La Vie en Rose

Dear Reader,

On Saturday I visited the rosiest town in Bulgaria – Kazanlak (accent on the final a), and I am still high from the luscious smell of the roses that here are practically growing on you from everywhere.

Freshly picked Rosa Damascena. The humid air and the light rain intensified the smell of the roses and made Saturday a perfect day for rose picking.
Freshly picked Rosa Damascena. The humid air and the light rain intensify the smell of the roses, thus making the drizzling Saturday a perfect day for rose picking.

Kazanlak is located in central Bulgaria, about 200 km east from Sofia. It is one of the main cities in the country engaged in Rosa Damascena cultivation and rose oil and water production.

Rose blossoms already picked. Each of these bags weighs about 20 kg. Between 2.5 and 4 tonnes of rose blossoms are needed to produce one kg of rose oil which in its purest form has the consistency and colour of cooking sunflower oil.
Rose blossoms already picked. Each of these bags weighs about 20 kg. Between 2.5 and 4 tonnes of rose blossoms are needed to produce one kg of rose oil which in its purest form has the consistency and colour of cooking sunflower oil.

This humble looking but very fragrant rose came to Bulgaria from Asia about 500 years ago, after it had been introduced to France. It got along with the moderate climate and light soil of central Bulgaria so well that by the 19th century the country was rising as a global leader in the production of rose oil, which it sold all over Europe and the U.S.

With large-scale production with such distillation equipment, Bulgarian rose oil producers conquered Europe contributing to the development and refinement of its perfume industry.
Large-scale production with such artisanal distillation equipment helped 19th-century Bulgarian rose oil producers contribute to the development and refinement of the European perfume industry.
Bulgarian rose oil shipment tags. These were attached to rose oil containers shipped to foreign customers. Source: The Rose Museum in Kazanlak.
Bulgarian rose oil shipment tags, late 19th century and early 20th century. These were attached to rose oil containers shipped to foreign customers. Extra Fine, From Bulgaria. Sure sounds nice, doesn’t it? Picture taken at the Rose Museum in Kazanlak.
The accounts book of a prominent rose oil trader from Kazanlak, exhibited in the Rose Museum.
The accounts book of a prominent rose oil trader from Kazanlak, exhibited at the Rose Museum. Take note of the calligraphic handwriting. After the Russian tradition, until recently Bulgarians have been taught to write with a right-ward slant. This changed in the second half of the 20th century as experts believed handwriting facing upwards was easier for the children. Still, those who studied in Russian elementary schools, like myself, received the right-slanting training.
Kazanlak chemistry teacher Hristo Yaramov set up the city's first rose oil testing laboratory in 1912.
Kazanlak chemistry teacher Hristo Yaramov set up the city’s first rose oil testing laboratory in 1912.

My quest to discover all of the above started with a rose-picking ritual in rose plantations located outside a village near Kazanlak.

The sign on the side of the road, indicating where the rose picking ritual will take place.
The sign on the side of the road, indicating where the rose picking ritual will take place.

Rose picking takes place in May and June, starts as early as 04.00 am and ends for the day at about 10.30 before noon if the weather is hot. Humidity makes picking easier because the rose blossoms do not stick to the picker’s fingers and there are no wasps. In addition, rose blossoms drenched with dew are heavier, which is good for the rose pickers and, the best part is that humidity increases rose oil yield by keeping the volatile fragrant substances within the petals.

Young dancers taught at the local community centre are gathering in line to welcome the rose picking ritual guests. The guests break a piece from the ritual bread, dip it in rose petal jam and then treat themselves to rose syrup and rose-flavoured Turkish delight.
Young dancers from the local community centre are gathering in line to welcome the guests to the rose picking ritual. The guests break a piece from the ritual bread, dip it in rose petal jam and then treat themselves to rose syrup and rose-flavoured Turkish delight.
Men tending the distillation process.
Men tending to the distillation process.
Old ladies knitting and providing hawk-eye supervision on how everything is proceeding.
Old ladies knitting and providing hawk-eye supervision on the ritual proceedings.
Another old lady, spinning wool. T
An old lady spinning wool. Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on a spindle similar to the one the grandmother in the picture is holding in her right hand.

 

The young are dancing a ritual rose picking dance.
The young are dancing a ritual rose picking dance.
Not Monet's Woman in a Poppy Field, but a Razhena village grandfather in a rose field.
Not Monet’s Woman in a Poppy Field, but a Razhena village grandfather in a rose field.
Bring out the rakia, the rose water started flowing! :) This rose water flower hot and fragrant. Visitors to the ritual were allowed to fill bottles with this to take home. Separately, at this year's Good Friday vigil, the main priest of the St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral used sanctified rose water, instead of normal one, to bless the laity. This, alongside other canon infringements such as fireworks at the most sacred Easter hour, at midnight, are likely to cost him his post.
Bring out the rakia, the rose water started flowing! 🙂 This rose water flowed warm and fragrant. Visitors to the ritual were allowed to fill bottles with this to take home. Separately, at this year’s Good Friday vigil, the chief priest of the St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral used sanctified rose water, instead of normal one, to bless the laity. This, alongside other canon infringements such as fireworks at the most sacred Easter hour, at midnight, are likely to cost him his post.
This beast is used to transport the rose blossom bags. The rear tyre of this tractor reaches up to my shoulder and I am 174 cm tall...
This beast is used to transport the rose blossom bags. Its rear tyre reaches up to my shoulder and I am 174 cm tall…
Time to leave the rose picking ritual and head for Kazanlak. Look how lovely the poppies growing on the side of the road were!
Time to leave the rose picking ritual and head for Kazanlak. Look how lovely the poppies growing on the side of the road were!

Kazanlak is completely overtaken by roses and is the most rose-coloured city I have seen. Roses are planted in every city garden, park or grass lawn. There is a park called The Rosarium, which is planted with nothing but roses. There is an annual beauty pageant crowning a Rose Queen. The town is home to many small and medium cosmetics companies churning out all sorts of rose extract-featuring lotions and potions. 

Roses are planted everywhere in Kazanlak.
Roses are planted everywhere in Kazanlak.

All this is very good. To tell you the truth I was thinking of calling this post Guns’n’Roses, to highlight the two major means of sustenance of the Kazanlak people – rose cultivation, picking and processing on one side, and production of military, law enforcement and recreational weapons at the local Arsenal factory, on the other.

Oh, this does bring back happy memories of the 1990s...Source: The Guns' homepage.
Oh, this does bring back happy memories of the 1990s…And summarises Kazanlak’s two main areas of economic specialisation. Source: The Guns’ homepage.
The entrance to the Arsenal weapon and ammunition factory in Kazanlak.
The entrance to the Arsenal weapon and ammunition factory in Kazanlak.

I decided to stick to the roses though, as luckily, they are much more present in the city landscape and culture compared to guns. Although the global events may soon change this, at least for now, no one is crowning a Miss Assault Rifle or a Miss Sub-Machine Gun…

However, I found some of the ways the rose has entered the everyday life of the Kazanlak people rather funny…

The house of the Shipkovi family who were prominent 20th century rose traders, is painted pink. In addition, it houses a bar, cheerfully called Bar Zanzibar. My eyebrows shot up to my hairline when I saw this.
The house of the Shipkovi family who were prominent 20th century rose traders, is painted pink. In addition, its garden houses a bar, cheerfully called Bar Zanzibar. My eyebrows shot up to my hairline when I saw this. The bar I mean, in such a house…
If you need a car wash, the one branded Rose 2 is just around the corner.
If you need a car wash, one branded Rose 2 is just around the corner.
A biking event that took place in early May 2016 was called Spokes and Thorns and has roses in its logo.
A biking event that took place in early May 2016 was called Spokes and Thorns and has roses in its logo.
Comfortably situated in downtown Kazanlak, the Rose Hotel is awating guests.
Comfortably situated in downtown Kazanlak, the Rose Hotel is awating guests.
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The Kazanlak coat of arms, as appearing in front of the municipality building, is pink.
Don't you just love how the shades of the municipality building are pink too? :)
Don’t you just love how the shades of the municipality building are pink too? 🙂
Funny, but the sheets in the hotel I am writing this post from have roses on them too...:)
Funny, but the sheets in the hotel I am writing this post from have roses on them as well…:)

So La Vie en Rose through and through…

I’ve never seen so many things pink or smelled so many roses in my life before.

But one lives to find out, as Mark Twain said. 

A rose for you, if you have already started missing them :P
A rose for you, if you have already started missing them 😛