It seems to me that the off-the-beaten-path places are usually our favorites. Last summer we found our way to Kazanlak, which is in the middle of nowhere, Bulgaria. When we showed up to our hotel, the woman at the front desk (or rather, front bar) pulled out a notebook full of handwritten scribbles. There wasn’t a computer in sight. They lost our reservation, no surprise there, and then just happened to have a free room that was exactly what we had booked. I stood there trying to figure all of this out via a game of charades, as there was no one around who spoke English. It was half frustrating and half fantastic.
Just outside the the city center there is a place known as “the valley of the roses.” Seventy percent of the world’s rose oil is pressed from the roses grown in that little basin in the Balkan Mountains. Every year, over the first weekend in June, they commence the rose picking season with a local festival. We showed up for the “rose picking ritual” and found ourselves loners and outcasts among two sets of people: the native Bulgarians (dressed in traditional red and green clothing) and an asian tour bus group (dressed in fanny packs and DSLR cameras). The Bulgarian locals were gathered on large family-style blankets surrounding copious amounts of home cooked food. The tourists congregated to stare at them through their camera lenses, like people gathered around a very important fish tank.
Our four-year-old got away from us in the crowd and plopped herself right onto the lap of one of the Bulgarian grandmothers, and instead of being scolded she was promptly fed and fawned over. This led to an unspoken invitation for the rest of our little family to join in the household meal. Our baby was passed around from grandmother to grandmother, and in return we were passed musaka, palachinka, banista, and other amazing local foods. You guys, THIS is what I am talking about when I tell you that traveling with kids opens crazy doors. Without our naughty little children we would have missed out on this amazing moment. The festival continued with dancing and celebration followed by the crowning of the rose queen and the picking of the roses — which we actually got to help with. Awesome, right? And they let us keep as many roses as we could carry. We took ours home and turned them into potpourri, and pressed them into the pages of our journals. It was so much fun!
Okay, now for the important logistical information. To GET THERE you’ll need to rent a car. There is pretty much no other way to do it unless you go with a tour group, but the roads are well paved and driving was easy in Bulgaria. It’s about a 3-hour-drive from Sofia or a 2-hour-drive from Burgas (Side note: I would very highly recommend seeing Burgas and the surrounding areas of Sunny Beach and Nessebar). Once you are there you will want to stay in the city of Kazanlak. Hotels are sparse online but not impossible to find. We stayed at Complex Artemida which was a bit backward but totally beautiful. I would absolutely stay there again. Make sure to book early if you are going to be there the weekend of the festival. It’s probably the only time of year that they get guests, but the hotels definitely fill up.
The actual rose picking ritual is about a 15-min-drive from the city center (located in село Розово, also known as Rozovo) and anyone can show you how to get there. We had no trouble finding it as it is a very small town. The entrance cost us 10 Bulgarian Lev/ person and you have to pay in cash. Our kids (all age 4 and under) were free. There were also free festivities going on all weekend long in the city center, including performances and parades. You’ll also find lots of vendors set up everywhere, selling anything and everything rose themed. We came home with some rose extract and some rose oil. We also tasted rose water, rose jam, rose candy, and rose everything else.
I like to know what is going on before I get somewhere, but I had the hardest time tracking down any information about the festival online. I finally figured out the schedule by tracking down and emailing the local tourism office. They sent me back an email with the itinerary as well as a link to Kazanak.com. It might still have last years schedule listed but the itinerary is relatively the same from year to year. The website is in Bulgarian but if you open it in a browser with a translation option (like Google Chrome) it is easy to navigate.
Also on this trip, we made stops in Burgas, Sunny Beach, Nessebar, Plovdiv, and Sofia. Honestly, this is one of my favorite adventures we have had yet. The Bulgarian county side is beautiful, the Bulgarian beaches are wonderful, and the Bulgarian ruins are truly unique. Don’t live you life without taking a road trip across Bulgaria. Just don’t do it! And trust us when we tell you that you should go in June so that you can stop and smell the roses.