Like an invisible canopy, the fragrance extends across the fields. Every time a gentle breeze burns the opening buds, the wind carries a thin wisp of scents through the village and down into the valley. The scent is pure and subtle, yet has a rich and sweet effect like honey. It’s subtle, but with an almost overwhelming intensity. This smell is so unusual that experts lack the vocabulary to describe it. And at the same time so charming that you almost take your breath away: if you take a deep breath and inhale the scent through your nose, you can see roses even with your eyes closed.
Early in the morning, the fields on the hills of Kalofer Village were the only ones enveloped in scents. In retrospect, it seems that the scent of flowers can be smelled in every corner of the valley, as if the entire landscape has been sprinkled with sweet, alluring fragrance. To make matters worse, there is a dose of opium to the eye. The bright pink of millions of pink flowers flashed across the evergreen of the bushes that stood in rows.
A kilo of rose oil costs more than 10,000 euros
Air Bulgaria (www.air.bg) and Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) fly non-stop from Frankfurt to Sofia. To Kasanlak in Rosental you can rent a car (approximately 200 km and 3 hours by car, compare prices at www.reise-preise.de).
A charming guesthouse with home cooking is Iliikova Guest House in Kalofer (double rooms with breakfast from €25, www.iliikova-kashta.com). Hotel Roza is centrally located in Kazanlak (double room with breakfast from €50, www.hotelrozabg.com). Pools and spa treatments are available in the Pavel Banya hot springs at Balneo Hotel DianaMar (double rooms with breakfast from €90, www.dianamar.eu).
Study trip “Monasteries, Mountains and the Sea” by Studiosus leads to the Valley of the Roses (ten days including trip from €1,895 per person, www.studiosus.com). Specialist Ekaterina Hero devotes herself entirely to flowers (nine days to/from Sofia from €1,290 per person, www.rosenreise.de).
The damask rose blooms until mid-June. In many villages there are common crops. On the first weekend of June, Kazanlak celebrates the Rose Festival (www.rosefestivalkazanlak.com). In the city park there is a fragrant flower museum (www.muzei-kazanlak.org). A visit to the historic distillery in Enio Bonchev is exciting (only by appointment, www.eniobonchev.com).
As soon as the first rays of the sun flashed over the Balkan mountains, bees and roses flocked, shimmering green as if they were a flying emerald. Many people are already on their feet. Just like Nikolina Baneva, her brother Stoel Bachkarov, and a handful of harvest workers. Starting in mid-May, the established team will spend nearly four weeks in their small field on the outskirts of Kalofer Village, morning after morning. Kalofer is a nest forgotten by world events in central Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union. Yet it hides a precious treasure: a treasure you can breathe and smell so amazing that perfumers from all over the world are laying claim to it.
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Each rose bush has countless buds that bloom at dawn. Every day the field turns into a sea of little pink flowers for a whole month. But collectors do not have free time to enjoy the landscape. “It’s a race against time,” says Nikolina, who will only allow herself a coffee break when dozens of bags decorated with cut flowers are on their way to the distillery in the truck. Because the essential oils in rose petals evaporate as temperatures rise, speed is required when harvesting. If you don’t wear sturdy gloves, your fingers will be stained with blood. Stoil shows how quickly harvesting can still be done.
Cut the flowers with his thumb and forefinger, parallel to both hands. The apron that he tied around his waist weighs three kilograms. Its essence is just a few grams of the essential oil. But that’s all there is to it.
Where the Balkan Mountains and the Sredna Gora mountain range are a few kilometers close, lies the almost 80-kilometer “Valley of Roses”. A temperate climate, sheltered from winds, abundant rain in winter, and plenty of sunshine in spring: the damask rose has been thriving here for hundreds of years. Even the Romans knew their scent was suitable for relaxation.
The majority of production is purchased by major perfume manufacturers: Damask rose oil is the basis for the world’s finest perfumes. Other breeds may have longer stems and more brightly colored petals. “But the damask rose smells purer and more intense than other varieties. Their flowers are small, but they contain more scent particles,” explains Alexander Draganov. The fragrance specialist has a good reputation in the industry for paying suppliers fairly and was one of the first to use organic farming.
The staff pours 3,000 kilograms of flowers into the boilers in order to finally get one kilogram of rose oil. A noble product goes directly to the safe: on the world market, one kilogram costs more than 10,000 euros. No wonder people often cheat using cheap geranium oil or wild rose oil squeezed from rose hips. A cheaper souvenir for visitors is rose water, which is obtained from pickled flower petals. But you don’t buy that at the souvenir kiosk either, but at the distillery.
“Having rose water in your wallet can do miracles. When I spray it on the subway, even the most stubborn people have a smile on their face,” smiles Ekaterina the Hero. The Bulgarian, who lives in Germany, organizes trips to her ancient homeland where everything revolves around roses. Participants help pick the crop and turn it into jam and extract. Above all, there is plenty of time to allow the scent to work its magic. “Attempting to describe the magic of the rose in words is just an attempt,” reflects Ekaterina the Hero. “You have to test their magic.”