Once a popular festival in many Bulgarian villages, Nestinarstvo is today preserved in the hamlet of Bulgari (sometimes spelled Balgari), one of the oldest Strandjan villages in the Municipality of Tsarevo, Burgas Province in the southeastern part of the country.
Nestinarstvo is an ancient tradition, baffling for non-believers, and spectacular for all who are interested in the odd and the bizarre. It takes place in Bulgari every June 3 and 4, the feast days of Saints Constantine and Helena. Although Bulgari has less than 100 inhabitants, the fire-walking festival attracts thousands of participants, including Greek Orthodox believers, who celebrate a similar festival, Anastenaria, but at different dates, in May.
Nestinarstvo is inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2009, for its unicity and its value as a vital expression of the identity of the people of the Mount Strandzha region in southeast Bulgaria. The committee also highlighted the importance of the festival in reuniting Bulgarians and Greeks of Strandzha origin.
According to the official documents describing the festival, the fire-dancing rites of Nestinarstvo represent the highest form of veneration of Saints Constantine and Helena. Nestinari, the spiritual leaders of the rituals, walk on embers carrying icons of the saints. The fire-walking ritual is preceded by a solemn ceremony in the morning, when “a solemn procession with the sacred icons representing the two Saints travels outside the village to a spring with holy water, accompanied by drum and bagpipes. At the spring, holy water and candles are handed out to everyone present for good health.”
The fire-walking ceremonial itself is fascinating. The fire is kept burning the whole day by the oldest Nestinar, who can be female or male, and, in the evening, the first steps on the 5 cm thick embers see the same Nestinar walking in a cross pattern. The first Nestinar is followed by other Nestinari, who walk and dance in the sacred circle of embers.
Although in Greece Anastenaria is celebrated on May 21-23 in several villages, like Agia Eleni, Lagadas, Kerkini, Meliki, and Mavrolefki, only its Bulgarian counterpart, Nestinarstvo in Bulgari is inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Besides celebrations in Bulgari, Nestinarstvo can also be observed in Gramatikovo, Slivarovo, Kondolovo, Kosti, and Brodilovo.
The fire-walking ritual was practiced in ancient times by the Thracians and was banned by the church in Bulgaria. Hence not many villages managed to keep the tradition alive. But Bulgari remains the most important among Bulgarian villages that still preserve Nestinarstvo.
Cultural and tourist attractions in Bulgari include the Church of St. Constantin and Elena with the circle on which the Nestinari are dancing on embers at Nestinarstvo, the camp “konak” of the Nestinari, and the ethnographic museum housed inside the former home of Todor Lapchev. The water fountain in the center of the village is an interesting landmark too: it features a mosaic with a female Nestinar walking on embers and holding an icon.
You should also visit the late Thracian and early medieval Urguri fortress, which is located near the village, on a hill with steep slopes running down to the river Karaagach. It is an enclosure that occupies about 11 acres. Unfortunately, not much of the fortress was preserved, but the ruins are set in a natural landscape with charming views. East of Bulgari you will also find the oldest Bulgarian reserve, Silkosiya, in the Strandzha Nature Park. If you plan your trip to see Nestinarstvo at the beginning of June, keep in mind that there is no accommodation in the village, and you will need to book a room at a hotel in Tsarevo.