Ringing Bells for Wine and Food

Spooky Animalistic Costumes On Annual Carnival Bell Ringers’ Pageant

Dobrodošli u Kastav!

Welcome to Kastav, a small but lovable town in Primorje-Gorski Kotar County.

Old city above RijekaCroatian National Tourist Board

During the annual pre-Lenten festival of carnival, a peculiar tradition is observed in the Kastav area of Croatia, near Rijeka. The bell ringers’ pageant see costumed villagers from the small towns around Kastav marching from village to village, ringing heavy brass bells tied to their waists. For residents of the Kvarner, the area surrounding Kastav and Rijeka on the Croatian littoral, the bell ringers’ pageant is a cherished annual folk tradition.

Halubian Bell RingersCroatian National Tourist Board

Group of bell ringers preparing to danceCroatian National Tourist Board

Due to its history and uniqueness, as well as its function in uniting neighboring villages, the bell ringers’ pageant of the Kastav area was in 2009 added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Bell ringers from KastavCroatian National Tourist Board

Carnival in the Kvarner region begins on January 17 and concludes on Ash Wednesday, which falls 46 days before Easter. On a pre-determined Sunday during this period — usually the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Bell ringers dancing to send winter awayCroatian National Tourist Board

Groups of bell ringers from Kastav and nearby towns leave their respective villages to form a procession to Rijeka, about 10 kilometers from Kastav. Because they take a circuitous route through other villages along the way, their walk to Rijeka may actually be up to 20 kilometers.

Bell ringer returning homeCroatian National Tourist Board

Bell ringer dancingCroatian National Tourist Board


The bell ringers — called Zvončari in Croatian — are always clad in sheepskin throws. Around their belts, they wear either one large, heavy brass bell or three smaller ones. Zvončari from towns on the eastern side of Kastav will wear masks—the most famous are comically vicious-looking, horned animal masks crafted from sheepskin.

A detail on the uniform of a bell ringerCroatian National Tourist Board

Those from towns on the western side of Kastav wear elaborate headdresses formed of paper flowers and ribbons, usually with a pine sprig coming out of the top.

A detail on the bellCroatian National Tourist Board

Groups often include a mischievous figure, usually a bear or a devil, who breaks free from the group to tease and torment spectators. The zvončari walk with an exaggerated stooping gait, intended to make their bells ring in unison. Most carry a wooden mace, called a balta. They deliberately bump hips with one another and leap into the air — again with the intent of making their bells clang.

Bell ringers festivalCroatian National Tourist Board

Groups may be composed of anywhere from two to 30 bell-ringers, and usually about 10 groups participate. When a group of zvončari reaches a village, they form a tight, concentric circle in the center of the town, and make as much noise as possible. This is intended to “disturb” the townspeople to the point that they offer them food and wine. After a break, the group moves on to the next village.

Halubian Bell RingersCroatian National Tourist Board

Carnival festCroatian National Tourist Board

The arrival of the zvončari procession in Rijeka is the high point of the city’s carnival parade, and 100,000 people or more may turn out to watch. When the parade is over in Rijeka, each group of zvončari returns to their home village. There, they collect the garbage—usually scrap wood—that villagers have left outside their homes and set it on fire.

Removing the maskCroatian National Tourist Board

The bell-ringing continues intermittently until Ash Wednesday, when most villages burn a symbolic figure, named pust, who represents all the misfortunes that occurred in the previous year.

Group of bell ringers walking in line to the carnivalCroatian National Tourist Board

Chasing away the winter by Ivo PervanCroatian National Tourist Board

The bell ringers’ tradition has only been documented since the 1800s, but it is a much older folk practice, likely dating back to pagan rites of spring. The costumes, masks, ritual dancing and bell-ringing were thought to frighten off enemies and evil spirits, summon fertility gods, ensure a good harvest and protect farm animals. Between the two World Wars, westernmost parts of the Kvarner were under the control of Italy, which banned residents of the region from wearing masks. As a result, zvončari from the western towns of Kastav adopted colorful headdresses, while those to the east retained their mask-wearing tradition.

Bell ringers festivalCroatian National Tourist Board

Today, the bell ringers’ pageant remains an important link to the region’s past, as well as a way of uniting villages in their shared cultural heritage. Unlike many folk traditions at risk of dying out, there are younger generations of zvončari, including children’s groups, learning the practice from older generations of bell ringers and ensuring that the tradition will continue.

Credits: Story



Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Croatia: Hearts & Crafts
Deep dive into a colourful journey across music, arts, crafts and festivities of Croatia. Learn how to sing, dance, perform, make arts and crafts in a Croatian style.
View theme
Google apps