During the first weekend in June, all roads lead to Kazanluk, aka, The Valley of Roses. Having followed the convoy of tourist buses and cars passed the rose fields that spread out across the dotted pink landscape around us, we arrive fresh in the centre where the intense rose fragrance gets stronger and the carnival is about to begin.
Bulgaria has been cultivating roses for more than three hundred years and is one of the biggest producers of roses in the world. In addition to using the rose for oil manufacturing, it is produced for brandy, jam and Rakia (a national liqueur, usually homemade and often drunk daily!)
The Valley of the Roses stretches over 130km and villagers celebrate on a local level throughout the area but the climax of the festivities takes place in Kazanluk situated at the base of The Balkan Range. If you’re planning to spend some time here, book your accommodation well in advance as it attracts many visitors from across the globe.
The day traditionally starts at around 5am where tour buses can be seen parked up next to the rose fields and everyone gets the chance to pick the petals on this special day. For the locals, this is the start of a short, but labour intensive season of rose collecting, but today the job is seen through rose tinted glasses and people in traditional costumes sing and dance in the fields. You can very easily cast your mind back to years gone by with its ritualistic customs.
The next port of call is the Rose Museum for the selection and coronation of the future Rose Queen. The museum itself is extremely small but that doesn’t stop the cheers for the deciding winner who holds the proud title for the coming year.
Back in the centre, people are exciting themselves with the numerous stalls selling anything from traditional Bulgarian crafts to the many varieties of rose products. In the background, customary Bulgarian music can be heard and the carnival crowd mingle with tourists and locals. Food and drink are high on the agenda before the parade and you should get in early if you want a sit down meal as every restaurant and bar are busy with diners.
Then for the real carnival procession: brightly coloured masked men, traditionally known as kukeri, dance and stomp, clanging their cow bells round their waist as they exhibit their moves through the streets; large groups of local children dressed in Bulgarian national costumes march and dance past with sweet smiles and a proud demure. They often scramble for a photo opportunity with the Rose Queen who sits elegantly on her throne honouring her title and waving to the crowds that pass. Older ladies gently sway past carrying large baskets of rose petals which they throw out to the crowds. These displays are mixed in with all the usual silliness that a carnival produces and animal costumes appear quite popular, cajoling the audience as they go along. The streets are lined with thousands of people, cheering the participants while cameras snap and TV cameras roll.
When the procession finishes, instead of the usual litter spray on the streets there is a carpet of rose petals that have been thrown from carnivalists to the audiences and back again. My daughter scooped up a whole bag full of the sweet scented petals, keeping them to make her own perfume later.
The party is by no means over: everyone heads back into the town’s square where bands and musicians play on the centre stage, playing both modern and traditional music. Small groups of people hold hands and dance to the music in ever increasing circles: anyone can join in and it doesn’t matter if you don’t quite get the fancy footwork right. The day is about fun and laughter and the Bulgarians celebrate right into the night.
Further information: http://www.rose-festival.com/