When the warm sun shines over the lands of Bulgaria and spring brings its full bloom, there is a festival like nothing you’ve seen before…
The Rose festival
The valley of roses is right in the middle of Bulgaria, sheltered by the mountain Stara Planina to the north. It stretches between Stara Zagora, Plovdiv and to the west of Karlovo. If you travel in spring, you will notice the vast fields covered in fragrant rose bushes.
The otherwise small and quiet town of Kazanlak has claimed its title as the capital of this area. During the rose festival, it springs to life and is full of celebrations, competitions, craft and art exhibitions, air balloons, dances, street parades and lots of roses.
This year the 114th edition of the Rose festival will be held between 12 May and 4 June – see full program of the event. On the last day of the festival all eyes will be watching the main square where a Queen of the roses will be chosen in the traditional beauty pageant.
This type of rose originates from Damascus, as its name suggests. It was cultivated for its soft petal flower with a light pink shade and a very strong fragrance. The people from Ancient Persia used to make rose water as a drink, spiced with cinnamon and sugar. The plant was brought to the Thracian lands first by the soldiers of Alexander of Macedonia and later it was harvested by the Turkish sultans during the Ottoman occupation.
Interestingly, the specific climate of this region, soon to become the rose valley, quickly proved to be much better suited for the flower than its country of origin. The humidity and rainfall in the area combined to produce a rose with a higher content of essential oil. Over time, people began to apply double and multiple distillation, similar to making rakia (a local high in alcohol beverage). Improved distillation methods made it possible to extract rose oil rather than just rosewater. For the first time rose oil became the main product of the distillation process, and the result was oil with qualities never seen before.
The precious rose oil
The oil from Rosa Damascena has many health benefits – for the body, the skin and mind. Bulgaria – with more than 350 years of experience – is one of the largest sources of rose oil in the world. It has been used by the beauty industry for many years – in perfumes, skincare, aromatherapy and more.
You need 30 flowers picked between 5 am to 10 am to produce 1 drop of oil. The best harvests are from May till mid June. For 1 litre it takes 3000-4000 kg of rose petals. It doesn’t sound that difficult, does it?
Visiting the distillery
I’ve grown up very near the rose valley and for me rose skincare was something so common that I thought it was ordinary. It’s only recently that I started using rose water and creams infused with the oil, discovering their amazing qualities. Last spring, I decided it was time to see how it’s made. To experience the full magic of this fragrant flower and the beauty of the festival, my husband and I drove past Kazanlak and pointed our car towards the heart of the rose valley.
In a small village called Skobelevo, we found Damascena – the first private distillery for rose oil in Bulgaria. From the moment we came out of the car – surrounded by mountain hills and in the midst of a light spring shower – we smelt that sweet aroma floating in the air. The scent of freshly distilled rose petals. Soft and so sweet. No words can describe it. It has to be experienced.
At this time of the year the distillery opens its doors for visitors. We headed to a guided tour inside where it was already full of tourists. Once we entered the first building, we saw an inviting hallway with wall paintings representing the world of Thrace and Bulgarians from the previous century . A long room full of huge barrels followed, bags of rose petals covered the floor and we knew this was where the magic was happening. The beautiful scent in the air was so strong, that it was absolutely overwhelming.
After the tour finished, we spent the whole afternoon behind the gates of the distillery. The company Damascena have built an immaculate rose garden with different roses from all around the world. There is a museum section where you can see the old distilling methods and machinery, along with other old-time equipment from Bulgarian villages. We stumbled upon a pond inhabited by black swans. We visited the restaurant and the bar. We had a little photo shoot which I posted on the blog last year. The final destination was obviously the distillery shop from which I could not leave without a bag full of pure rosewater, hand and face creams and other lotions. They all came at a great price straight from the source.
Where to go?
If you decide to visit the rose valley in Bulgaria during this annual festival in May and June, my advice is to have your first stop at Damascena Skobelevo. After you see, smell, touch and feel the roses for yourself, you can join the celebrations in Kazanlak where you can watch the beauty contest and traditional dances with a glass of local rosé in your hand.
Note: The pictures used in this post belong to Balgarka.co.uk unless otherwise stated.