The Liquid Gold of Bulgaria
Fields upon fields of roses, stretching as far as the eye can see, their vibrant pink blossoms almost shimmering in warm rays of the sun. This is not the beginning of a fairytale, nor a dream – it’s a real place in Bulgaria.
You may have heard of the world-famous Bulgarian Rose Otto, but where exactly does it come from, and what is it that makes it so special – special enough to earn it the nickname “liquid gold”?
Here is all you need to know about the Bulgarian rose – and how to best enjoy it in person.
What is Bulgarian Rose Oil?
The Damask Rose is a gentle pink rose cultivar used in essential oil production. It blooms from May to June, engulfing the entire Rose Valley in its sweet scent. The essential oils extracted from this rose are valued for their rich and long-lasting aroma, and are used in aromatherapy, perfumery and even in culinary delicacies. Rose-picking is a delicate process, done entirely by hand even in modern times. Machine-picking, while possible, damages the roses and negatively affects the final product.
The hand-picking is almost ritualistic in nature and traditionally performed by women. It requires great dexterity, patience, and can only happen during specific conditions. The roses cannot be fully open – instead, the perfect time to collect them is when the blossom is still half-closed, as it is then that it yields the most oil. The rose-gatherers begin at dawn, carefully cutting the flowers off their stems and collecting them in willow baskets to take them to the distillery.
Rose oil is most often made through steam distillation. It takes about 2-3 tons of rose blossoms to produce just 1 kg of rose oil.
Where does the Bulgarian Rose grow?
Located just to the south of Bulgaria’s Stara Planina Mountain, also known as the Balkan Mountain, the Rose Valley encompasses a number of towns and villages, and each of them throws an annual festival to honor the oil-giving rose.
The town of Kazanlak is considered the capital of the Rose Valley and has the only rose museum in the country. Its festival is the largest rose-themed celebration in the country, drawing in tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world each year. Kazanlak is also part of the Valley of the Thracian Kings – a region where the ancient rulers of the Thracian tribes that once inhabited Southern Bulgaria are buried. It is home to the UNESCO-protected Kazanlak Tomb – a unique archeological discovery valued for its remarkably preserved 4th century BCE ceiling murals.
Just outside the borders of Kazanlak is the Damascena Ethnographic Complex, dedicated entirely to everything rose-related. This is one of the best places in the country to learn everything there is to know about the Bulgarian Rose Otto and the history and traditions surrounding it. The complex has its own distillery, park, restaurant, and offers almost every rose-derived product you can think of – and more!
Bulgarian Rose products
Bulgarian Rose Oil (or Rose Otto) is one of the most sought-after and expensive essential oils in the world. A single kilogram cost 7000 EUR in 2015.
Damask Rose extract is also used to create perfumes, candles, soaps and skin-care products, but it has one property rarely seen outside Bulgaria.
Bulgaria is one of the few places in the world where you can taste roses. The sheer variety of rose-derived food and beverages found in Bulgaria is staggering – rose brandy, rose tea, rose honey, rose jam, all of them bearing the distinct taste of roses.
Special mention goes to the rose lemonade – travellers are often so impressed, it’s all they’ll talk about for the rest of the day. The rose-experts at the Damascena Ethnographic Complex are masters of this recipe.
The Annual Rose Festival in Kazanlak
Every year, in the beginning of June, the town of Kazanlak hosts an elaborate Rose Festival. This gorgeous spectacle is the most anticipated day of the year for its citizens – and its visitors. It is normally scheduled on the last couple of days of May or the first days of June, but dates vary annually.
What kicks off the Rose festival is the Queen Rose beauty pageant, where highschool graduates compete for the title of Queen Rose. The winner gets to represent Kazanlak in front of its sister cities all around the world in international forums.
The beauty pageant is followed by the “Rose-picking and Rose-boiling” ritual on the Sunday of the holiday – the culmination of the festival. Rose-pickers in folk dresses, folk dancers, kukeri, and performers entertain the crowd and give out rose jam, rose liqueur and other rose products. The most nimble-fingered rose-picker is selected out of the contestants. This is followed by a performance of the folk “rose-picking and boiling” ritual.
Once the tradition is complete, the festivities continue with a vibrant carnival. Over 5000 costumed participants parade down the streets of Kazanlak, dressed as characters from classical literature originating from this region, Queen Rose herself leading them through the town.
How to experience the Bulgarian Rose firsthand
The best way to delve into the world of the Bulgarian Rose is to go straight to its source – tke part in the rose festivals or enjoy a day-trip to the Valley of the Thracian Kings and Roses from Plovdiv.