Scary Monsters: Freddy, Eat Your Heart Out

While the majority of Bulgarians are traditional Orthodox, plenty still ascribe to more pagan animistic rituals. At no time is this more evident than during the annual kukeri and survakari rites, designed to repel evil spirits and promote fertility and still practiced in certain villages and cities in the southwest with great fervor on New Year (or Jan 14). During a 30-day period known as the "dirty days" or "Mrasni Dni," when the days that denote the new and old year mingle, it is believed that the gates to both heaven and hell are temporarily left open, allowing demons carrying illness and evil to walk the earth. A group of selected villagers or townsfolk, each playing specific roles, don terrifying masks and girdles sagging with huge bells. Armed with wooden guns, swords, or axes, they stalk the streets, entering homes to sound off the demons with loud clanging bells and smoke, and "killing" the evil harbingers by sweeping through rooms with their swords.

During the fertility rites the kukeri leader, who on occasion carries a large red phallus, simulates sexual encounters with the women in the village to ensure that everything (and everyone) is ready to be "fertilized" in the new year, something that would no doubt see him slapped with a sexual harassment case in the west but that is accepted here with much hilarity. You can see the best, most frightening examples of kukeri masks, as well as plenty of photographs, in Sofia's ethnographic museum , or arrange to see a real "Festival of the Kukeri" -- the largest (and most accessible) is held in Pernik, when some 3,500 revelers dress up to participate in this ancient ritual during the last weekend in January (every even-numbered year). Pernik, 30km (19 miles) southwest of Sofia, is a short bus or train trip away.

TP on the Go

Before I left for Bulgaria in the summer of 2008, I was warned by someone who had just returned to take toilet paper. Apparently, he had not visited Belovo, a town in southern Bulgaria at the western end of the Thracian Plain. Locals know Belovo as the toilet paper capital of Bulgaria, a name it richly deserves. The town's main street is lined with roadside stands selling not produce but huge bundles of pastel-colored toilet paper stacked 1.8m (6 ft.) high on the sidewalks. It's not because the people of Belovo have a TP fetish; rather, it's because Belovo is home to a paper mill that produces toilet paper and other paper products distributed throughout Bulgaria.

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