Monsters and masquerades

Monsters and masquerades

As the carnival seasons start, many think of colorful parades of Rio or mysterious masqueraded figures gracefully gliding in the canals of Venice. However, there is much more to the world of carnivals that need to be explored; sooner the better, before they go extinct, or on the contrary, before they become overly touristic and lose their authentic thrill.

Carnival is the festive period before Lent. The core of a Carnival is its conviviality; all celebrations are communal, taking place in public areas, in squares, in streets, in open air. Another essential feature of a Carnival is costumes and masks, more elaborate and shocking, the better. Dressing in different personalities and masking faces allow people to set aside their everyday individuality and enjoy an unrestrained thrilling experience without limitations. This leads to indulgence in alcohol, food and sex in excess, or everything that will be avoided during the fasting period of the upcoming Lent.

The open-air element is actually to welcome spring and send off winter. Especially in rural areas when snow starts to melt, and hints of spring fill the air, the change of season is enough to celebrate. This is also the time to call for the bounty of nature and to ward off the evil spirits. In earlier forms of carnivals, scaring the evil spirits is the main motive behind wearing masks and dressing in costumes. In the very archaic forms of carnivals, the costumes come in the form of grotesque creatures, fierce animals and monsters. The key element here is to be as frightening, as scary and as shocking as possible. The ferocious looks of costumes and masquerades are supported by the sound element; again the louder, the better, with lots of banging of drums, bells, or anything capable of making disturbing noise. This is what you’ll get in Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, authentic, unchanged, truly original earlier forms of carnivals still being performed with amazing spirit.

Last year in early March, I had the chance to attend Kukeri Festival in Shiroka Laka, a town in Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, very close to Pamporovo ski resort. Last year we were in Pamporovo for our annual gathering of SCIJ-Ski Club of International Journalists, and a few of us remained to attend the festivities in Shiroka Laka. It was a wise decision; it turned about to be a truly unforgettable experience. With little prior knowledge about the festival, I had no clue on what to expect, which added to my amazement in witnessing one of the most authentic Kukeri festivals in Eastern Europe.

Kukeri (singulan kuker) is the name given to ghastly costumed people, often in animal skins, wandering, dancing or rather hopping and jumping around to ring the bells attached to their bodies to make noise, all to scare away the evil spirits and also the passersby, sometimes even chasing people and trying to touch them with their ash-dipped hands. Kukeri belongs to the eastern and southeastern regions of Bulgaria. Some other names in different localities for monstrous and beastly masked people include survakari (western Bulgaria), mechkari, babugeri, pesyatsi and so on. The costumes mimic fierce animals and ferocious creatures, with huge bells attached to the belt to make the loudest noise possible. They are indeed very frightening.

Such festivals are the ancestors of carnivals like Rio or Venice, end-of-winter, start-of-spring rituals to celebrate seasonal changes in early agrarian communities, translated to Christian culture as the festivities before Lent, again an abstaining period from all meat and dairy to reinforce herds and enable a new generation of calf, kids and lambs flourish, having its origins in husbandry. It is also an opportunity to enjoy the awakening of nature, sending away the old year and starting a new life; celebrated joyously with dancing and feasting, and being merry. These rituals connect the wish for a rich harvest, health and fertility for humans and farm animals, with dances featuring ritualistic acts to mimic ploughing, sowing and reaping. When transferred to the southern hemisphere with Christianity, the seasonal aspect was inevitably lost, but the fun factor remained.

The dates of Kukeri festivals in Bulgaria vary, so it is wise to keep track following announcements, some are already over, but the one in Shiroka Laka is yet to come. This year or next year, these festivals are worth a visit, to witness a tradition that was sustained almost unchanged since millennia. Kukeri festival is a truly authentic rite of spring, inspiring and thought provoking, about mankind’s living intangible heritage, in a very tangible way. You might be touched by one of the beastly creatures!

Fork of the Week: What surpasses Turkish köfte must be the Bulgarian one. While in Bulgaria you’ll be served repeatedly Shopska salad, but that is so out of the season in a spring festival, so I’d rather skip that. The origin of this almost-national salad has a hilarious history, worth of an article of its own. What I enjoyed was the belly-filling, hearty Patatnik, as obvious from its name it is a potato cake with onions, a universally satisfying combination. Klin is also a local favorite. I tried the rice-filled version, an interesting twist to Turkish börek. Kachamak is what we know as kaçamak in the Black Sea region of Turkey, a kind of corn-meal polenta in fondue form, with molten cheese and butter. Tasting these, you’ll have enough energy to chase the beastly creatures of kukeri back to hell!

Cork of the Week: Drinking has always been a part of kukeri festivals. There is even a cleverly named winery, the Kukeri Wines, but that cannot be considered local. Actually it is a Napa Valley California winery, having its reference from Dionysus rituals which are thought to be the origin of such festivals. Close to Plovdiv, I had the opportunity to visit Villa Yustina, a boutique winery producing high-quality wines both from international grapes and local varieties like Mavrud and Rubin, these two combined wonderfully in the Monogram line.