While traveling to the Sahara Desert, you may want some downtime to literally stop and smell the roses in El Kelaat M’Gouna. The fresh mountain air of this part of Morocco is scented with a hint of roses, and trees grow in abundance along the flowing river of Asif M’Goun. You’ll enjoy the tranquility of this pretty small town and be able to interact and learn more about the Berber lifestyle. If you visit in May you’ll get the opportunity to enjoy the lively Festival of Roses, which is held every year following the rose harvest.
‘Take time to smell the roses, take time to enjoy the view, and as you stop to enjoy the beauty, take time to reflect on love’ – Laura D. Field
Valley of Roses and the heart of the Dades Valley
El Kelaat M’Gouna fondly referred to as the ‘Valley of Roses’ is situated in the heart of the Dades Valley, 140 km from Ouarzazate, or a six-hour drive from Marrakech. It is the biggest producer of rose water and rose oil in the country with almost every verge and hedge grove overgrown with pretty white, red, or pink roses. There is a thriving local industry distilling rose water and producing cosmetic products such as soaps, gels, creams, sprays, and oils. Dried rosebuds are also sold that can be used for cosmetics, home decoration, and cooking.
No one is sure how these roses came to grow in this remote location. Some say a merchant from Damascus brought the Damask rose to the area, others say Moroccans journeying from Mecca in the tenth century brought the plant home.
The roses are not cultivated in rows but grow freely in all available space between the fertile farms of figs, dates, oranges, barley, and pomegranate. In April and May, the roses bloom and the town experiences a flurry of activity as women set out in the early morning to collect the rosebuds. If left till later in the day the petals will be burnt by the hot sun. Children sell garlands of roses alongside the road and scenes of trucks laden with beautiful pink roses appear in the streets.
The women collect bags full of rosebuds that are transferred to a cooperative where they are weighed and checked for quality. The best, most fragrant buds are sold to France for use in the cosmetic industry. The valley produces between 3000 and 4000 tonnes of wild roses in a season. Distilling the rose oil is an intensive, and expensive process- around 4 tonnes of fresh petals (equating to about 1.6 million flowers) are needed to make one liter of rose oil! Each liter sells for roughly 12 000 Euros! Although the majority is sold to France, there are distillation plants in Kelaa M’Gouna. The factories can be visited to learn more about the process of extracting rose perfume from the petals.
There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In a space of about two weeks, all the buds will be collected signaling the start of the Festival of Roses. This annual three-day festival celebrates the beautiful, fragrant roses collected and attracts many visitors to this otherwise sleepy town. Celebrations include traditional Berber food, music, dancing, as well as a street parade with brightly colored floats covered in paper roses. Roses and pink labeled rose products abound in the streets for visitors to purchase and rose petals are added to the usual mint tea, to create a special romantic tea that is thought to assist with digestion.
Visitors from all over the world descend on the Valley of Roses to partake in the festival, with reports of 30 000+ people in attendance. Aside from the rose products for sale, visitors will experience the warmth and the hospitality of the area’s generous local people. It is also an opportunity to explore handicrafts and agricultural products of the region. The highlight of the festival is the Rose Queen beauty contest in which young women from surrounding villages parade and an annual winner is selected. The winner heads up the parade on floats down the streets of the town followed by women doing traditional Berber dance and men playing drums.
Aside from the annual rose festival visitors to the area can enjoy nice walks, short hikes, and long drives through the Hdida Valley. Along the way, stop and meet the friendly nomads who spend their winters living in caves. There is also a well-known dagger factory in the mellah (Jewish quarter) of town where beautiful hand-crafted daggers made of cedar wood or camel bones are produced.
If traveling during spring, Kelaa M’Gouna is definitely worth a visit while traveling through the Sahara. If you are short on time, just take a quick walk through the small town to enjoy the heady scent of the roses and enjoy some rose petal-infused tea.