Following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace
June 15, 2023
For those who love the delicate scent and enduring beauty of roses, head to Morocco in springtime for the ultimate pilgrimage. Held every May in one of the country’s most scenic valleys, the Festival of Roses is a sensory delight. It usually takes place some time in the first two weeks of May – exact dates vary according to climatic conditions – and celebrates the harvest of rose petals in this part of the Dades Valley. The festival, which is based in the town of El Kelaâ M’Gouna, has taken place annually since 1962, making it Morocco’s second longest running festival.
The town is the centre of the local rose cultivating industry, and for the weeks running up to the harvest, the streets are scented with the perfume of the highly scented Persian Damask (or centifolia) roses. By the time of the festival, most of the blooms will have been harvested – it is an event celebrating the harvest after all! – so to see the roses growing you will need to visit a few days prior to the actual event.
If you’re lucky you might see a truck or two in the area laden with the highly perfumed pink roses being transported for processing, but they are usually picked in the early hours so you may have to be up with the larks to see the harvest in action. The roses are picked daily during the blooming period by the women of the area, who have to ensure the flowers are picked before the sun dries out the valuable oils from their petals. They are the sold on to one of the rose cooperatives who then take them to be processed at the two local distilleries. Some of the women are learning how to dry, package and distill their own roses into rosewater which is improving their economic situation and their skills.
The whole rose cultivating area around El Kelaâ M’Gouna produces between 2,000 and 4,000 tons of flowers annually, depending on the growing conditions of the year. It sounds like a lot, but when you consider that over 3,000 kilograms of petals are required to make 1 kilogram of rose oil, you can see that every bloom is precious. The extraction is carried out by steaming the rose petals in copper stills, where the oil rises with the steam and can then be separated from the rose water.
Rose oil is expensive due to its low yield, but is nevertheless sought after by perfumiers all over the world. Morocco produces only 5% of the world’s rose oil output, but it is highly prized in the industry as it is not produced with any pesticides or chemicals so it’s entirely natural, and it has a distinctive scent. Other products made during the rose processing include rose water, which is used in various beauty products as well as for cooking.
The Festival of Roses itself takes place across a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and this year (2018) it looks like the harvest will be late, so the festival won’t start until 25th May. You can expect rose themed parades, lots of music and dancing, traditional sports and costumed processions, Berber folk bands and plenty of opportunities to buy anything and everything made from roses. Creams, oils, balms, ointments, edible jams and sweets, dried petals and fresh garlands of pink roses are all for sale throughout the town and it’s souks. If you adore roses and their gorgeous scent, there can be no better place to be! On the last day the ‘Rose Queen’ will be crowned in the Festival’s beauty contest. All the girls dress in their best traditional outfits and wear colourful flowers in their hair.
The area surrounding El Kelaâ M’Gouna is known as the Valley of the Roses, especially in tourist literature, and it’s true that there are over 4,000 kilometres of hedgerows here which consist of rose bushes. It’s a great region for exploring, with numerous old kasbahs dotted around the valleys and the high Atlas Mountains not far away. Hiking around the town of El Kelaâ M’Gouna is a pleasure, especially in spring when first the almond groves and then the roses are in full bloom. It’s a good idea to go with a guide who can show you the permitted routes and act as an intermediary to any local Berber people you come across.
Make it happen
So you’d like to join the rose scented party in Morocco? Leave it to the experts to take care of all the little details. You tell them what you want from your trip, and they work out the best itinerary, unique to you. Get in touch directly with our local Morocco specialists here, or to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.