The Bulgarian Rose Festival
You may not recognize these fields are special if you simply drive by. It happened to me once. You would be forgiven if you thought the mountains in the background are the best part of the view. You may have no way of knowing that just a few mornings later, in sparkling early daylight, nimble hands will be picking precious blossoms in a yearly ritual that has existed for centuries. But I do hope you don’t just keep driving and realize you are in Bulgaria's Rose Valley - the home of Rosa Damascena, one of the most important flowers in the formidable business of fragrance.
When Nancy Haas chronicled one fragrance wizard’s quest to “breed a revolutionary blossom for modern times” in her 2015 New York Times article “Francis Kurkdjian and Fabien Ducher, Changing History in a Bottle”, she wrote, “Perfume roses live in a different dimension from the ones we see most often: wax-perfect and upright as No. 2 pencils in a frosted vase, with no smell at all. The sueded petals of perfume blossoms are tethered to stems as willowy as a shoelace of licorice, on plants cultivated without an eye for garden beauty. They peak on a single early morning in ancient fields in obscure locations and must be plucked by hand before the sun turns them limp, robbing them of their redolence. Just yards away sit copper stills in which they are processed by methods that haven’t changed much in generations.”
Welcome to one of the most important of the aforementioned obscure locations - Rose Valley in Kazanluk, Bulgaria. If you are lucky enough to visit Bulgaria in May, you may be able to participate in Bulgaria’s 115th Annual Rose Festival. For two weeks, you can see, smell, and salute the experience of rose picking and rose oil extraction in a way that is hardly available anywhere else in the world. While nowadays some of the festivities can be a bit over-stylized for the sake of tourist entertainment, the main attraction - the beautiful Bulgarian rose - still reins as the rare and highly valued source of rose oil. Often called rose otto or rose attar, rose oil is remarkably valuable. According to Haas, “it can take up to 60,000 roses to get a mere ounce of oil”.
This year, the festivities begin on May 12 and conclude on June 4th. The celebration begins with the crowning of the winner of the Rose Queen competition. The festival program (you can find a good PDF version of it in English if you click "download program") will take you through rose picking in several of the villages in Rose Valley - Rozovo, Cherganovo, Gorno Izvorovo, Gorno Cherkovishte. You can see Bulgarian ensembles proudly performing folklore dancing and competing against each other. There will be opportunities to discover old Bulgarian crafts. There will be multiple art exhibits, dedicated to the Kazanluk region, and even a Zumba marathon smack in the middle of Rose Valley! The formal opening on June 2 will be complete with fireworks and a music concert.
Even if you miss the festival, there are ways to discover more about the art of rose oil making. I haven’t had an opportunity to check it out personally, but there is an old rose oil factory that has remained in continuous operation since its establishment in 1909 and welcomes both tours and individual visitors - the Enio Bonchev distillery.
Finally, if life or other trivial obstacles are preventing you from being able to pursue the refined pleasure of picking dew-covered rose petals at dawn, you can at least experience some fine commercial expressions of the noble product. Here’s a small line up of cosmetic concoctions, containing Bulgarian Rose, that I have gathered for you. Or if you've had the good fortune of spending time in Rose Valley in the past, these gorgeous vials and their precious content can help bring back the memory.