Kazanlak Bulgarian Rose Festival

It’s 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 sat 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 adorable.

IMG_4761Just 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, in 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.
IMG_6404Our 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 old woman to old woman and in return we were passed musaka, palachinka, banista, and other amazing local foods. IMG_6423You 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 you actually get to help with. Awesome, right? And they let you keep as many roses as you can carry. We took ours home and turned them into potpourri. It was so much fun.

Ok. Enough about that. 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 there. 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 Kazanluk. Hotels are sparse on-line but not impossible to find. We stayed at Complex Artemida which was a bit backwards but totally beautiful. I would totally 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 do fill up.IMG_4822

The actual rose picking  ritual is about a 15-min-drive from the city center (located in село Розово, also known as Rozovo) but anyone can show you how to get there. We had no trouble finding it as it is a very small town. The entrance cost 10 Bulgarian Lev/ person and you have to pay in cash. Our kids (all age 4 and under) were free. There are 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 and I had the hardest time tracking down any information about the festival online.IMG_4778 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.

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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.

Five-Petalled Rose Renaissance Festival: Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

I’ll admit that the last time I was at a Renaissance Festival I was probably 12-years-old. So, I was way overdue for my fill of Amateur Actors, Sultry Maidens and Drunken Fools. That’s why we decided to visit the Five-Petalled Rose Celebration in Český Krumlov, Czech Republic. It is now one of our very favorite family memories.

IMG_0884Český Krumlov is about a 2-hour drive south of Prague and even without the festival this adorable and authentic medieval city would be worth the trip. If  you don’t have a car, the best way to get in is by bus. It’s a 3-hour bus ride from Prague or 4-hours from Vienna. The festival is held Annually in the month of June on the weekend of the Summer Solstice. This year it will take place from Jun 19 – Jun 21, 2015.  The festival lasts three days but on our trip we stayed in Prague and just made a day trip down to the Renaissance Faire.

For the duration of the festival, the entire historic section of the city closes to all outside traffic. You can park (for a small fee) at several parking lots just outside the center and walk in. We parked in the lot by the southern bridge. Tickets are sold, for cash only, at  every the entrance into the historic downtown. When we arrived we received a little map of the city as well as a schedule of events (which can also be found on the official website). Once inside, the city itself is a fun place to wander. It is tucked nicely into a large curve in Vltava river. The historic town dates back to the 13th century and has been relatively untouched since then. Here were the highlights for us:

IMG_0952The Sights: The view of the faded but colorful castle tower is visible from all over the town. There are several great points where you can get a really great look at it. Across the northern bridge you will climb by ramp and road to the castle. It’s bumpy in places but fairly stroller friendly. If you continue up the hill past the castle, you will find the castle gardens as well as a great view of the city. The town is very small making it pretty easy to find your way around.

IMG_1636Shops and Venders: At the Castle base are booths where authentically dressed vendors sell all kinds of handmade goods. We came home with some local honey as well as some beautiful and fragrant lavender soap. Also, as you wander through the tiny streets you will find little shops that sell all kinds of children’s toys, trinkets, and treats. During the festival, in the main square, there are lots of food tents set up. It’s a street food kind of feeling but it’s all quite yummy. Make sure to bring cash as most places won’t take a credit card.

IMG_0887Performers: In the main square, you will also find a large stage. The majority of the performances happen here. However, as you meander in and out of the ally ways, you will likely run across some smaller performances. We happened upon a fantastic 2-man puppet show. The actors were over the top and very kid friendly. They were so animated and fun that it didn’t even matter that the performance was entirely in Czech.  We also ran across some jugglers and other street performers that were hired by the festival. You can check the schedule for these performances as well as for larger demonstrations like sword fighting and jousting.

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IMG_1646Kids Rides & Games: Just on the other side of the city wall, there is a great big children’s section. This was our very favorite part. Here we found all kinds of old timey carnival rides. The target age for this area is probably 2-8 but our 1-year-old did just fine. This section was full of all kinds of swings and games. There was also a medieval style merry-go-round.IMG_1651 A large man pushes a large wooden arm as he runs side-by-side with the carousel to propel the children as they sit in little brown baskets. Our kiddies couldn’t get enough. We spent several hours here and it wasn’t long enough.

This festival is a perfect vacation destination for families. If you are looking for a fun European spot to take your kids this summer – look no further. The Czech Republic, that’s where it’s at. Can we come back and do this every year? Pretty pretty please!