Inside the festival concourse, things are scarcely more organised. Under white canvas tents, the valley’s co-ops are showing off their rose crops. Growers and buyers haggle over terms, sealing deals with handshakes and kisses. Roses are everywhere: tied into garlands, scattered over tables, projected onto television screens and worn as pendants, bracelets and buttonholes. The scent of flowers is overpowering, sweet and fluorescent, with a hint of over-ripened fruit, like a Glade plug-in air freshener on overdrive. But though roses are the main attraction, there are other products on show too: piles of apples and dates, almonds and cinnamon and saffron, sourced from all over the Atlas Mountains.
Hannou Amrouch is a Berber elder from M’semrir, a remote mountain village renowned for its apples. Dressed in the traditional garb of her tribe — a flowery jellaba, striped mantle and sequinned headdress, a Berber tattoo inked on her chin — 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 Kelaa M’Gouna’s football stadium, it’s a packed house. Every seat is taken, and outside, a big screen in the square broadcasts the action live. At one end of the stadium, a red tent has be an erected, where dignitaries and VIPs sit, ready to cast votes. While they wait for the show, dancers and musicians entertain the crowd with desert songs and tribal dances, and a DJ pumps out African house music.
Afternoon shifts into dusk, and the stadium’s floodlights snap on. It’s show-time. Fifteen girls, each chosen from a different rose-growing district, take it in turns to sashay down the red carpet, all smiles and fluttering eyelashes. 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 compere before disappearing into the wings.
With 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 a 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. 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 lead the parade through the centre of Kelaa 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. 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 .
THE ROSE FESTIVAL’S HISTORY
Since the 1930s, when French perfume-makers opened the first distilleries in the M’Goun Valley, at the foot of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains, this event has been the main fixture in the area’s calendar. Held once a year in the main town of Kelaa M’Gouna to mark the end of the growing season, it’s 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 chaotic street parade.
The festival usually runs for three days in May, to coincide with the rose harvest. It’s impossible to predict exact dates as these vary from year to year, so keep checking with your tour operator.
BA, easyJet, Ryanair and Thompson Airways fly direct to Marrakesh from Bristol, Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and Stansted. Kelaa M’Gouna is about 6 hours’ drive south of Marrakesh. There are intercity buses, but it’s easier to arrange a package tour, which includes transport as well as accommodation.
KE Adventure Travel offers a walking trip through the Valley of the Roses, running 29April-6 May and 21-28 October. It includes all transfers, meals, guides and accommodation, although you’ll need to arrange your own flights.
WHAT TO BRING
Temperatures in April and May range from 20°C to 25°C, so bring lightweight, breathable clothing. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are essential, and sturdy shoes for hiking. Nights can be cold, so bring warm clothes too.