Like to Attend the Surva Festival in Pernik

We had hoped to experience Surva for the better part of a decade when we arrived in Sofia the night before the festival’s opening day. Despite jetlag and 15 hours of flying, sleeping in was never going to be an option.

Surva Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria
Surva Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria
We based ourselves in Sofia, 30 minutes away from Pernik by car but closer to an hour away on a direct train from the city’s central station once every hour. After breakfast, since it was still a bit too early to leave, we decided to take the 45-minute walk from our hotel to the train station instead of opting for a taxi. It was a crisp yet bright January morning, we had spent the better part of the previous day stationary in an airplane seat, and it felt good to add some movement into our day. The train station was quiet, with just a few people meandering around with cups of steaming coffee from the station’s convenience store. We purchased two roundtrip tickets to Pernik at the counter, and once it did, we settled into our seats and watched Bulgaria speed past our windows.

Traveling to new places always comes with a few unknowns, and as Pernik came into view, I wondered how challenging it might be to navigate from the train station to the festival. There were fewer crowds on Friday morning than we expected, and while some people looked ready to spend an afternoon in the cold January air others looked like they might simply be commuting or running errands. Standing on the train station’s front steps, we quickly saw a brightly colored sign on the opposite side of the street, which seemed to indicate we were about to head in the right direction. More and more signs popped up at just the right times to guide our path, although ultimately, we could have made it without visual indicators at all; we just needed to follow the drumbeat.

Surva Kukeri Festival in Pernik, BulgariaBy the time we arrived at Surva, the pounding of drums and clanging of bells was so loud it felt like we were vibrating when we stood still. We thought we knew what to expect from the photos we saw in advance of our trip, but the sounds and colors were all but overwhelming. Peeking around the corner of the stage, we caught our first glimpse of the many performances that stretched ahead of us. Costumed performers danced in circles as a member of the group, a narrator of sorts, shouted into a microphone. Above us, a camera swooped across the event space as it captured the choreographed movements and broadcast them to a huge screen positioned above the stage. We stood for a while and observed the scene, realizing we would never fully understand what we were watching.

Without even the most basic grasp of the Bulgarian language, attending Surva felt like crashing a party; we didn’t know anyone, and no one knew us, yet we were welcomed to stay and enjoy the celebration. To the uninitiated, it became clear that each performance told a version of the same story. Most groups, regardless of the country they represented, brought a cast of similar characters. There was often a bride and groom, a priest, and a bear surrounded by men and women in traditional costumes. And, of course, there were the Kukeri. During each performance, the priest would lead the bride and groom to the stage; the bear, representing bad luck and threatening their happiness, would attempt to maul them. The Kukeri would jump in unison, clanging their enormous bells, and eventually the bear would be subdued, tied in rope, and led away. Any intricacies or nuances in the storytelling were lost on us, but the emotion was not. We could sense the excitement and the passion each group had for their culture and craft. No language barrier is so severe that joy cannot be communicated.

Surva Kukeri Festival in Pernik, BulgariaWe split our time between two viewing points: the stage and the parade route. The parade route was more of a staging area than a performance space, although many groups conducted warm-up routines or brief dances for the cheering crowds around them. The magnitude of Surva was unmistakable as we observed the people before us. Some nervously shifted from foot to foot as they clutched signs and flags while others chatted with friends, taking occasional drags from a cigarette. Those in Kukeri costumes alternated between jumping frantically to ensure the bells around their waists emitted the maximum amount of noise and standing still, masks in their hands, taking a few deep breaths of cold January air before returning the masks to their heads. While it was impossible to overlook the centuries of tradition on display, it was also hard to miss the bridges between the old and the new. Many costumes were handmade and passed from generation to generation; they were often paired with modern sneakers instead of more traditional footwear.

The Kukeri festival extended beyond the performance spaces, and a huge open air food market filled the air with the sounds and smells of sizzling meshana skara. Mixed grill is a Bulgarian favorite, and almost every stand served kebabs, meatballs, chicken, and kebabche wrapped in a roll for easy transport or served on a platter to those confident they might find a place to sit. Craft stalls offered handmade Surva souvenirs including Kukeri dolls and masks, each with their own personality. Even as we walked around, the performers were everywhere; many of them wandered shoulder to shoulder with spectators eager for a photo or video, especially of the more elaborate costumes. Although we were excited to see them pass by, we didn’t ask any of them to pause. Most performers looked exhausted when they were done, and the Kukeri costumes seemed to create personal saunas for those lucky enough to wear them. Some of the huge bells weighed more than 200 pounds, and ten minutes of jumping with force enough to make them clang drained many people of their energy.

Surva Kukeri Festival in Pernik, BulgariaAlthough the Kukeri festival lasts for three days, we limited our visit to just the first two to save a little time for one additional Bulgarian excursion. For us, two days was plenty of time; we had ample opportunity to explore and enjoy the performances. Even still, as the second day drew to a close and we knew it was time to return to the train station for our return to Sofia, we both found ourselves suggesting we stay for “just one more performance.”

Surva has a certain magic to it that’s hard to define—especially without any command over the Bulgarian language. Long after we boarded our train, walked back to the hotel, and selected a restaurant for dinner, we could still feel the vibration of soundwaves carrying bells and drums to us. As I crawled into bed, I could still feel them pulsing through me, growing quieter and quieter as I surrendered to sleep.

Tips for Attending Surva

If you are planning to visit the Kukeri festival in Bulgaria, consider these tips to make the most of your visit!

Are tickets required for the Kukeri Festival?

Surva is a free event, so there is no need to purchase any kind of ticket to attend—a wonderful gift if you’re an international traveler budgeting for flights, hotels, and incidentals just to count yourself among the crowds!
Surva Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria

How to get the Kukeri Festival

Of all the ways to get to Pernik, the train is the least expensive and, in many ways, the most convenient. Self-driving is possible if you plan to rent a car, but parking is a big challenge with many streets closed for Surva. Similarly, taking a taxi from Sofia to Pernik is a good option and takes less time than the train, but we didn’t see a single taxi in Pernik while we were there, which could make it challenging to find a ride back at the end of the day. Roundtrip train tickets were about $4; the only downside were the crowds. Despite the fact Surva is a popular event, there was only one train an hour between Sofia and Pernik in either direction, and we observed some people left behind on the platform because the trains were at capacity. We had to stand the entirety of the ride to Pernik during our Saturday visit, and we were fortunate enough to find seats on the way back to Sofia. Arrive at the train station early enough to identify the right platform to better your odds of finding a seat.

Dress warmly

Despite sunshine and temperatures close to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it felt like it was in the low 20s during our visit. January in the Balkans is never going to be warm, but dress in layers and don’t forget a hat, gloves, and warm socks when packing your suitcase. Sharp bursts of wind and cold in shaded areas should be expected.

Bring cash

Although many vendors accepted credit cards, plenty either did not or simply preferred cash. Stop by an ATM before arriving at Surva to make your purchases as quick as possible. Most of the items available to buy, including meals and souvenirs, are comparatively inexpensive to other places in Europe, so you don’t need to worry about taking out or carrying large sums of cash to get by.

Visit Surva on Friday

Although the performances were just as incredible on both Friday and Saturday, the Kukeri festival was pretty lightly attended on Friday, which led to a more comfortable experience for us. Most locals seemed to be at work on Friday, and while Surva wasn’t empty by any stretch, we had no problem finding great spots to stand without being immersed in a huge crowd. Saturday was the opposite; there were thousands of additional attendees, and it was impossible to find any space to stand that wasn’t crowded beyond capacity. If you can attend two days, we highly recommend making Friday one of them.

More Information: Surva.org

 

Hotels in Sofia, Bulgaria

Although there are hotels in Pernik, Sofia was a better choice for us during our visit. The city is connected to Pernik by train, and we loved the restaurants and old town during our visit in 2019. During this visit, we stayed at Art ‘Otel, which is just two blocks from Vitosha Boulevard, the main commercial and shopping street. Art ‘Otel made us feel like family. Our room was spacious and extremely comfortable, with two balconies and a sitting area that was perfect for unwinding before bed. The breakfast buffet kept us fueled for hours while on the way to Surva, and we especially loved the complimentary happy hour offered in their Lobby Bar, which is a cozy space that happened to include the world’s happiest, bounciest dog named Javier.

More Information: Booking.com/artotelsofia

We found Art ‘Otel on Booking.com, our favorite place to compare hotels and choose the right property for us. Take a look at Booking.com before your visit in case they have a hotel that is perfect for your needs, too!



Booking.com


 

Enjoy Surva and the Kukeri Festival!

Our planet is full of incredible traditions. They serve as windows into what it means to be from somewhere, to be connected to something bigger than yourself, to belong. The Surva International Festival of the Masquerade Games may belong to its host city, but it also belongs to each person that contributes to it. It belongs to every person who wears a colorful traditional dress, a handmade mask, or a giant costume made of fur. It belongs to each person that chants, dances, drums, and clangs their way to the stage as they demonstrate what tradition means to their people. And in a way, it belongs to any of us who are curious enough to learn about it. Culture represents and reflects who we are, but it doesn’t need to divide us. Instead, it can invite us in, educate us, and welcome us to find joy and value in traditions that differ from our own.

You can hear the Surva festival long before you can see it, and you can hear it long after you can no longer see it. if you’re like us, you may find yourself grateful to hear the steady beat when you close your eyes, a reminder of the incredible ways travel can change us.



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Surva: Visiting the Kukeri Festival in Pernik, Bulgaria