Masquerade Games, Pernik, Bulgaria "Suggestion for Best Winter Trips"
Photograph by Petar Petrov / AP Images
Western Bulgaria 's rural masquerade rituals are fueled by a primal energy, animalistic masks, drums beating, fire jumping, rhythmic chanting, clanging bells. It's all on display at the Surva XXIII International Festival of Masquerade Games, staged in Sofia each January to banish evil spirits and clear the way for a prosperous year. Folkloric dancers, musicians, and children's groups join in the spectacle, but the real competitors are the thousands of masked and costumed kukeri (male mummers) performing mystical routines rooted in ancient pagan traditions.
When to Go: Surva XXIII International Festival of Masquerade Games, January 24-26.
How to Get Around: Pernik is about 18 miles from Sofia, Bulgaria's capital and largest city. Public buses and trains connecting Sofia Airport to Sofia and Pernik.
Where to Stay: Sofia's luxury lodging options are limited to international chain hotels. Of the bunch, Kempinski Hotel Zografski has the best views of Sofia from its hilltop perch above the city center. The utilitarian design, twin white high-rises-isn't exactly welcoming, but there's more to love inside, like a heated indoor pool, spa (sauna, massage, and aromatherapy), and six restaurants.
What to Eat: For a full-immersion cultural experience-traditional Bulgarian cuisine, music, decor, head up the mountain from Sofia to Restaurant Vodenitzata in Vitosha Park. The extensive menu (with English translations) includes regional dishes like tarator (cold yogurt soup) and the go-to comfort food Bulgarian, kavarma , a hearty pork (or chicken) and vegetable stew.
Cultural Tip: Smoking is socially acceptable in Bulgaria. Although the government instituted a ban on indoor smoking in public places in 2012, efforts are under way to permit smoking in designated rooms like specific venues in larger restaurants and in bars, clubs, and casinos after 10 pm
What to Read Before You Go: Masquerade and Postsocialism: Ritual and Cultural Dispossession in Bulgaria , by Gerald Creed (Indiana University Press, 2011) is not light reading, but the expert insights into mumming rituals will enrich your festival experience.
Fun Fact: Bulgarians traditionally celebrate both their birthdays and their name days. The latter is the Bulgarian Orthodox saint's feast day of whatever shares your name. People who are not named for a saint (or who were born on their saint's feast day) miss out on the extra celebration.