Bulgarians turn petals of the Rosa Damascena flowers into liquid gold

May 04, 2012 02:32 pm

As we traveled toward the historic village of Arbanasi, Bulgaria, we learned about liquid gold.

Although Bulgaria is a small country, it produces 70 percent of all the rose oil in the world. For them this truly is liquid gold. Rose oil is used in medicine as well as in many therapeutic products and spa procedures. It is said to relieve stress, nervousness and emotional troubles; fight depression and insomnia; and used to treat asthma, allergies, lung disease and gall-stones.

Besides that there are soaps, creams, lotions and shampoos. Bulgarian rose oil is the essential oil extracted from the petal of the Rosa Damascena flowers cultivated near the town of Karlovo.

The flowers are harvested by hand in the morning before sunrise and distilled that same day. To obtain one litre (1.506 quarts) of the oil 3-3.5 tons of red rose flowers or 5-6 tons of white rose flowers are needed. The labor intensive processing has the price per ounce of the oil about $600. Today gold runs more like $1,600. However through the years these two have switched places in value a number of times.

Arbanasi (population 300) was first established between 1200-1500. It reached its heyday during the 17th-18th centuries when it became home to wealthy merchants. In the late 1700s it was mostly destroyed and eventually rebuilt but never again to regain its earlier popularity. Today it is like a charming outdoor museum with some of the houses still being used as private homes, but others are open to the public either as examples of earlier life or as small shops.

Upon arrival we went into one shop where we were served wine, halvah, and Turkish delight. We also received a sample of lotion containing rose oil. This was in one of several charming stone buildings along the main street which had boxes planted with colorful flowers adorning nearly every window. To add to the picture book atmosphere, an accordion player in native costume stood nearby providing some lively tunes.

We walked across the street to one of the 16th century buildings. It exhibited Ottoman influence and was literally built as a small fortress with thick stone walls and no windows on the lower level. It served originally as a private home — a very safe place for the family. One entered through a low door and used steep narrow wooden steps to get to the second floor family living quarters. The rooms of the house were large with beautifully carved ceilings, but had little furniture. Brightly colored spreads, other linens, and serviceable brass vessels and bowls were used to decorate and make the home more comfortable.

One room had a huge wall to wall platform bed. This was the summer bedroom. As a cultural tradition all members of the family slept in one bed and we were told that the couple who lived in this house had 10 children. The winter bedroom had an even larger bed and one of the few heaters in the house. The beds were the main pieces of furniture and were used for seating units as well. The women prepared the food in a small kitchen and served it on trays to the men as they lounged on the beds. Women had many children and about the only time they had to themselves was after the birth of a child. There was a special birthing room where the mother went before the birth and where she stayed with her baby for 40 days in solitude afterward. There was a large bed with a cradle hanging over it. The mother and child stayed there with only a servant to bring her food and care for her needs.

We walked up a narrow street to the Church of Nativity of Christ, passing a group of local women selling their brightly colored embroidery. This church with two foot thick walls, built in the 15th to 17th centuries had every inch of the interior covered with colorful frescoes — the whole of the Old and New Testaments, the wheel of life, and a section showing the vanity of human life.

The walls provided the complete Bible for the church goers who were unable to read. Men sat in one room and women in another. The seats were around the outside walls and were very narrow, shallow and uncomfortable. Fortunately this treasure was not destroyed throughout the ages and today they are preserving the frescoes by monitoring the light in the building.

Before going back to the boat we went to a tourist oriented restaurant for a huge meal of chopped salad, vegetable soup, and flat bread. Then they brought chicken cooked with peppers, tomatoes, and onion.

There was wine, water, and coffee to drink. Our dessert was a thick unflavored yogurt with honey and nuts. Very good! Extremely filling! During our lunch we were entertained by dancers and musicians with a colorful folklore program. The grounds around the restaurant just begged for photos to be taken of the wooden farm carts filled with colorful flowers and small interesting out buildings.

On our way back we stopped at Tsaravets Hill (Hill of Kings) to view the ruins of the royal castle. A beautiful site! However, it was the end of an extremely hot day and we sluggishly emerged from the bus only to stand in the sun on the sidewalk alongside the roadway instead of going up for a closer look at the ruins. We had just hit overload.

We arrived back at the boat and had a short time to revive and get ready for the Captain’s Farewell Dinner as this was our last night on the water.

During our stay in Bulgaria we never saw a rose bush. Enjoy!


Ginny Mammen is a La Grande resident. Reach the author at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it