Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Калофер (Kalofer)

Even though I’ve got almost seven months left in my service, I couldn’t help but thinking a recent trip to Калофер (Kalofer) brought my time here full circle. In many ways, the trip epitomized my experience in Bulgaria, but it also made clear that – no matter how long I live here, no matter how well ingrained in the culture I become, no matter how much of Bulgaria I see and experience, no matter how well I get to know Bulgaria and Bulgarians – Bulgaria is a place I’ll never completely understand. The contradictions are just too great.

As I’ve mentioned before, Български именни дни (Bulgarian Name Days) are a big deal. At a minimum, name days are celebrated in much the same manner as birthdays, and many Bulgarians consider their name days to be much more important than their birthdays and celebrate accordingly. Tied to the calendar of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a name day is a day of the year designated to celebrate the name and life of a specific saint. Everyone, male and female, named after that particular saint celebrates on the day set aside for that saint. Some, but not all, name days are associated with certain specific traditions. On Никулден (Saint Nicholas' Day), for example, a stuffed carp is traditionally prepared and served at dinner, while on Гергьовден (Saint George's Day) a lamb is sacrificed and served.

Йордановден (Jordan’s Day) or Богоявление (the Epiphany) is another name day with very specific traditions, and it is what brought me to Kalofer. Although celebrated differently across the country, the celebration is tied to Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The celebration in Kalofer is famous in Bulgaria, and it draws hordes of visitors annually, along with lots of journalists, photographers, and camera crews.

Without a place to stay and no information as to the specifics of the event, I arrived a day early in the hopes of securing some lodging and getting the scoop on the celebration. A mini bus picked a group of us up at the train station and dropped us off in the center of town.

The first thing I noticed was a large monument of Христо Ботев (Hristo Botev) towering over the town square. Botev is a beloved poet, revolutionary, and national hero, and if Bulgaria had its own version of Mount Rushmore, his would almost certainly be one of the four faces represented. Hence, it wasn’t surprising to see a monument in his honor, but it was surprising to discover a place where he is more beloved than Враца (Vratsa). As it turns out, Botev was born in Kalofer (he was killed in the mountains near Vratsa), and Kalofer combines the Epiphany with a celebration in honor of Botev’s birthday.

Anyway, upon arrival I quickly located a visitor information center and went to ask questions about accommodations and the celebration. But, on the eve of the town’s biggest annual event, the visitor information center was not open. So, I just walked around town trying to figure out where I was going to sleep and what would be transpiring in the morning. With one exception, every guest house I attempted to enter was locked, and they weren’t answering their doors or phones. The “river” where the Epiphany was to occur was a trickle of a stream no more than a couple inches deep and a couple feet wide. None of it made any sense to me.

It was now nearly lunchtime, and I wandered back to the town center. The only restaurant in town that seemed to be working was full, so I walked over to a guy selling fruit to buy some mandarins. After buying a kilo of mandarins, I asked the guy when and where the celebration would be. Following his instructions, I retraced my steps back in the direction from which I’d just come and found a couple guys beginning to construct a dam. Things were beginning to make sense, but I still needed a place to stay and I was hungry for something more than mandarins.

I walked back to the town center and saw a place which was advertising rooms for 10 leva per night. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. I peeked in the window, but the place was dark and no one was working. Undaunted, I dialed the number of the place thinking maybe there was someone working somewhere who might pick up. Just as I was finishing dialing, a familiar face came walking through a nearby door. I couldn’t believe it. It was Илия (Ilia). This guy was a friend of a friend who I’d first met when he’d picked me up at the train station in Казанлък (Kazanlak) when I’d been there for the Rose Festival. I’d since run into him in Shabla and Sofia, and he was someone I’d come to trust.

He told me that his family ran the guest house I was trying to call, but, unfortunately, this was their last day running it. He said he knew of a couple other places worth trying, including one place that was basically a hostel. After a quick and disappointing lunch back at the restaurant, he joined me in an attempt to secure a bed. His luck wasn’t any better than mine – the hostel’s doors were locked and no one answered our knocks or calls – so, after we checked on the progress of the dam, he offered me a spot on the floor of his guesthouse with some Couch Surfers who would be arriving soon. I took him up on the offer and let him get back to work while I minimally helped with the dam and snapped some photos of the real dam-builders.

After a short nap in the sun, I returned to the guesthouse. Илия had sleeping pads and sleeping bags and a barn heater to keep the place warm, but he was intent on getting me a mattress to sleep on. The mattresses were in a storeroom under stacked tables and chairs. Despite my protests, Илия pulled and pulled, sending chairs toppling into empty bottles which were soon smashing onto the floor. Илия didn’t care and he wasn’t going to stop until he’d emerged with a mattress. I helped by balancing chairs while Илия tugged on and twisted a mattress until it finally broke free. The mattress was claimed by a Couch Surfer nicknamed принцеса (princess) by her friends who knew nothing of the work it took to get it out, but Илия’s kindness was not lost on me.

Илия soon filled me in on the details concerning the Epiphany. In a nutshell, everyone would stay up all night drinking. Around 7:30 a.m., everyone would head to the river. At 8:00, everyone would jump in the river and dance horo.

After a beer, we went back out to the center to watch a parade. Speeches were given, dignitaries drank from metal chalices, the Bulgarian Army marched, and we watched and waited for the arrival of the Couch Surfers. Then the guy with the chalices, apparently recognizing me as a foreigner, walked over and presented the two chalices to me to drink from. One with red wine, the other with white wine, together promising good health and prosperity. Naturally, I obliged.

From there, things could have gone exactly as Илия suggested. After dinner, the Couch Surfers and I did join him and his friends at a house party where they were more than happy to share their food and drink, and, if we’d wanted to, we could have stayed until the next morning. But I bowed out early and headed to the river an hour earlier than that because I wanted to take photos. The photos below don’t do the event justice. Video is better, but, next time, if there is a next time, I’ll be in the water.

Here are some shots from around town the day before the festivities.

Construction of the dam was a fairly typical endeavor. A few guys who knew what they were doing managed the operation. A few more guys who followed instructions well and were hard workers did everything. And a bunch of guys who thought they knew better but were too lazy to lift a finger stood around and watched, barking out wholly unconstructive criticism and otherwise taking up space and oxygen.

While all of this was going on, unsupervised children were playing with fire ... literally.

Grandmas were dozing in the unseasonably warm afternoon sun.

And grandpas were navigating the icy sidewalks.

The following morning, the real fun started.


  1. beautiful photos! thanks for sharing :)

  2. No worries. Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Haven't followed you in a while, Mark linked me here. What a great experience, and cool photos! I am jealous! I will have to go back and catch up on what you have been doing!

  4. I miss following your adventures in Mexico. You guys need to hit the road again.

    1. With the boys going through high school, it will only be short trips for the next couple years. But then, for sure!