Bulgaria is also called “Country of Roses”, as it is one of the biggest producers of rose oil in the world. That is why one of the most important international events is the Rose Festival of Kazanlak that takes place each year in the first weekend of June. Traveling through Bulgaria, we had thus planned our stay in this region – the picturesque Rose Valley – exactly in these days, especially as we were informed that the Rose Festival was going to be proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage.
But let me give you some information about the Bulgarian roses (photo 1). They are inheritors of the so-called Rosa Damascena that was brought to Bulgarian lands by the Turks in the 17th century. Nowadays, the rose fields between Karlovo and Kazanlak cover an area of around 3,300 square kilometers. The flowers are picked between the end of May and the middle of June, before sunset. Can you imagine that 3500 kg of rose petals is needed for 1kg of rose oil, which has a value of around € 6,000.-?
The Rose Festival was held for the first time in 1903. Today, the program includes the traditional rose-picking ritual and distillation of roses, an international folklore festival, a carnival procession and, of course, the coronation of Queen Rose.
Knowing that around 40,000 tourists from all over the world were expected to visit this Festival, we had to find a way how to avoid the crowds. That is why we decided to participate in the Rose Picking Ritual in the village of Rozovo, 10 km south of Kazanlak – on Saturday, one day before the climax of the festivities in the center of Kazanlak. We supposed that this ritual would be more authentic and yes, it turned out to be a perfect choice!
We arrived in Rozovo early in the morning, when the villagers were already in the fields, picking roses. They were all dressed in their beautiful and colorful national costumes. Some men were busy with a small rose distillery on wood (photos 2 and 3); the barrel was full of rose petals (photo 3) and their fragrance saturated the air.
Women and girls of all ages accompanied us through the plantation and showed us how to pick the flowers (photo 4). Other villagers sang, danced and played their national instruments. Home-made bread was served with „šarena sol“ (a Bulgarian spice) and rose honey. The atmosphere was cheerful and authentic, also due to the fact that there were not many tourists who had discovered this possibility to take part in rose picking. It was a wonderful experience!
In the afternoon we walked through the vibrant city of Kazanlak. This town in Central Bulgaria is not only famous for its roses, but also for its archeological sites of great interest: there are several Thracian tombs situated in the nearby “Valley of the Thracian Kings”. Another Thracian tomb can be visited in the town itself – unfortunately, the original tomb is closed for visits and tourists are only allowed to see a copy.
The pedestrian zone looked like one big market: people were selling souvenirs and all kinds of rose oil products. Many tourists (among which a lot of Japanese groups) were sitting on the open terraces, enjoying the sunny day.
The International Folklore Festival started on the central square. Folklore … a long time ago I used to enjoy folklore performances in Tito’s Yugoslavia and it was a surprise to see that many people are still interested in this kind of recreation. The municipality of Kazanlak has four of five folklore associations with several hundreds of members. And the festival itself, with participation of groups from Greece, Russia, Macedonia and Romania – was a pleasure for our eyes and ears (photo 5). Honestly speaking, it made me quite nostalgic…
The closing ceremony of the Rose Festival was planned on Sunday, in Kazanlak. It was, most of all, the final street procession we wanted to see. We were early enough to take a good position along the boulevard. And believe me, the procession was a real spectacle. It started with the Rose Queen in an antique carriage, followed by the representatives of numerous schools, associations, cheerleaders and folklore groups. Girls with baskets full of rose petals (photo 6) passed by and after a while the street was covered with pink petals. The procession ended with a group of people dressed in traditional costumes with “horrible” masks and big bells around their waist (photo 7).
I know, Bulgaria is member-state of the European Union, but it is also a country where you can still feel the real Balkans. And you know, I adore the Balkans!