I love the spontaneous ideas that change the boring evening of watching TV into a night of adventures - even when it is minus 8 degrees outside and there is not a single water molecule that has remained unfrozen. That's exactly what the idea for the visit of Surva in the Pernik village of Gabrovdol was.
Surva is a pagan tradition in Bulgaria which has been preserved over the centuries. Usually it is celebrated after the New Year's eve.
During Surva, men, women and children dress up as fearsome monsters (kukeri), some of them wearing chanove (big copper bells) and smaller bells, and dance in processions in cities and villages to chase the bad spirits away. More or less, the Bulgarian version of Halloween.
One of the region with the best kept traditions in Surva is Pernik – a town nearly 20 km west from the capital of Bulgaria – Sofia. Pernik also hosts the biggest Surva fest in the Balkans, which usually gathers over 60 national and international groups. The Surva we decided to visit was in Gabrovdol village.
At first we advanced pretty fast on the road, but as we approached Pernik, we became more timid, and reduced to the modest for this city 60 km/h so that we wouldn't miss the exit. After a brief confusion in a neighbourhood named "Crystal", and the kind explanations of a local gas station worker, we made it to the correct exit.
A string of smoky, pale lighted villages with exotic names began - Batanovtsi, Yardjilovtsi, Noevtsi, Gigintsi, Nepraznentsi. The thermometer in the car was trembling between -6 and -8 degrees, probably wondering how cold exactly it was outside. The only radio station available was the Bulgarian national radio, with some retro radio play on. Although we had already departed from the modest 60 km/h, I had the feeling that we were stuck in one of the years before 1989. Well, at least the sky was full of stars.
Finally we made it to Gabrovdol. There the atmosphere was smoky, but much lighter and livelier than in the other villages we passed by. The central square was full of people, dancing "hora"(a traditional Bulgarian dance) to the rhythms of retro pop-folk songs. Wine, kebaps, kaltsanitsa (a type of meat dish) and even the slices of bread – were all sold for one lev each (less than 50p) - to make the calculations easier, probably.
The kukeri's masks were a real example of enormousness, some of them reaching 3-4 meters. They were decorated with real feathers in all colors. Kids, teenagers, elderly, mothers, fathers, all dressed up, spun in circles and danced, bursting the frozen square with the ring of the bells hanging from their costumes in the spectacular rhythm of two slow and three quick rings - DAN ... DAN ... DAN, DAN, DAN.
The bonfire flared, almost licking the wires which were 5-6 meters above it. The dancers wrapped around it like a scarf, as if to warm up even more the frozen village. But the temperature no longer mattered. Everybody were enjoying the Surva bonfire, the mulled brandy, some mulled wine, and the incredible "hora".
At around midnight everything was already over. We left pretty tired but definitely enlightened by the Surva we witnessed.