Like an invisible canopy, the scent spreads across the fields. Every time a gentle breeze rustles the opening buds, the wind carries a delicate wisp of scents past the village and down into the valley. The scent is pure and fine, yet has an opulent, honey-sweet effect. It is delicate, but almost overwhelming in its intensity. This scent is so extraordinary that even experts lack the vocabulary to describe it. And at the same time so charming that it almost takes your breath away: if you take a deep breath and inhale the scent through your nose, you can see the roses even with your eyes closed.
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In the early morning, only the fields on the hills of the Kalofer farmhouse are enveloped in aromas. Later it seems as if the scent of the flowers can be smelled in every corner of the valley, as if the entire landscape has been doused with the seductively sweet perfume. As if that were not enough, there is also a dose of opium for the eye. The bright pink of the many millions of pink flowers shines through the lush green of the rows of bushes.
A kilo of rose oil costs more than 10,000 euros
Bulgaria Air (www.air.bg) and Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) fly nonstop from Frankfurt to Sofia. To Kasanlak in the Rosental you can rent a car (approx. 200 kilometers and a three-hour drive, price comparison at www.reise-preise.de).
A charming pension with home cooking is the Iliikova Guest House in Kalofer (double rooms with breakfast from 25 euros, www.iliikova-kashta.com). A central accommodation in Kazanlak is the Roza Hotel (double room with breakfast from 50 euros, www.hotelrozabg.com). Pools and spa treatments are available at the Pavel Banya hot springs at the Balneo Hotel DianaMar (double rooms with breakfast from €90, www.dianamar.eu).
The Studiosus “Monasteries, Mountains and Sea” study tour leads to the Valley of the Roses (ten days including flight from 1895 euros per person, www.studiosus.com). Specialist Ekaterina El Batal has devoted herself entirely to flowers (nine days from/to Sofia from 1,290 euros per person, www.rosenreise.de).
The damask rose blooms until mid-June. In many towns there are public harvests. On the first weekend of June, Kazanlak celebrates the Festival of Roses (www.rosefestivalkazanlak.com). In the city park there is a museum of fragrant roses (www.muzei-kazanlak.org). A visit to the historic Enio Bonchev distillery is exciting (by appointment only, www.eniobonchev.com).
As soon as the first rays of the sun shine over the Balkan mountains, bees and rose beetles swarm out, glowing as green as flying emeralds. Many people are already standing. As did Nikolina Baneva, her brother Stoil Bachkarov, and a handful of harvest workers. From mid-May, the well-established team will spend almost four weeks in their small field outside the town of Kalofer, morning after morning. Kalofer is a nest forgotten by world events in the middle of Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union. And yet, it hides a precious treasure: one that you can breathe and that smells so amazing that perfumers all over the world are clamoring for it.
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Every rosebush has innumerable buds that open at dawn. Every day, the field is transformed into a sea of pink flowers for a whole month. But the collectors do not have time to enjoy the natural spectacle. “It’s a race against time,” says Nikolina, who will only allow herself a coffee break when the many dozen sacks of cut flowers are on their way to the distillery in the van. Because the essential oils in rose petals evaporate with rising temperatures, speed is required at harvest time. If you don’t wear heavy-duty gloves, your fingers will be bloody. Stoil shows how harvesting can still be done quickly.
Pluck the flowers with your thumb and forefinger, parallel with both hands. The apron she wears tied around her waist weighs three kilos. The essence of this is just a few grams of essential oil. But that’s just it.
Where the Balkan mountains and the Sredna Gora mountain range come within a few kilometers, there is the approximately 80-kilometer-long “Valley of Roses”. A temperate climate, sheltered from the wind, lots of rain in winter, lots of sun in spring: the Damascus rose has been growing here for hundreds of years. Even the Romans knew that its scent is suitable for relaxation.
Most of the production is bought by the main perfume manufacturers: Damascus rose oil is the basis of the best fragrances in the world. Other strains may have longer stems and larger, brightly colored petals. “But the damask rose smells purer and more intense than the other varieties. Its flowers are small, but they contain more aromatic molecules”, explains Alexander Draganov. The fragrance specialist has a good reputation in the industry because he paid suppliers fairly and was one of the first to use organic farming.
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The employees pour 3,000 kilos of flowers into the cauldrons to end up with a single kilo of rose oil. The noble product goes straight to the safe: on the world market, a kilogram costs more than 10,000 euros. No wonder people often adulterate, using cheap geranium oil or wild rose oil extracted from rose hips. A cheaper souvenir for visitors is rose water made from pickled flower petals. But you don’t buy that at the souvenir stand either, but at the distillery.
“Having rose water in your bag can do wonders. When I spray that on the subway, even the most stubborn people have a smile on their face”, smiles Ekaterina El Batal. The Bulgarian, who lives in Germany, organizes trips to her former native country, where everything revolves around roses. Participants help with harvesting and process the harvest into jam and essences. Above all, there is plenty of time to let the scent work its magic on her. “Trying to describe the magic of the rose with words is just that: an attempt,” reflects Ekaterina El Batal. “You have to experience the magic of it.”