Folkloric Festivals and Museum Villages Abound in Bulgaria

By Joyce Dalton

KOPRIVSHTITSA, Bulgaria -- The preeminence of folk festivals, folk museum towns and traditional art and handicrafts throughout Bulgaria demonstrates that it values folklore as a tourist magnet. Folk-dance teachers, many of whom organize and lead tours, love the place, knowing their groups will return with photos aplenty of gorgeously costumed women, boot-slapping men and villages little changed over the centuries. Undoubtedly, more than one client will stuff a gaida, or goat's-stomach bagpipe, into his luggage among the embroidered cloth, wool vests, ceramics and carpets. Even itineraries not centered on folklore are sure to include restaurants featuring traditional music and dance.

Democritus, the Greek philosopher, compared life without festivals to a journey along a road with no inns. Certainly, the Bulgarian road of life is lined with "inns." Many festivals have an occupational significance and originally were considered vital to a good harvest, healthy cattle, happy marriages, fertility and prosperity in general. The famed Rose Festival, held each spring in the Valley of the Roses, exemplifies the point. Reportedly about 70% of the world's supply of attar of roses, the stuff of perfume, comes from this region, so the celebration has a sound economic base, tourists or no tourists. Visitors accompany rose pickers, who are clad in a mind-swirling variety of costumes, into the fields. Soon, all are garlanded and wreathed in the aromatic pink petals. Hours of folk music and dance follow the crack-of-dawn field work.

Another major festival of folk music, dance and art, Pirin Sings, takes place every two or three years in a picturesque mountain setting. Although clients on a standard tour might be most charmed by the Rose Festival, folklore enthusiasts head for Koprivshtitsa, a lovely village of half-timbered houses in central Bulgaria. Here, every four years -- next is 1999 -- thousands of villagers from around the country gather to dance, sing and display their crafts. Multiple stages are spread over the mountainside, and for three days and nights, beautifully garbed Bulgarians of all ages perform the music, songs and dances unique to their particular villages.

Especially in rural areas, centuries-old celebrations take place year-round on religious and secular holidays. Clients might have some difficulty tracking these down, however. Bulgaria's government actively encourages the preservation of the nation's rich folklore. One method is by designating more than a dozen localities as museum towns. Unlike many such sites, these are places where life continues as it did before the "museum" title was conferred. All are showcases of traditional architecture, which usually means wood, stone or white-washed walls and verandas, balconies or painted facades.

My personal favorite is Shiroka Luka, a Rhodope Mountains village nestled among pine forests and the proverbial bubbling stream. A caretaker showed my group through an old home that has become an ethnographic museum. "Dear guests, welcome to my village, the village of arched bridges, bagpipes and folk songs," he began. His pride was evident, and we easily understood why. It is a sad fact that many countries have lost their pride in traditional culture and village life. Bulgaria helps visitors appreciate the enduring value of such things.

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