For countries like Germany and Italy, with their proud and protected regional identities, it is easy to describe the unique cultural characteristics of Bavaria or Tuscany. It’s easier still to imagine a vacation to these regions, with exceptional regional food and cultural experiences. However, in some countries, especially in the former Soviet sphere of influence, regional identities were aggressively suppressed, and this can make it difficult today to uncover the now-forgotten or undiscovered charm that these regional identities offer.
Bulgaria represents a complicated case, as many of its regional traditions came from regions today not inhabited by Bulgarians anymore. Forced population transfers in the 20th century jumbled the Ottoman Era ethnographic makeup of the Balkans, significantly reducing the strength of regional identities and their roles in culture and politics.
Starting in the 1960s, ethnographers began to piece together the historical identities of Ottoman-era Bulgaria. The result was a territorial division based roughly on geography, and these are called the Folklore Regions of Bulgaria (фолклорни области в българия). Many of the traditions established during this period were revived and continue to the present day.
As this site is devoted to exploring Europe’s regional and historical identities, this was the starting point for my guide to Bulgaria. Below I outline the different regions, where they came from, their characteristics, and a link to a travel guide for each region.
Shopluk or Shopsko Region
The Shopi people were pastoralist Bulgarians that once inhabited the highlands and mountains around the Iskar and Struma Valleys. Before the population transfers of the 20th century, they formed the most significant cultural group in a broad regional arc from the Balkan mountains down to the Pirin mountains, encompassing parts of modern-day Serbia and North Macedonia. They get their name from the shepherd’s rod, or “Shop” in many South Slavic Languages. The modern Folklore Region covers the area around Sofia and includes the administrative regions of Sofia, Pernik, and Kyustendil.
Music: Known for fast dance music, typically sung with multiple voices and polyharmony. Typically the music is sung only by women and features stories with secular themes.
Clothing: Women wear a black or dark blue woolen dress over a light, loose-fitting shirt. The dress is pulled tight around the waist with a red woolen belt or cord. Both the shirt and dress are heavily embroidered with elaborate geometric patterns. Men wear essentially the same thing, but it’s called a tunic instead of a dress.
Plan your Visit to the Shopluk Region
The Pirin region, often referred to as Macedonia in older literature, is sometimes omitted entirely. The region covers the administrative district of Blagoevgad and roughly corresponds to the Pirin mountain range and the Struma Valley. Historically, it was considered part of the Shopluk region, with its highland geography precluding large settlements.
However, isolated from the north by the Pirin and Rila Mountains, the region once offered a geographic and, thus, cultural connection to the people of Macedonia. The population transfers of Bulgarians out of Macedonia and Communist rule in Bulgaria and Yugoslavian Macedonia resulted in a significant divergence in the language and shared experiences of these historically close regions. The region reflects the cultural identity of the Bulgarians who once lived in Macedonia.
Music: The music of Pirin is broadly similar to that of the Shopluk region, except the musical themes focus more on stories of heroes and legendary individuals. Both men and women sing multi-part songs.
Clothing: In contrast to the Shopi, the people of Pirin wear brightly colored attire. The women wear the same loose-fitting shirt, but the over-garment is a light cotton dress or klashnik, with short sleeves. Everything is heavily embroidered with floral motifs, usually in red or orange. The clothing is adorned with many ornaments, especially brass pendants attached to the belt and sleeves. The men wear a similar styled shirt but with pants instead.
Plan your Visit to the Pirin Region
As the name implies, this area covers most of Bulgaria north of the Balkan Mountains. It represents the administrative regions of Shumen, Rzgrad, Ruse, Targovishte, Veliko Tarnovo, Gabrovo, Lovech, Pleven, Vratsa, Montana, Vidin, and Botevgrad. Northern Bulgaria was the power base of the Bulgarian state, both in the Middle Ages and during the Unification Wars. When the state authorities moved to Sofia, they left a predominantly agricultural region with several small but cosmopolitan cities along the border with Romania.
Music: The music from the northern region is notable for its simplicity in both the instrumentation and themes. Songs reflect the community’s needs and are sung for harvest, weddings, and other feast days. There are no heroic ballads or complex harmonies. It reflects the agricultural characteristics of the region and its relative poverty compared to the other areas, especially in Thracia.
Clothing: The region is quite large, and the clothing varies considerably. For women in general, there is a preference for double aprons over a loose-fitting cotton dress. Both the aprons and the dress are often elaborately embroidered with floral themes. The colors and lengths of the aprons vary, with Western regions preferring bright colors and Eastern regions preferring black.
Plan your Visit to Northern Bulgaria
Dobrudzha (Dobruja) Region
This region covers the northeastern part of Bulgaria, along the Danube River and the Black Sea coast, and the administrative regions of Dobrich, Silistra, and Vana. It is known for its diverse and multicultural identity, which has influences from Romanian, Turkish, and Ukrainian cultures. Dobrudzha was famously an incredible melting pot of cultures and identities. Maps from the early 20th-century show dozens of ethnic groups scattered around the region like a quilt.
Ruled for centuries by the Ottomans, the marginal land attracted people looking for a new life. There were populations of Romanians, Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Germans, and Gypsies scattered throughout the region. After the First and Second World Wars, forced population transfers saw most of this ethnic diversity dissipate. Today though, the region is still one of the more diverse in Europe and, in many towns, retains a Turkish majority.
Music: The music is typically accompanied by the “Dobrudzha Troika” of accordion, bagpipe, and reed flute. The music draws heavy influence from Turkish forms, but the songs focus on secular themes with long narrative-heavy lyrics.
Clothing: Women wear a red dress with a white cotton undershirt and a heavy black apron in front. Embroidery is limited to the apron. The women wear a yellow headscarf with long silk fringes that drape down the length of the body. Men wear a white shirt with black pants and an embroidered red or brown vest. They wear stereotypical black fur hats.
This folklore designation really only applies to the villages of the Strandzha Forest, which reflect the cultural traditions of the Bulgarians (and Greeks) that once lived in Eastern Thrace (now Turkey). Some definitions of the Folklore regions exclude Strandzha and count it as part of the Thracia region, which better reflects reality. Technically, this region corresponds to the entire administrative region of Burgas, which is geographically part of the Thracian plains. However, those small villages in the forest preserve some of the most iconic traditions of Bulgaria, so it’s worth highlighting.
During the Ottoman period, Eastern Thrace was divided among many ethnic groups, primarily Turks, Greeks, and Bulgarians. One of the traditions from this region was the famous fire dance, called Anastenaria in Greek and Nestinarstvo in Bulgarian. It involves the dancers walking rhythmically across burning coals during the feasts of St. Constantine and St. Helen. According to legend, the dance celebrates the retrieval of icons from a burning church, probably from late antiquity or the Middle Ages. With the population transfers of the 20th century, the Greeks were sent to Greece, and the Bulgarians were sent to Bulgaria. Some refugees settled in Strandzha, where this ritual and many other ancient traditions remain preserved.
Music: The music of Strandzha is essentially the same as Thracia. Songs are slower and favor multiple harmonies sung by many people. Musical themes, though, tend to focus on heroic tales.
Clothing: Likewise, the clothing is essentially the same as Thracia. For women, this consists of three parts, the white cotton shirt, embroidered at the edges, and the sukman or dress, usually red and embroidered at the edges. Then the black apron, heavily embroidered with floral themes. Men wear essentially the same thing but with a red vest replacing the dress and black pants replacing the apron.
Plan your Visit to Strandzha
In pre-industrial Bulgaria, the Thracian Valley was the most prosperous region of Bulgaria. Rich in fertile land and sitting on several important trade routes to Istanbul, Thracia was a leading center of Rose cultivation, among other things. More importantly, though, Thracia did not suffer the population collapse seen elsewhere in Bulgaria over the 16-18th centuries, as forced population transfers to the region offset losses from emigration. The result is a cultural mix of Bulgarian, Turkish, and Greek influences.
The modern interpretation covers the administrative regions of Plovdiv, Pazardzhik, Haskovo, Stara Zagora, Yambol, and Sliven. This corresponds roughly to the watershed of the Maritsa River, hence why I refer to it as the Thracian Valley.
Music: Songs are slower and favor multiple harmonies sung by many people. Traditional music here sounds more like choral music rather than the recitative music found elsewhere. The instrumentation is limited to the bagpipe, flute, and drum.
Clothing: For women, this consists of three parts, the white cotton shirt, embroidered at the edges, and the sukman or dress, usually red and embroidered at the edges. Then the black apron, heavily embroidered with floral themes. Men wear essentially the same thing but with a red vest replacing the dress and black pants replacing the apron. A main differentiating factor is the use of gold jewelry throughout the costumes, indicative of the region’s wealth.
Plan your Visit to the Thracian Valley
The Rhodope Mountains extend across the South-Western portion of Thracia and are split evenly between Greece and Bulgaria. The Rhodopoes are another contentious Folklore Region, often being subsumed into Thrace, or limited only to the border regions. In the modern definition, this corresponds to the administrative borders of Smolyan and Kardzhali. Historically, this would have expanded into the Plovdiv and Pazardzhik regions and the Greek territories.
The Rhodopes are incredibly remote and rugged and sit outside any meaningful trade routes or resources. The region was largely uninhabited and remains so today. Cultural identities focus on the remoteness and beauty of the region.
Music: The region’s music reflects the pastoral nature of the people living here, including bagpipes, shepherd’s bells, tambourines, and flutes. It is known for its recitative and melancholic music, reflecting the harsh and isolated life of the mountain people.
Clothing: Traditional clothing from the Rhodopes is very simple. There is little embroidery, and men and women wear basic wool attire. For women, this includes a shirt, dress, belt, and apron, where the apron is usually red. For men, the attire consists of a loose-fitting tunic with wide sleeves and a vest with loose-fitting pants.
Where do these regions come from?
In the case of Bulgaria, delineated regional identities and characteristics situation is complicated by several factors:
- Chaotic Unification and the Legacy of the Balkan Wars
- Population transfers between countries at the beginning of the 20th century
- Rapid Urbanization during the Communist Period
The Balkans were once a much more diverse location. There were Bulgarian populations spread all around the region, including areas in modern-day Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia. The unification of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire was a chaotic process that involved much of Europe. Backed by Russia, Bulgaria sought to expand as far south as the Aegean coast. In order to prevent this, other great powers supported Serbia or the Ottomans, leading to the question of who was Bulgarian. Despite initially being part of the Bulgarian revolution, Macedonia was awarded to the Ottomans, and Serbia got to keep a large part of Shopluk.
In a series of conflicts that followed, called the Balkan Wars, Bulgaria invaded and conquered these regions and led a campaign of ethnic cleansing that turned potential allies against Bulgarian rule. Macedonian identity, in particular, was formed in light of Bulgarian atrocities against them.
Following World War One, Bulgarians in neighboring countries were encouraged or forced to relocate, and non-Bulgarians were traded back to their respective “homelands.” Following the Second World War, Bulgarians and Romanians were traded over the borders of Dobruja, and many ethnic Germans were sent to Germany.
The Balkan conflicts and population transfers significantly weakened the scope for regional identities. The forced resettlement of individuals into and out of thinly populated regions can accelerate the loss of local identity. Regional cultures preserved up to this point were diluted and then lost over the following decades. This process was further sped up by the rapid industrialization and urbanization of Bulgaria, which saw the emergence of a national culture based around its big cities.
The first look into Bulgarian regional identities started in the late 1960s with the concept of the “Folklore Regions,” based mainly around the geographical dispersion of traditional songs and dances. Most of these divisions are very rough estimates, and only the Shopluk region has a firm basis in pre-war ethnographic surveys.
What the Folklore regions allow us to do, though, is get a glimpse into the world of pre-industrial Bulgaria. These regional traditions are still alive and well, mainly where many musical traditions and festivals are still celebrated, e.g., Strandzha and Rhodopes.