The Festival of the Roses

The Festival of the Roses

[written 2006]

The area around Karlovo and Kazanlak, at the base of the Balkan mountains is famous for rose production. To celebrate this industry, each year a festival is held in the first week of June – the Festival of the Roses. This festival has been taking place since 1903 and is an extension of the celebrations that local rose growers used to have at the beginning of each rose harvesting season.

My partner and I happened to be staying not far from Kazanlak, arranging our house renovations at the start of June this year and so on the first Sunday in June we decided to drive into Kazanlak and watch the parade. The main town centre was cordoned off and police directed us down narrow back streets where we abandoned the car and made our way towards the centre.

Festival of the RosesThe streets were lined with coaches from all over Bulgaria and thousands of people lined the main street and filled the town square. Parked outside the hotels were numerous blacked-out Mercedes with embassy number plates and flags for visiting dignitaries from as far a field as South Africa and Japan. In fact the festival is incredibly popular with the Japanese and there were numerous coach parties and organised tours of Japanese tourists.

We took up our position at the back of the crowd, opposite the main square and stood waiting in the blazing sunshine for the parade to start. We had no idea what to expect and so you can imagine our amusement when all of a sudden the theme tune to Star Wars blared out and the President of Bulgaria appeared on the stand in front of us. After a speech, the only words of which I could make out were ‘rose’ and ‘Bulgaria’, the President and his escorts left the stage and the parade got under way.

Festival of the RosesFirst to appear were young men dressed in sheep’s wool and animal skins with huge cow bells tied around their waists, which created a deafening din akin to hundreds of drums beating as they danced along the street. These were followed by processions of horses with the riders dressed up as ancient soldiers from various periods, children dressed as roses and plant pots, local school groups in traditional costumes and groups of dancers.

Mixed in-between the more traditional elements of the parade were local clubs such as a local football team and an automobile club.

Overhead a paraglider swooped up and down the street spraying the crowds underneath with refreshing rose water and dropping rose petals from above. And every now and then there would be a roar of engines as an old Russian airplane flew over the main square so low that it was literally only feet above the trees and lower than the roofs of surrounding hotels. Flying so low and close to crowded areas would simply never be allowed in the UK.

Festival of the RosesTowards the end of the parade the Queen of the Roses was driven along in an open topped Mercedes with the former Queen and several ‘bridesmaids’ all following. Each year a local girl is picked to be the Queen of the festival.

After an hour, my feet were starting to get rather tired and so we left the main street in search of food. Afterwards, once the parade was over, we walked around the lovely pedestrianised main square of Kazanlak where groups were partaking in traditional dancing and street stalls were selling balloons and toys for children. There are many street cafes and bars and a lot of money has recently been spent updating Kazanlak’s image and main town centre. While the outskirts of the town are still pretty drab and ugly with the usual high rise concrete tower blocks, the centre is a lovely contrast with fountains and small park areas.