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
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
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
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.