The romance of harvest time in the Valley of Roses lures Benjamin Gilmour to one of Europe's most fragrant festivals.
EVERY great poet, from Keats to Browning, Milton to Lorca, has written about the rose. And almost every lover has delivered them. Many would agree that no flower is quite as wondrous. Its scent, although too sweet for some, is widely exalted.
My wife Kass adores it and carries a small bottle of rose water in her handbag, never missing a chance to give her face and mine a refreshing squirt. Her love of the flower is such that our newborn daughter's middle name is Rose. And so, in the year of her birth, we decide to seek out a land where the rose grows abundantly.
Bulgaria, we hear, is a country most famous for its roses and said to produce a majority of the world's rose oil for perfumes. Furthermore, a little investigation reveals that every year, on the first weekend of June, a rose festival takes place in the central Bulgarian town of Kazanlak. Without a second thought, we book our tickets.
Trains to Kazanlak from Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, are frequent. Leaving the train with excitement, we are disappointed to find the home of the world's most beautiful flower so downright unattractive. Like many eastern European towns, Kazanlak is no less a jumble of concrete monstrosities devoid of taste. Luckily, salvation comes in the form of Igor, a charismatic, aloha-shirt-wearing taxi driver who says: "Not be minding. I will take you to very nice village!"
And this he does, very fast, with his stereo blaring Suicide Blonde at full volume. We stop once along the way, when Igor skids to a halt and jumps out, running into a field of rose bushes to pluck an armful of petals that he promptly throws like confetti over my wife and child. "Season of the rose!" he shouts above the music, and we drive on.
Four kilometres from Kazanlak, the quaint village of Shipka lies nestled at the base of the Stara Planina, a narrow mountain range stretching across Bulgaria, shielding what is known as the "Valley of Roses" from cold northern winds. With cobblestone streets, rough stone cottages and trellises of grapevines, Shipka could easily pass for a village in the south of France. The scent of ripe roses is clearly detectable, infusing the air.
The Shipka IT Hotel is near full for the festival. Its jolly owner Ivan, a former jazz musician, knows how to look after guests and, in this remote quarter of the universe, has built a wood-panelled steam bath to keep them extra happy.
Early next morning, with a day to go before the start of the rose festival, we hire a car from a local mechanic and explore the Valley of Roses, visible from our hotel room, misty and dense and stretching as far as we can see. Taking a random turn-off down a dirt track, we pass fields of bushes laden with the pink buds of the Damascus rose, named after the Syrian capital, where the species originated.
Eventually, we pull up alongside two enormous barns that appear to be a rose distillery. We are greeted by the forelady, Vera, who wears a crown of fresh roses. During harvest, she tells us, it is tradition to wear a rose crown in the fields. She orders one made for Kass.
"Come with me," she beckons. As we move along the rows of bushes, all about our own height, the pepper-sweet fragrance of Damask is intoxicating, as if the atmosphere is comprised of a heavenly, inhalable dessert. Families of Roma gypsies move swiftly through the rose-bush corridors, plucking the pale pink buds and tossing them into sacks slung over their shoulders. They wear thick gloves and sewing thimbles to prevent getting pricked, yet still they bleed. But stopping is out of the question. Everyone appears to be racing against the sun, to have their bags filled by noon, at which time the dew has fully evaporated from the pollen and the petals will have opened too far.
"It's a narrow window, the rose is at its prime for just a week and can only be plucked in the mornings," Vera says. "It is the only way to capture and preserve the scent."
Back at the distillery, bags of petals and rose heads are poured into vats of water for boiling. At the other end is an open tank of pure rose water, on top of which floats a delicate film of precious oil, barely visible to the naked eye. Our host takes a plastic bottle and dips it into a clear corner of the vat, urging us to take a hearty drink of rose water.
The oil is simply too valuable to give away. Though it's difficult to believe, 40 kilograms of petals yield no more than a litre. No wonder this litre is bought for thousands of euros by the world's biggest perfumeries.
The next day, we head into town for the festival and crowning of the Rose Queen. Thousands of locals and visitors from as far away as Moscow gather in the main street of Kazanlak for the grand parade, in which a procession of Bulgarians from villages around Kazanlak, all skipping and singing and ringing cowbells, are resplendent in traditional embroidered costumes. Girls toss rose petals into the crowd and boys pump the air with rose water sprayers as they pass.
Ending in the town square, those who have taken part in the parade now dance in one enormous, snaking Balkan horo. Without hesitation, strangers link arms and join in. Before long, it seems the whole town is dancing. Most of the visitors are, too, all of us in one great waltz, one spiralling circle without apparent end, unified by an exquisite, magical flower - the flower of love in the Valley of Roses.
Lufthansa flies from Sydney to Sofia via Frankfurt, priced from $2519. 13 31 33, flightcentre .com.au. Flights to Sofia can also be made from many European cities, including Athens and Istanbul, on Bulgaria Air. Kazanlak is reached by train from Sofia. Hire a car in Kazanlak and drive to Shipka.
Hotels in Kazanlak town are often booked out for the rose festival but the charming village of Shipka is a better base anyway. The modern Shipka IT Hotel has rooms from 42 leva ($16) a night. Ul Kolyo Adjara 12, Shipka, Bulgaria. +35 9 4324 2112, www.shipkaithotel.com.
See + do
This year's rose festival is from June 3-5, starting on Friday and ending with a grand street parade on Sunday morning.