Bulgari village fountain with an image of a woman performing Nestinarstvo dance

Bulgari Village: Nestinarstvo Dance On Fire In Strandzha

Bulgari village (you can find it also mentioned as Balgari village or village of Balgari) is situated on a hill in Strandzha Mountain, Southeastern Bulgaria, Burgas province, Tsarevo municipality. It is about 50 km from Bourgas, 15 km from the town of Tsarevo and 20 km from Malko Tarnovo. 

What is Bulgari village famous for?

The village has a total population of less than 50 people, but it is a centre of the Nestinarstvo ritual, included in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Nestinarstvo is a ritual dance on fire, and the fire dancers are called nestinars. Bulgari is the only preserved Nestinar settlement in Bulgaria with the status of a folklore reserve. Nestinarstvo is a sacred ritual. The ancient tradition of fire dancing is performed every year on June 3, the old style day of St Constantine and St Helena, the patron saints of the village of Bulgari. On the 3rd of June, thousands of people come from near and far to the village of Bulgari. The friendly locals are more than happy to welcome the visitors and there is no accommodation for miles around. Many young people also come to see the ancient times ritual. As the village of Bulgari is located within the territory of Strandzha Nature Park, plants listed in the Bulgarian Red Book of Floral Species can be found in the surrounding hills. Tourist agencies offer foreign visitors culture tours and sunbathing on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

What is the nestinarstvo ritual?

Nestinarstvo is a well-being and fertility rite in honour of Saints Constantine and Helena. It is an ancient Bulgarian ritual that used to be widespread in Eastern Thrace. Today it is preserved in its authentic form only in the village of Bulgari.

The ritual begins early in the morning with a procession carrying icons of the two saints from the village to a nearby spring of healing water. The Nestinars spend the time until evening in a special building, where they listen to the continuous beating of a drum, during which they fall into a trance.

During the day, a mystical fire is lit in the center of Bulgari village. In the evening, the hot embers are spread in a circle about 2 metres in diameter. The guests line up in a circle around the live coals to the sound of a drum. The Nestinars begin to dance barefoot on the hot coals. While dancing they hold an icon of St Constantine and St Helena decorated with flowers. They believe that the spirits of St Constantine and St Helena will protect them from burning. As a matter of fact, no one gets hurt.

How old is Bulgari village?

Bulgari is one of the oldest villages in Southeastern Bulgaria. The village was founded in the 15th century. The old name of the settlement was Urguri and until 1934 it was called Vulgari. After the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 the village remained in Turkey. Half of the families emigrated to free Bulgaria and founded a new seaside village, which is today the town of Primorsko. Vulgari became Bulgarian again only after the Balkan War of 1913.

Church St. St. Constantine and Helena in Bulgari village
Church St. St. Constantine and Helena in Bulgari village

My visit to the village

I arrived in the village of Bulgari on a warm and sunny February day. The village square was clean and tidy, but despite the sunny afternoon, there was not a single person to be seen. There was no smoke from the chimneys of the houses, and the village looked ghostly. At the end of the square, I saw an impressive church, but to my disappointment, it was locked. Disappointed, I decided to take some pictures and leave.

“Good afternoon! Do you like the church? Would you like me to open it so you can have a look? But you can’t take pictures inside.” I heard a voice behind me. I turned and saw an old man. That’s how I met Constantine.

“Will you open it for me?” I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d already visited several villages in the Strandzhan with beautiful churches, and I’d never been able to see the inside of any of them.

As we walked to the church, Constantine told me about the village: “Once upon a time, the village was not here, but a few kilometres down the valley. But after the village was burnt down, the people moved to what is now Primorsko. Later on, some people came back to look at their land. And they decided to stay, but they built the village here, on the hill”. 

The Church St. St. Constantine and Helena

The Church St. St. Constantine and Helena is a stone church with a wooden roof. It was built in the second half of the 19th century. The curch was burnt down in 1903, along with half of the village, during the suppression of the Ilinden-Preobrazhensky uprising. It was rebuilt and is now a cultural monument.

“The church was rebuilt in 1905-1906. See those big beams? My grandfather donated them for the construction,” Constantine continues proudly. The beams are impressive – thick and tall, they serve as six columns that support the roof of the church. Constantine went on to tell me about the people who visited the church. There seemed to be two ladies: a woman from the southern border town of Rezovo and a woman from Sofia who had moved to live in Sinemorets. “They promised to bring lamps or chandeliers – to put the candles in. Well, I can’t climb up to light them anymore, but it will look better,” Constantine told me. 

Waving goodbye

We talked for a long time. About his grandfather, about the people who no longer live there, about the priest who came from Tsarevo when he was needed, about the woman who opened the church when he couldn’t. He gave me biscuits on a whim. “Take it, it’s for your health! He came limping to my car to wave goodbye. “And don’t forget to come back on the third of June! See you soon”. 

Constantine waiting for the next visitor in front of the church
Constantine waiting for the next visitor in front of the church

And the old man sat down on the bench in front of the church to wait for the next visitor. Who will come, who knows when. But on the 3rd of June, the village will be full of life, if only for one day. 

And so on until next year.

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