Olli Thomson
Photography

Surva

To Pernik for Surva, the International Festival of Masquerade Games. The biggest festival of its kind in the Balkans, Surva brings together around 6000 performers from 100 different groups across Bulgaria, the Balkans and further afield. It also draws increasing numbers of visitors from Bulgaria and beyond, like me.

A quick explanation may be in order. Surva refers to ancient pre-Christian traditions common to the region, and beyond. Local communities would hold a mid-winter festival (or a spring festival) to chase away evil spirits and bring good fortune on the community. Performers dress in animal skins or costumes made from rags. They wear masks, often topped with horns,  or paint their faces. Then they dance, run, chase or jump, in many cases accompanied by the sound of hundreds of cowbells strapped to their bodies. The mid winter festival is Surva; the spring festival is Kukeri. Local festivals still take place in towns and villages across Bulgaria but the festival at Pernik brings many of these local groups together along with international representatives to parade and compete for prizes.

It’s fantastic. You should go. Unlike our over organised, rigidly controlled festivals the Bulgarians manage to make the festival work while allowing the public the kind of up close access and engagement that is a rarity elsewhere. The participants parade slowly through the street into the town square where each group performs for the spectators and the judges. Random groups of masked performers wander the streets and are liable to burst into a spontaneous performances at any moment. We saw one group – I think they were Slovenian – performing something that looked similar to Morris Dancing hammering away with their sticks in the middle of the street.

As well as the performances there are conferences, multiple workshops, an abundance of street food (including an entire pig on a spit) and all the Surva and Kukeri related souvenirs you could ever want. You can read more about the festival and the traditions it celebrates on the Surva website.

As ever, here are a few pictures.

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