damask roses in bulgaria

The rose is the most popular flower in the world. And I am not blind to its beauty. My favorite perfume is Tea Rose; I have traveled to see fields of roses and stunning rose gardens on six continents, showcasing up to 300 species and thousands of varieties. But the most prized of all is the Rosa Damascena ( the Rose of Damascus), which draws thousands of visitors each year to its adopted home in — of all places — Rose Valley, Bulgaria. Here, travelers like me come to see and smell the roses, and to buy the myriad products made with them, especially during the Festival of Roses (held the first week of June and coinciding with the harvesting of the blossoms). Other visitors come year round and are driven by commerce, not pageantry, because the Damask Rose is big business. The market for rose oil (attar of roses) in 2023 was worth more than $12 billion, and is projected to double by 2030. Rose Valley produces 70 percent of that market. The oil — used in high-end perfumes and cosmetics, and also, increasingly, in food, beverage, wellness, and personal care — is an essence so precious that it is called Bulgaria’s liquid gold. One kilo of rose oil can fetch $15,000.

The Paradoxes

damascus roses in the bulgarian mountains
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During my visit to Rose Valley, I was struck by the paradoxes of its star attraction:

  • The Rosa Damascena is not the most beautiful of roses.
  • Its yield of rose oil is lower than that of many varieties.
  • The extracted oil must be aged for at least three months, ironically to enhance the freshness of the fragrance.
  • The climate of central Bulgaria is not inherently optimal for rose growing.
  • The very name of the flower is misleading: this variety was first cultivated in Iran more than 2000 years ago, and later was grown in Syria. Because of the Syrian connection, it was introduced to Western Europe during the Middle Ages as the “Damask rose.” It came to Bulgaria around the 16th century from Turkey, when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.

About Damask Rose Oil

Rose Valley stretches across central Bulgaria, below Veliko Tarnovo, an artistic center in the north, and above Plovdiv, a larger cultural city in the southwest. The valley’s soil is poor and stony; the climate, cool and humid; however, the cooler temperatures in the spring prevent the rose petals from forming a protective wax. The humidity allows higher oil saturation in the rose, which makes the fragrance of the resulting rose oil more pleasing and unique.

Would a rose in any other valley smell as sweet? Not likely. The yield of oil from the Damask rose may be lower than that of other roses, but the quality is higher. Also, this rose produces a larger number of blossoms than other varieties, which more than compensates for the lower yield per flower. Plus, the Damask rose has proven itself to be adaptable to less-than-ideal growing conditions, unlike more fragile blossoms.

roses being distilled in bulgaria
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In the early 20th century, Bulgarian traders began selling rose oil in Paris, London, and New York. The allure of rose oil wasn’t new (Cleopatra had bathed in rose water, Persian poets had extolled its amorous powers, Josephine Bonaparte was a fan), but new global affluence increased demand for attar of rose and the industry expanded. Especially in Rose Valley.

The main town is Kazanlak, the rose capital of the world, which dates back to the Neolithic era (6th-5th Millennium BCE), and has a current population of about 50,000 people. Kazanluk is aptly named; the word means “cauldron,” a large pot often used in the distillation of rose oil.

During harvest season, tens of thousands of workers flood the fields of Rose Valley to pick the blossoms at their peak. Harvesting starts at 5 am and ends between 9-10 am. The blossoms must be picked early when there is still dew on them, because that is when they have the highest oil concentration. Once the sun and the temperatures rise, picking is over. Wind is as much the enemy as sun, because yield declines as wind increases.

The process is not mechanized because the flowers are delicate and only an experienced picker knows how to choose the soft roses that are fully in bloom. Staged ceremonies invariably feature lovely young women with rose tiaras in their hair, wearing embroidered red tunics and green aprons, dropping blossoms into wicker baskets. These events are beautiful to see, but the work of rose pickers is hard and intense.

sacks of damascus roses
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Experts can pick 60-70 kilograms in a day, taken from rows of bushes 180 meters long. Each blossom has to be twisted, not plucked, using both hands. Experience is needed, too, to avoid the ever-present thorns. No wonder that producers pay $8,000 a kilo for labor alone.

Filled bags are tied, weighed in the field, put on trucks, and immediately taken to distilleries. The petals must be distilled within an hour after harvesting to extract the largest amount of oil. A delay of even two or three hours affects the quality, yield, and fragrance of the oil. Between 3,000 to 5,000 kilograms of rose blossoms are needed to produce just one kilo of rose oil. The “liquid gold” moniker exists for a reason.

What To Do:

annual rose picking ritual in bulgaria
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The sights of Kazanluk include the Rose Museum, where the entire process of rose distillation can be seen. The town also boasts another attraction that has nothing to do with flowers: the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak (or rather, a replica of the original tomb). The Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes in the area that became the Balkans, and the tomb at Kazanlak lies in a region where more than a thousand tombs of Thracian nobility are found. In fact, Rose Valley is also known as the Valley of the Thracians.

Where to Stay:

Gallery 37: For luxury accommodations, the selection is better in Plovdiv, located about an hour and a half southwest of Kazanluk. This neoclassic home, located in the center of Plovdiv’s Old Town, was recast as a hotel in 2019. Each of its 11 rooms is embellished with original décor from some of Bulgaria’s most illustrious artists. Enjoy breakfast in a garden setting (or in bed), and book a personal guide to unearth the delights of the world’s fifth oldest city.

Featured image courtesy of Canva