Travel into a secret valley deep in the Atlas Mountains for a floral festival unlike any other
Dawn is tinting the Atlas Mountains rust-red as the rose-pickers of Hdida set out for work. Dressed in flip-flops and jellabas, they follow a dusty path down to 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 channels beside the path. Pomegranates dangle from overhanging branches. But the women aren’t here to pick fruit; they’re here to harvest something more fragrant.
“Can you smell them?” asks Ait Khouya Aicha, as she pads into a meadow fringed by walnut trees, and heads for a tangle of shrubs. 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 River,” she says, cradling a blossom in her hand. “They are famous around the world. But to understand why, you must smell them.” Pulling on thick gloves, she snips off the flower and breathes in the scent. The perfume is heady and sweet, with notes of honey and treacle.
“The fragrance is best 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. They 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 Marrakesh.
According to legend, they were carried here centuries ago by a Berber merchant from Damascus; the species that grows here is Rosa damascene, the Damask rose, which originates from ancient Syria and has been celebrated for centuries for its intense perfume. However they arrived, the M’Goun Valley — or the Vallee 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 3,000 and 4,000 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-operatives dotted along the valley. Some are bought by local distilleries to make rose water, soaps and pot-pourri, but the majority are bought by big French perfume houses, for whom the M’Goun roses command a special cachet. It’s an intensive – and expensive — business: around four tonnes of fresh petals, or 1.6 million flowers, are required to make a single litre of rose oil, and with each litre fetching around 12,000 euros, the rewards are obvious. But with intense competition from other rose-growing areas, especially in Turkey and Bulgaria, the M’Goun. Valley needs to find ways to catch the noses of overseas buyers — and that’s where the Festival des Roses comes in.