KAZANLIK, Bulgaria — Pasadena hasn't cornered the world market on flower parades just yet.
Though the city's annual Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day has become an internationally known spectacle, another less-publicized salute to the rose--thousands of miles from Orange Grove Boulevard--has established a place for itself, even if network television cameras can rarely be found.
Every year, Bulgaria's Valley of the Roses also stages a parade--the Rose Festival--that unfolds like the flower it celebrates.
Locals shake out costumes from trunks and closets, tune up instruments, spiff up the family donkey and turn the usually quiet Kazanlik town square into a potpourri of motion, sound and color.
This is no stateside procession with long-legged bathing beauties, multithousand-dollar floats, marching military units, waving Disney characters or hot dog vendors. And yet, it is one heck of a parade.
I sensed a special day when I awoke to a fresh morning breeze from the snowcapped Sredna Gora Mountains and the fluttering of pink banners on the hotel balconies. In the dining room, employees readied luncheon tables with polished wine glasses and folded napkins for the officials who had begun arriving the day before from Sofia--their black, shiny Mercedes Benzes parked in reserved spots in front of the hotel. My waiter set a small glass before me.
"Try," he said. The liqueur I held to the light had a warm hue, somewhere between the color of sloe gin and pomegranate juice.
"Our rose drink," he said.
I wasn't eager, remembering a weird California luncheon of nasturtiums, violets and other strange-tasting blooms. But as I sipped, my senses exploded: I tasted the deepest heart of a rose . . . I tasted beauty.
" Dobro (good)," I said enthusiastically, lifting the glass in a toast to the day.
Although it was barely 8 a.m., life scurried through the streets. In the square, state-owned Balkan tourist vehicles double-parked next to mammoth buses from Germany, Yugoslavia, France and Holland. Every bed in the four hotels was full, and nearly three dozen foreign journalists poked about in the town of 70,000.
Gray-uniformed policemen planted themselves in small groups on corners, a few wearing pistols and walkie-talkies. One young officer accepted a rose with a broken stem from a pretty flower arranger, sniffed it deeply, then tucked it under his belt.
By 9 a.m., people filled the shady areas under trees. There were no folding chairs or camp stools; even the officials in the reviewing stand stood in the hot June sun. Babies in buggies had the most comfortable seats.
Promptly at 11, the first music wafted to town from the distance. A small band of accordions, drums and guzlas (Balkan banjos) set the pace, followed by a dozen quick-stepping costumed dancers.
The roza queen, held aloft on a teetering platform that looked like a wooden door, held tightly to a post before her; her other hand thrust straight up, as if reaching for a carrousel ring.
During the previous day's rehearsal, the queen had been only a pretty schoolgirl in blue jeans, her thick black hair braided to one side.
"Wave to the people," the parade director insisted several times, "and smile!"
Now, wearing a rose-red toga, her hair curled, her face made up, she looked like the ancient Thracian queen who once ruled Bulgaria.
Opposite the reviewing stand, she stepped off the platform and walked to a flagpole where she hoisted the rose banner and accepted a modest bouquet of flowers. With fetching shyness, she recited a formal greeting, then backed away from the throng of journalists whose cameras zeroed in on her like prying eyes. She wilted as she struggled with the role of being queen for a day.
The Thracian king, a townsperson who the day before looked like a thin, clean-shaven Ed Asner, had been transformed overnight into an aging king with a graying beard. He approached in a creaky "Quo Vadis" chariot, then mounted a throne where he and his queen held court, sitting together on stools atop a Persian carpet under a wrinkled awning.
Overhead, a small plane swooped low, towing a banner: "Festival of Roses." Another plane dive-bombed the crowd with a trail of drifting roses, while on the ground young boys surprised people with rose water mist. The crowd gasped when the sky, blue as a robin's egg, suddenly filled with fireworks.
Rose-garlanded girls offered small bouquets. When I accepted one, there was no question that I, too, was truly part of this party.
Earlier on a drive through the 9-mile-wide, 80-mile-long Valley of the Roses, I had to strain to see these unobtrusive blooms.
The crowd, a sea of black hair, broken occasionally by bright umbrellas, craned their necks to see the outskirts of town. From the fields beyond the river came the parade--a ribbon of color, motion and rhythm that undulated without pause for nearly three hours.