by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA

Behind the glossy image of a merry rose picker lies back-breaking toil for a pittance

bulgarian rose.jpg

The Austro-Hungarian archaeologist, geographer and ethnographer Felix Kanitz, who visited Bulgarian lands 18 times between 1860 and 1883, could not complain of a lack of gratitude. His detailed map of Bulgaria was used by the Russian army in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and won him a medal from the emperor. It was also used at the Congress of Berlin in June 1878. Present-day Bulgarian history books and academic works still quote Kanitz's accounts of the Bulgarian way of life and traditions at that time. There is a street in Sofia named after him.

One of Kanitz's engravings, however, has had a destiny of its own. It became a cornerstone of the modern Bulgarian tourist industry.

The engraving, which was made in 1870 in the area of Kazanlak, depicts a man and two beautiful Bulgarian women dressed in traditional costumes picking roses.

The image of the pretty rose picker has been reproduced thousands of times over the years. It appeared both in illustrated cards in the early 20th Century and propaganda photos of the 1950s. The rose picker adorned both Turkish delight boxes in Communist Bulgaria and the two-leva banknotes. Today you can hardly find a website, brochure or magazine promoting Bulgaria as a cheap and friendly tourist destination that does not feature rose pickers or just roses. Oil-bearing roses are grown on only a small slice of its territory but nevertheless the flower is on the tourist logo of Bulgaria, which is advertised as the "Country of Roses." In 2008, the rose was chosen as one of the country's symbols in a widely publicised campaign, and the Rose Festivals in Karlovo and Kazanlak on 30 May and 1 June attract thousands of tourists. The programme includes a Rose Queen contest, the boiling of roses, an international folk festival, a photo competition, tasting of rose rakiya and rose jam, and re-creations of ancient Thracian rituals (according to Herodotus, the roses grown by the Thracians were unsurpassed in their splendour).

Truth about rose picking: low purchasing prices...

Truth about rose picking: low purchasing prices...

The plant now used to extract attar of roses from actually arrived in the Bulgarian lands much later. The Kazanlak rose, which is the main variety in Bulgaria, is a descendant of the rose-bearing Rosa damascena. The Ottoman Turks introduced it from the Near East at the beginning of the 18th Century. The only place where the plant would grow was the fields around the towns of Kazanlak, Karlovo and Strelcha, on the southern foothill of the Balkan mountains. Today, this area is known as Rose Valley.

The history of rose oil production in Bulgaria is a rare example of the combination of favourable conditions, a viable market and enterprising people. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe became addicted to perfumes. The Bulgarians from the Rose Valley area responded to the increased demand with an increased supply of attar of roses, which is the basic ingredient in many perfumes. By the mid-19th Century they were already among the wealthiest Bulgarians. They had another stroke of luck at the end of that century, when Bulgaria's independence from the Ottoman Empire had unfortunate consequences for the country's Revival Period bourgeoisie. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the towns in the Balkan Mountains and in the valleys south of them had become rich by sheep breeding and the weaving of woollen braid, which they sold to the Ottoman army. With liberation, they lost this lucrative market and the import of cheap manufactured goods from the West was the final nail in the handicrafts coffin.

Only the production of rose oil remained unaffected by the changes. Today Bulgaria is among the world's largest producers of attar of roses, along with Turkey and France.

Years have gone by but the image of the rose picker has remained the same. Just as in Kanitz's time, during the Rose Festival you will see fields full of young beauties in traditional costumes nimbly picking the flowers in the bright sun. Everything gives the impression that this occupation ought to be included in the world's 10 Best Jobs list.

... and toil

... and toil

But real-life rose picking has nothing to do with this idealised picture.

The rose is a delicate plant. Its essential oils begin to evaporate when the sun is hot and for this reason, rose pickers – the real ones and not those from the postcards – are in the fields at five in the morning. The bushes are wet with dew, the thorns pierce even the strongest clothes and your feet get stuck in the cold mud. No rose picker is clad in traditional costume – they all wear their oldest clothes.

As in Kanitz's time, roses are picked by hand. But instead of picturesque baskets, they are stuffed into ordinary large, and much more convenient, plastic bags.

The most striking difference between classical rose pickers and the true workers in the fields is their faces. The people toiling among the flowering bushes are mainly Gypsies.

They inhabit small, third-world-like houses in several villages around the area and one neighbourhood of Kazanlak. Most of them are generally unemployed. Rose picking is one of the few ways to earn something. Their daily wage depends on the amount they pick and ranges between 10 and 20 leva. The price that producers get for the rose flowers is not very high either. Due to the drought in 2009, for example, the quality of the attar deteriorated. Buyers reduced the price of rose flowers from 1.50 to 1.20 leva per kilo and a kilogram of rose oil sold for 4,500 instead of 5,000 euros on the international market. Rose producers suspected the buyers of a cartel agreement and tried to boycott them – without much success.

Gypsies are traditionally employed as low-paid, unskilled labour in rose picking

Gypsies are traditionally employed as low-paid, unskilled labour in rose picking

Attar of roses acquired a slightly negative aura in the collective consciousness of the Bulgarians as early as the 1890s, when Aleko Konstantinov's collection of satirical stories entitled Bay Ganyo was published. The main character, the archetypal uncouth and cunning buffoon – the Bulgarian equivalent of the stock Irishman, travels around Europe in search of a market for his valuable rose oil. Here is what happens in his hotel in Vienna: "As the rose oil that Bay Ganyo was carrying was indeed a rather precious article, I recommended him to leave it in the safetydeposit box. 'The safety deposit?' he shouted in a tone showing his pity for my naivety. 'You are strange people, you scholars! How do you know the kind of men they have at the safe? They could take your oil and disappear somewhere! Well? What do you do then? Can you see this waistband?' Bay Ganyo lifted his loose waistcoat. 'I'll put all the phials inside. True, they'll be a bit heavy, but safe.'"


The towns of Rose Valley realised the potential of rose picking as a tourist attraction as early as the beginning of the 20th Century, when the first weekend in June was declared a Rose Festival. In the 1930s the event was already attended by tourist groups from Sofia because it coincided with the birthday celebrations of Karlovo's most famous son, revolutionary leader Vasil Levski (1837- 1873).

Rose picking near Kazanlak, an 1870's engraving by Felix Kanitz

Rose picking near Kazanlak, an 1870's engraving by Felix Kanitz

The Second World War put a halt to the tradition, but the festival was revived in the village of Rozino in 1947. In 1965 it was interrupted by an unfortunate incident. While Communist leader Todor Zhivkov was giving a speech standing on a horse cart, the animal got startled and ran off. Zhivkov never came to the area for the rose-picking season again. The Rose Festival was reinstated in 1967 and in 1969 it was declared a national holiday and is celebrated in Karlovo in odd years and in Kazanlak in even years.


The attar is the most valuable thing that oilbearing roses produce but it is not the only one. The people of Rose Valley do not wash out the pots when they boil the rose water, but put plum marc and sugar in them and make gyulova rakiya, or rose brandy.

Bulgarian roses

Every good housewife in the area also knows how to make rose jam. It is not difficult. Boil 1kg of sugar and 500ml of water to make a syrup, add 150g of oil-bearing rose petals and simmer. When the mixture becomes thick, add 8g of tartaric acid diluted with some cold water. Boil for another five or six minutes and pour into jars. Whether you will like it is a matter of taste but even if you take to rose jam, don't eat too much. It is one of the strongest natural laxatives.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.


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