Rose Festival of Morocco

Once a year, the remote M’Goun Valley in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco produces one of the largest rose harvests anywhere on earth. At the end of the rose-growing season, they celebrate their bounty with a raucous rose festival, culminating in the naming of this year’s Queen of the Roses.

This story for Lonely Planet Traveller was originally published in May 2017.

Valley of the roses

A journey to Morocco’s Rose Festival

The Atlas Mountains are emerging from darkness as the rose-pickers of H’dida leave for work. Dressed in flip-flops and djellaba robes, they follow a dusty path down into the fields, and before too long are lost in foliage.

Fruit trees teeter over the trail, laden with figs, dates and oranges. Barley and alfalfa sprout from the orange earth, watered by irrigation channels cut alongside the path. Pomegranates dangle from overhanging branches. But the ladies aren’t here to pick fruit today. They’re here to harvest something even more fragrant.

‘Can you smell them yet?’ asks Ait Khouya Aicha, as she pads into a meadow fringed by walnut trees, and heads for a tangle of shrubs on the far side of the field. She pulls down a branch: it’s covered by flowers from trunk to tip, shocking pink against the deep green leaves.

‘These are the roses of the Asif M’Goun,’ she says, cradling a blossom in her hand. ‘They are famous around the world. But to understand why, you must smell them.’ Pulling on gloves, she snips off the flower and breathes in the scent, like a connoisseur tasting wine. The perfume is intoxicating: heady and sweet, with notes of wild honey and treacle.

‘The fragrance is best early in the morning, but we must work quickly,’ she says, dropping the flower into a robe gathered around her waist known as a tachtate. ‘The sun will burn the petals, and then the perfume will be ruined.’

Within half an hour, Aicha and her companions have stripped the bushes of blossoms and four sacks have been filled to the brim. The ladies head back to the village, sharing round a bag of dates and nuts for breakfast. Twenty minutes later, they arrive at a backstreet garage that doubles as the village’s rose co-operative, where owner Ahmid Mansouri inspects the blossoms, weighs them on battered scales, and adds them to a heap covering the concrete floor.

‘These are good roses,’ he says, puffing on a crooked roll-up. ‘But last week we were harvesting twice as many. Next week they will be gone. And that means one thing. It is time for the Festival of the Roses to begin.’

***

No-one is sure how roses first came to this remote corner of Morocco, high in the Atlas Mountains, six hours’ drive southeast of Marrakech. According to legend, they were carried here centuries ago by a Berber merchant from Damascus, and there’s probably a grain of truth to the story; the species that grows here is rosa damascena, the Damask rose, which is thought to originate from ancient Syria and has been celebrated for centuries for the intensity of its perfume.

However they arrived, the M’Goun Valley – or the Vallée des Roses, as it’s known in Morocco – has become famous for its flowers. Every year during the main growing season between April and mid-May, the valley produces between 3000 and 4000 tonnes of wild roses. They’re everywhere: sprouting up from the hedgerows, blooming along stone walls, tangling the borders between farmers’ fields. Each day before dawn, women gather the roses by hand, and sell them to co-ops dotted along the valley. Some are bought by local distilleries to make rosewater, soaps and pot-pourri, but the majority are bought by big perfume houses, for whom the M’Goun roses command a special cachet. It’s an intensive and expensive business: around 4 tonnes of fresh petals, or 1.6 million individual flowers, are required to make just a single litre of rose oil – and with each litre fetching around €12,000 (£10,000), the rewards are obvious. But with intense competition from other rose-growing areas, especially in Turkey and Bulgaria, it’s crucial that the M’Goun Valley finds ways to catch the eyes – and noses – of overseas buyers. And that’s where the Festival des Roses comes in.

Held every year in the main town of Kalaat M’Gouna to mark the end of the rose season (the date varies according to the harvest, but it’s usually mid-May), the festival is somewhere between a trade fair, agricultural show, street bazaar and talent contest. While growers hob-nob with buyers, the rest of town descends into a raucous rose-themed party, culminating in the naming of the new Rose Queen and a huge street parade. It’s the biggest event of the year in the valley, like New Year, Fireworks Night, the Fourth of July and the Chelsea Flower Show rolled into one – and since it only comes once a year, everyone is determined that it goes off with a bang.

***

It’s the day before the festival, and in the villages of Asif M’Goun, everyone is getting ready. On the dusty streets of H’dida, girls sit cross-legged on the steps, stringing roses into bracelets, necklaces and heart-shaped garlands. In backstreet shacks, women stick labels onto rosewater bottles and pack dried petals into canvas sacks. Outside, farmers load crates of flowers onto the backs of battered trucks, puttering off for town with a crack of the exhaust and a cloud of black smoke. H’dida is a hive of activity, and everyone has a task to do.

Naima Mansouri is no exception. Slight and pretty, head shrouded in a rose-pink djellaba, hands covered in henna tattoos, she’s making pot-pourri for the festival. Carefully, she packs canvas bags with dried petals, tying each one with ribbon and adding a sticker for the village co-op. At the back of the room, petal-filled baskets are piled against the wall, and a copper still glints in the shadows.

‘This year has been good,’ Naima says. ‘The roses have grown well and we have plenty to sell. And this year we began distilling our own rosewater,’ she adds, pointing to the still. ‘Would you like to see where the flowers are dried?’

She climbs stone stairs to the rooftop, where a carpet of petals is scattered across the concrete, drying in the sunshine. In the distance, the M’Goun River snakes along the valley, a strand of silver-blue in a sea of red rock. Along the horizon, mountains loom, glowing like coals in the afternoon light.

‘It takes two weeks for the flowers to dry. These will be ready tomorrow for the festival,’ Naima explains. ‘Now it is time for tea.’

She heads inside, and emerges with a metal tray, laden with a teapot, glasses and a bowlful of rose petals. She lifts the lid and adds the flowers to the pot, stirring it with a long spoon. ‘We often drink rose tea at this time of year,’ she says, raising the pot high as she pours to create bubbles in the glass. ‘It is good for the digestion and the circulation. And it tastes nice, too.’

She sips her tea and watches a donkey cart clatter along the street below, its wagon loaded with dusky pink flowers. It’s been a bumper year for the rose-growers, and now everyone is impatient for this year’s festivities to start.

***

‘Welcome! Bienvenue! We are glad to have you at the Festival des Roses!’ announces shopkeeper Brahim Tichki, clapping his hands in delight. Around his hole-in-the-wall shop on the main street of Kalaat M’Gouna, the shelves are piled with rose products wrapped in shocking-pink packaging. There are soaps and perfumes, shampoos and eaux de toilette. There are tinctures and ointments, and of course, there are bottles and bottles of rosewater and rose-oil.

‘Try, try! It is good for the hair! Good for the skin! Good for the heart!’ Brahim trumpets, brandishing a spray-bottle with which he puffs rosewater onto the faces of unsuspecting customers. ‘It makes you smell sweet, too! Your wife will be happy!’

On the streets outside, the festival is in full swing. The town is packed. Festival-goers throng the pavements. Street vendors sizzle dubious meat over charcoal. Salesmen tout rugs and ceremonial swords. Traders holler for business, and policemen attempt to marshal the traffic, blowing into whistles to be heard above the din of truck engines and tribal drums.

Inside the festival concourse, things are scarcely more organised. Under white canvas tents, the valley’s co-ops are showing off their rose crops, while growers and buyers haggle over terms, sealing deals with handshakes and kisses. Roses are everywhere: tied into garlands, scattered over table-tops, projected onto television screens and worn as pendants, bracelets and button-holes. The scent of flowers is overpowering, sweet and florescent, with a hint of over-ripened fruit, like a Glade Plug-in on overdrive. But though roses are the main attraction, there are other products on show too, from apples, dates and almonds to cinnamon and saffron, sourced by co-operatives from all over the Atlas Mountains.

Hannou Amrouch is a Berber elder from Aït Issa, a remote mountain village renowned for its apples. Dressed in the traditional garb of the Msemrir tribe – flowery djellaba, striped mantle and sequinned headdress, a Berber tattoo inked under her bottom lip – she’s become a local celebrity as a champion of rural women’s rights. For her, the roses aren’t just good for M’Goun’s local economy; they also illustrate the changing role of women in Moroccan society.

‘Life is hard for women in rural Morocco,’ she explains, shaking hands with well-wishers and posing for selfies. ‘There is little education, and most of their time is spent raising their families and working in the fields. But here the women are in charge of the rose harvest; they do the growing and the picking, and often the drying and distilling too. They find confidence and skills, and this is positive for all our futures.’

She disappears into the crowd, pursued by reporters and a barrage of camera flashes. As she leaves, a loudspeaker blares over the crowd, barely audible above the hubbub.

‘Attention all rose-lovers!’ it trumpets. ‘Attention! It is time for this year’s Rose Queen to be announced!’

***

Across town in Kalaat M’Gouna’s football stadium, it’s a packed house. Every seat in the stands is taken, and for those who haven’t made it inside, a big screen in the square broadcasts the action live. At one end of the stadium, a red tent has been erected, where dignitaries and VIPs sit, ready to cast their votes. While they wait for the show to begin, dancers and musicians entertain the crowd with desert songs and tribal dances, and a DJ pumps out African house across the crowded stadium.

Afternoon drifts into dusk, and the stadium’s floodlights snap on. It’s showtime. Fifteen girls, each chosen from a different rose-growing district, takes it in turn to sashay down the red carpet, smile glinting and eyelashes fluttering. Their hand-stitched costumes reflect local dress: some wear flowing robes and colourful tunics, others are draped in lacy headdresses, trimmed with sequins, ribbons, beads and brass discs. At the end of the catwalk, each gives a short speech and a brief interview with the compère before disappearing into the wings, dizzy with relief at having survived her moment in the spotlight.

Ninety minutes later, the show draws to a close, and the judging begins. VIPs mark their scorecards, and across the stadium, spectators debate the candidates’ merits. There are discussions about gait and bearing, elegance and intelligence, style and grace. Some people make their choice after a careful assessment of the judging criteria; others go on instinct, favouring their ancestral tribe or home district.

‘There are four main factors you must consider,’ explains Abdelhak El Omargui, a journalism student at the city’s further education college. ‘These are body shape, posture, costume and facial beauty. It is important to take all four factors into account before you come to your decision. Personally, I am quite certain that the girl from Kalaat M’Gouna should win, but, since it is my home town, perhaps I am biased!’

Like Abdelhak, soon everyone has chosen their favourite and the scorecards are sent backstage. In the wings, the contestants are dizzy with anticipation; there are tears and hugs, laughter and sobs. The air crackles with tension.

The big moment arrives. The DJ cuts out and a hush falls over the stadium. The compère recounts each contestant’s name and district, and the music slowly builds, underscored by a heartbeat to ratchet up the suspense. There’s a pause that goes on, and on, and on. Thump, thump goes the heartbeat. Everyone in the stadium holds their breath.

And then, accompanied by a crescendo of drums and a boom of fireworks, the winner is announced: it’s Fatima E Zahra El Amiri, a 23-year old from Bjaho, a small village on the edge of the valley. Applause thunders across the stadium, and the winner dissolves into tears as she’s showered with rose petals and surrounded by photographers. Cameras pop around the stadium, and Fatima hugs her fellow contestants as she waves to the crowd and begins one of many victory laps.

Tomorrow, she’ll be leading the big parade through the centre of Kalaat M’Gouna, but for now, there are interviews to be done, pictures to be taken, grandees to meet. The party will go on late into the night, and she’ll find precious little time to sleep. But hopefully, at some point she’ll find time to savour the moment. After all, she’s this year’s Queen of The Roses, and in the valley of the flowers, there’s no greater honour than that.