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I don’t want to tell people about Meadows in the Mountains, let alone write an article for all to see. Not because I couldn’t wax lyrical for pages about this magical three-day festival set in the depths of the Bulgarian countryside, but because I want to keep it as my own little secret.
A year or so ago, a close friend told me about a weird and wonderful festival he’d been to in with the same reserve. He recounted an almost mythical story of riding a donkey-drawn cart up a hillside with a group of young musicians, of being moved to tears by the remote beauty of an enchanted land, of dancing above the clouds as the sun rose and of the amazing (and surprisingly unpretentious) people he had met. He whispered this with the formidable warning: if you go, only take the best people – otherwise, don’t tell a soul.
Of course, I had to go. And after discovering Meadows for myself, it’s safe to say this festival has retained its magic. Here’s why…
Meadows in the Mountains is only for those who really want to be there. A festival for around 1,700 people set in the Rhodopes Mountains near the town of Polkovnik Serafimovo, “they call it the valley of death” a happy camper told us as we arrived, “because people come here to die surrounded by such beauty.” It’s bloody hard to get to, with limited flights to Plovdiv (nearly three-hours drive away) and a six-to-nine-hour bus ride from the capital of Sofia, depending on how unlucky you are. With no way around it – and no helicopter landing space a la Glastonbury – it means everyone is fully committed, and down to have the best possible time when they (finally) arrive.
While there is camping on the festival site up the mountain, many choose to stay in local people’s houses in the village below, which adds a whole lot more to your experience (and only costs £40 for three nights). If you’re lucky, your hosts will become surrogate family for a few days; their home yours. After getting lost for a good 45 minutes when trying to find our designated abode (remember what we said about really wanting to be there) we located Danche Zgurova’s home with the help of a masked Australian hippy who stealthily emerged from the woods, causing us to mistake him for a rogue local shepherd.
Though it was 1AM, we were total strangers and Danche must’ve been well into her seventies, this kindly old lady welcomed us with a yelp of joy and open arms, before proceeding to hit us both repeatedly in the face with plants she hurriedly plucked from her garden (we still haven’t got to the bottom of this ritual). Her unbounded hospitality continued throughout our stay, as each morning she helped to sooth our sore heads with syrupy sweet coffee and cigarettes, all the time chatting away at us in Bulgarian, seeming not notice or care that we didn’t understand a single word. When we left, she clutched our hands and wept. Rooms are basic – think a single, lumpy bed with a sheet and a shared bathroom where a shower sprayed water in every direction apart from on your body – but charming and unforgettable.
The festival by day
This is where the magic really happens. Take a shuttle bus up the mountainside to the festival site, a wooden village of stages and stalls scattered through the trees with sweeping views of the valley below. Unlike other festivals, you’re not chasing the lineup but instead appreciating whatever materialises in front of you. By day, people lounge in front of the mainstage drinking cold local beer out of tin cups – Marques T Oliver blew the crowd away with a topless violin session, Chelou had everyone dancing and Spanish guitar duo De Fuego put the crowd in a trance. Bliss has never been a more suitable description.
Hippies sell crochet and Indian jewels, read your tarot, teach yoga and sell vegan food out of brightly coloured trucks – though the one thing the festival does lack is a good selection of food vendors, especially late at night when that drunk hunger kicks in and your options are limited to locals peddling dubious grilled meat topped with plastic-y looking cheese. But we didn’t come here to eat.
The festival by night
At night, people flit between the mainstage and sunrise stage where DJs like Anna Wall and thugfucker play the perfect electro soundtrack. Deep into the forest you’ll discover a two-tiered tree house with a winding staircase up to a rickety rooftop filled with candles, where people sway to tunes emanating from a fellow festival goer’s laptop. Sweaty and alluring, it became known as ‘the nightclub’ and it was here I found find myself most nights, wildly dancing to techno and trance (of which I am not normally a fan), totally unable to pull myself away. Venture ever further into the forest and you’ll stumble across giant wooden pods surrounded by trees (perfect for a sit down and regroup) as well as a giant wooden Viking ship strung with fairy lights, just asking to be danced in. It’s a place where getting lost is a good thing.
Anyone will tell you that the most memorable moment at Meadows in the Mountains is watching the sunrise. It’s no surprise, then, that everyone gathers above the clouds at the so-called sunrise stage at around 5AM, when the sun slowly begins to creep over the mountaintops and whole crowd cheers in unison. By this time, you’ve made so many new friends (and drunk so much beer) that you don’t even think about if it’s cringe.
On our last night at sunset, the festival became a (very obscure) movie playing out in front of our eyes. Dreadlocked hippies dressed in harem pants and huge headpieces danced around a bonfire with skull heads stuck on sticks, as traditionally dressed Bulgarian women sang folk songs arm in arm as the crowd looked on. Before we knew it, an American couple were in the middle of it all saying their wedding vows on a loudspeaker. “They have to hurry up, as he’s got to get to the hospital tonight. He was bitten by a wild dog from the village earlier…” I heard someone say in an excitable whisper next to me. We were then instructed to throw hay from the ground into a basket, which was then scattered onto the bonfire and lit alight, signifying grounding and our connection to the earth. So weird and so wonderful, we want it to stay that way. So remember: only take the best people – otherwise don’t tell a soul.
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