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Leaving Sofia a little after 5 am, we started early to drive the three hours or so to the Rose Valley. As we passed the Stara Planina, the sun rose, and when dim light turned to bright we saw workers already out in the fields, filling large blue plastic bags with hundreds and hundreds of fragrant pink blooms.

At the rose fields, surrounded by the Balkan range and beautiful country vistas, we had the chance to become flower pickers. The ground was soft and muddy; early morning dew made the bushes wet and moist. It was fun to go down a row and pick from a lane of roses, although we discovered it is not as easy as it seems – – we were very slow! In fact, all ten of us would have earned only a few leva for that half an hour we spent working! With our tiny but fragrant harvest of flowers, happily we sewed and twisted rose blossoms into crowns and garlands, to the amusement of the professional rose pickers.

Next came a visit to the distillery, where each day the morning’s roses are delivered, weighed andprocessed into rose water. The giant steel machines almost reach the ceiling, and the heat and steam felt intense. To our inexperienced eyes it looked a lot like the process of whiskey or wine-making. From the moment we entered the rooms, the drowsy, heavy flowery scent permeated the air. The guide was informative and welcomed our surprise and questions. It was fascinating to examine three types of roses, ones most commonly used in Bulgaria’s rose processing: the top of the line is the famous pale, pink Damascus rose, second is the tiny white Alba rose and finally the aptly named Mille Fleur Rose with the highest number of petals. After walking around the distillery, listening to the steps which culminate in the rose harvest and hearing how the owners began to produce oil in the early 1900’s, we were given the chance to buy rose water, rose oil and lavender oil. What a lot there is to know about the history of roses in Bulgaria!

Back on the bus, we ate a picnic lunch while the minibus carried us to the final stage of our RoseValley adventure. En route to Koprivishtitsa, we compared impressions of the rose pickers, the amazing rose harvest we witnessed, and the century -long success of that old (now modernized) distillery. In Koprivishtitsa we wandered up and down narrow cobblestoned lanes, admiring several museum houses of the Revolutionary leaders. Finally, we drank coffee in outdoor cafes, before returning to Sofia in the late afternoon, our heads full of interesting new facts and our hands full of beautiful roses.

Gayle Clifford