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KAZANLAK AND THE FESTIVAL OF ROSES

Although ¼ of Bulgaria is covered in forests, the Valley of the Roses is a fertile, cultivated valley between the Balkan mountains and the Sredno Gora mountains. Here the Rosa damascena has been cultivated in the perfect combination of climate and soil for 350 years. Small villages are scattered between random rose, lavender, chamomile, wheat and potato fields. The two rural towns of Kazanlak and Karlovo form the focal points for the Rose Festival, held on the 1st weekend in June [brought forward this year because of elections] to celebrate the start of the rose-picking season – about 20-30 days in total !!!.
Rosa damascena blossoms

Rosa damascena blossoms


Rosa alba

Rosa alba

The contrast between the air of decay in the town of Kazanlak and the beauty of the valley, surrounded by mountains, is stark. Even more of a contrast exists with the energy and essence of the precious Rose Otto oil, which derives from the flowers of the valley.

Something that struck us is how shy and unassuming the Damascena rose blossoms, bushes, and whole plantations appear, relative to the exquisite and precious bounty found within each blossom.
Sandi in ecstacy in the rose fields

Sandi in ecstacy in the rose fields

The few other roses we saw in Bulgaria were much more glamorous and spectacular,
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or exquisitely simple,
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but none compare in fragrance to their delicate little pink sibling.
Rosa damascena and buds

Rosa damascena and buds

Smelling the first heady molecules of Rose Otto in a field distillery, right in the very place where the alchemy emerges, is like finding the Holy Grail. There are no words to describe adequately the overwhelming olfactory and emotional sensation of this experience.

On the Saturday, we browsed the street stalls, all selling the same garish, mostly synthetic, rose creams, soaps and candles, etc. There were surprisingly few tourists around, possibly because the weather was gloomy, but also likely due to the change in the usual festival date this year. We spent an amusing hour in a theatre watching a children’s singing “contest”.
Talent show children on stage

Talent show children on stage

A string of 3-6 year-olds each belted out traditional songs with gusto. It was delightfully un-sophisticated, and each child was given a packet of crisps, a pencil, and a balloon after singing. Another striking contrast, compared to many other Western “talent” shows and pageants.

As we were now hungry we found a promising looking restaurant with outside tables [far too smoky indoors]. The menu was all in Bulgarian, with no pictures! The waiter could speak no English either except to say “beans”, so we ended up with two bowls of bean soup and a bowl of French fries instead of the delicious looking fried potato dish at the next table. The beers were easy: there were pictures of the brands.
Kamenitza beer

Kamenitza beer

We then wandered up towards the edge of town past dreary buildings and ubiquitous potholes,
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but there was one lovely cottage we couldn't resist capturing,
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and a charming gypsy pony and cart.
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Arriving at the government Rose Institute and Rose Museum we expected something quite grand, but the Institute building is very modest and austere, and the museum interesting, but simple.
Entrance to the Rose Institute

Entrance to the Rose Institute


Rose Institute

Rose Institute


Ancient lab equipment in Rose Museum

Ancient lab equipment in Rose Museum

Photo of 1st Bulgarian chemistry lab for rose oil testing at Rose Museum

Photo of 1st Bulgarian chemistry lab for rose oil testing at Rose Museum

The Rose Institute gardens were rather lovely, filled with fragrant damascena blossoms
Rosa damascena blossom and seed-catching bag

Rosa damascena blossom and seed-catching bag


and herbs for research,
Tarragon

Tarragon


as well as some hybrid tea roses just for eye-candy.
Glamorous rose, but no fragrance

Glamorous rose, but no fragrance


Exquisite simple rose

Exquisite simple rose


David and the "shaggy-dog" tree

David and the "shaggy-dog" tree

We got into a fragrant mood by going into the rose fields and picking a few damascena blossoms, which we stuffed into our pockets and later dried.
Sandi among Rosa Damascena bushes

Sandi among Rosa Damascena bushes


Dave and Rosa alba

Dave and Rosa alba

We found our way back into town via a large flea market, selling anything and everything including varieties of Turkish delight, which of course, we had to buy to taste. One absolutely delightful, but sad, sight was a children's carousel, complete with live ponies rather than the painted Merry-Go-Round variety.
Kazanlak Carousel

Kazanlak Carousel

The town square was set up with a stage, lights and seating stands for a concert that evening. Just as the show started the rain came down, so we took shelter under the open-air awning of a nearby Bistro, from where we could still see the stage, as the show continued. Within minutes, the skies opened and the deluge of rain turned to hail the size of cherries.
Hailstones on table

Hailstones on table

The wind whipped through the square like a tornado, flinging seats, lighting stands, giant umbrellas, and shelters to the ground! The stage décor was shredded. Several others, like us, were trapped under the awning, so we stood on the tables under our destroyed umbrella, to no avail!
No place to hide!

No place to hide!

The storm was so ferocious and unexpected, we couldn’t move anywhere, let alone indoors, to seek shelter from it. Within minutes the gutters [under the awning for some reason], burst their banks and we were totally drenched, standing in ankle-deep water, unable to dodge the deluge of hailstones that struck us from every direction. We could do nothing except laugh…..hysterically!
Sandi after the storm

Sandi after the storm

Within 20 minutes the skies cleared and we surveyed the devastation; flowerbeds were annihilated and torrents of water coursed through the square.
The devastation to the festival venue after the hail storm

The devastation to the festival venue after the hail storm

“What about the roses” we thought, wondering whether any blossoms would survive for the Festival the next day, but they did. Since the concert was clearly abandoned, we called Plamen for a lift home, picked up a take-away donner kebab for supper, and waited for him, like two drowned rats, at the Lion Fountain, a well-loved landmark which promises anyone who drinks from it that they will return to Kazanlak one day.
The Lion drinking fountain in the central square

The Lion drinking fountain in the central square

Back at Villa Breza Sandi had to iron her jeans dry, as we had packed so economically, and we both wore squelchy shoes with double socks that night when we returned to the square, and the next day. The show started up again later, goodness knows how they got the sound equipment and stage functioning again, but we missed the eventual crowning of the Rose Queen [which a fellow guest said was not a big deal event, and we would see her and the princesses the next day anyway].
The Rose Queen and her Princesses

The Rose Queen and her Princesses

We met 2 other special people that evening [also guests at the villa]; Chan Yee, a lovely lady from South Korea, who travels the world sourcing quality essential oils for her company, and Gonsalo from Chile.
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Gonsalo could hardly speak 2 words of English, but had come to learn how to grow and distil roses from the Bulgarians [who also don’t speak English!] He is a marine biologist with a keen interest in whales, who has planted 40 hectares of very special, high-yield Damascena roses on his farm in Chile, and now that they were ready for harvesting, he needed to learn from the Bulgarian rose oil experts. We opened some Bulgarian wine and marvelled as Sandi had a fascinating metaphysical discussion with him, into the wee hours, all via Chan Yee who was translating into Spanish.

Sunday was a beautiful, sunny day and Plamen agreed to drop us near the Rose festivities. The centre of town was closed off for the parade later, so we had to make our way through a maze of back streets, skirting enormous potholes and driving over pavements. Rules and regulations don’t seem to exist in Bulgaria! [never mind Health & Safety!].

The festivities took place in a car park next to some rose fields.
The man and woman leading the festivities

The man and woman leading the festivities

There was a crowd of only about 150 people and we had a front line view, until the dignitaries and their guests arrived to stand in front of us [many Asian men, probably on rose oil buying trips]. There were more dignitaries than tourists!! Burly Bulgarian police kept the rabble back, behind flimsy bunting cordons, but they were probably more useful in ensuring that we did not get to throttle the “dignitaries” blocking everyone else’s view of the festivities! The hoi-poloi were each given a rose blossom garland/lei, a ceremonial hunk of bread, and a sip of rose liqueur on arrival.
Offering the celbrities bread and rose liqueur

Offering the celbrities bread and rose liqueur

A group of Bulgarian men in traditional sang beautiful harmonies for us, followed by costumed children dancing traditional routines.
The wonderful baritone male choir

The wonderful baritone male choir


A group of traditional dancers and singers

A group of traditional dancers and singers

Older women, also in traditional garb, with creatively decorated baskets full of roses, handed out rose flowers,
A festive rose-picker

A festive rose-picker


Sandi is so tall next to this delightful, toothless lady

Sandi is so tall next to this delightful, toothless lady


Tired after filling all those baskets!

Tired after filling all those baskets!


and men with canisters on their backs, walked around spraying everyone with rose water.
Spraying cool rose water over everyone

Spraying cool rose water over everyone


A young couple

A young couple


A wagon full of kids

A wagon full of kids


Festival kids

Festival kids


Crowns of roses

Crowns of roses


A chat with a pony

A chat with a pony


Festive pony and cart

Festive pony and cart

Then the barriers were removed, and everyone could join in the circle dancing, and received bread and liqueur.
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People were allowed to wander through the fields picking their own roses [and Sandi disappeared for ages, emerging with bulging, blooming pockets.]
Sandi in her element!

Sandi in her element!


Hands full of aroma

Hands full of aroma

As the crowd slowly dispersed, the gypsies, who had just finished the serious rose picking nearby, came gaily forward for the free liqueur.
The real rose pickers have an unglamorous job, away from the festivities

The real rose pickers have an unglamorous job, away from the festivities


The peasant pickers weighing their bags

The peasant pickers weighing their bags


A wagon full of roses

A wagon full of roses

Back in town, the street parade was starting, but here the crowds were so dense it was impossible to see anything. The little bit that David could see was not very interesting, so we settled for some chilled Zornitsa beers, in the shade, instead.

Posted by davidsandi 05:24 Archived in Bulgaria

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