Waking up at about 5am, I quickly and quietly packed up my gear and made for Sofia. I walked off the mountain as the sun rose, a bloody red, baleful eye. Enormous dogs barked and snarled at me from behind their fences and I wielded my walking stick defensively, worrying at the structural integrity of what separated me from the wolves. Somehow I had completely overestimated the time it would take me to get from campsite to airport, and I ended up back in the area I had stayed on arrival with about four or five hours to kill. After getting breakfast and some journey supplies in Lidl, I spotted a luxury spa and fitness centre. Warm, low lighting and relaxing atmospheric music wafted invitingly from the slightly ajar doors, and I was struck by a plan. Having not washed properly in several days whilst exerting myself physically in the sun and spending evenings lying in the dirt, I wasn’t exactly clean, and I was craving a rebirth before heading the Meadows in the Mountains. So I went in to the luxury spa and fitness centre, covered head to toe in mud and sweat and hiking gear, and asked them if I could have a shower. To my amazement, they said yes! I think it was my indication that I was able to pay that did it, but in any case I was soon under a hot rain shower, lathering myself in luxury spa and fitness centre. Stepping out and putting on a new set of clothes (I had kept the same one since arriving) really was a rebirth, and at this point I felt perfectly-positioned to festival myself silly.
I spent the rest of the morning walking around Sofia, which isn’t all that big. I went through a massive park listening to The Who and generally feeling like a successful con artist. Passing a stadium and picking up a stray dog on the way, I made it to the centre of town. I wandered into a beautiful Eastern Orthodox Church that was thick with darkness, incense, age, tradition, and just sat there, preparing for the light, colour, noise and energy of Meadows. There was a Bulgarian version of 101 Dalmations’ Horace and Jasper patrolling the church, making sure no one was taking photos, talking, looking to hard, enjoying themselves or breathing – they were doing a fine job – that provided me with some good amusement. After a while, I moved off and made for the metro to take me to the airport.
At the bus shuttle, I met my first festival friends. The first was a professional body paint artist from Surrey called Lottie (check out her work here) who had been left by her entourage with all the gear. On the coach itself I met Ross, Naomi, Tea, Dmitry, Leren, Tess and several other lovely souls who confirmed all my suspicions that this festival was going to be a special experience. I chatted mainly with these last three on the bus, and there was a real sense that I had known them for a lot longer than the few hours we had spent together. Incidentally, I was very impressed by the driver, who didn’t use any sort of map or satnav for the entire 4.5-hour journey: as I said before, I like how Bulgarians do things.
As we neared Polkovnik Serafimo (the village at the bottom of the Meadows mountain), the roads got increasingly winding, the views opened out, a storm came and went, and the excitement built exponentially. At last we had (almost) made it. Leren, Tess and I sat in the village bar, called the Pink House, and sat for a drink that somehow became several. There was a strange pleasure in delaying our arrival to the actual festival just that little bit longer, soaking in the fact that the majority of the journey was over, and the fun all lay ahead.
Eventually we jumped on the shuttle bus, hauled ourselves up the last bit of the mountain, and arrived. Despite the truncated hike, summiting the climb after a bit of exertion added still more to the sense of pilgrimage. Thickly grassed meadows, bursting with variety opened out before us. Higher peaks and pine forest towered protectively above, the sun shone, and people in colourful outfits thronged the path.
The next few days melted into one another as everyone’s grip on the time, the outside world and even reality loosened. There was a definite sense of gradual union with the mountain, and even just the taste of that process (the only thing that was possible in a number of days) was invigorating. Before the first proper day of the festival, a violent thunderstorm attacked the area, and rain hurtled down for hours on end. Slashes of lightning and enormous bellows of thunder seemed to be so much closer than I’d ever experienced, and the only option was to embrace the rain. It was as if the onslaught cleansed everything and everyone of any negativity, washing away the past and drowning us all in the present. Indeed, when the storm abated, the sun shone down at around 35°C/95F for the entirety of the weekend. This both added to and reflected the general mood of Meadows.
Every attendee, performer, crew member and trader seemed to be manifesting their best aspect and the beauty was staggering. Incredible outfits, body paint and tattoos were everywhere and many were walking around in bare feet, topless, or completely naked. For my part, I got a beautiful tree painted on my chest by the very talented Lottie, and had it on until I washed for the first time in five days back in the UK.
The festival site itself was just as magnificent as the people in it, and all the structures were constructed there using local timber. From the stages to the traders’ stalls to the composting toilets (which had running water and soap!) and compost-powered showers, to the two-floor bar, the viewing platforms, lookout towers, treehouses and installations.
The installations were an incredible feature. There was (among many) a fire-breathing dragon, light-sensitive pyramid and a huge climbable beehive. Perhaps my favourite of all these, however, was disco balls suspended in trees that came alive at night. As soon as I saw them, it was obvious that this was their natural habitat, and any disco ball living in a club has been abducted, probably by poachers, and sold into slavery. Sadly I don’t have any pictures of this beautiful sight. There were running water taps placed strategically throughout the festival, handmade clay ovens selling delicious empanadas, pizza and burritos, endlessly flowing sangria and stalls selling an array of handmade things. I picked up a glazed clay bowl made locally, and my friend Leren was selling her fabulous jewellery and clothing under a tree.
I met so many amazing people at Meadows, and this was largely due to the fact that I had (inadvertently) gone on my own. The friend I had expected to spend most of my time with was busy making the pyramid, but it worked perfectly, because I ended up just wandering around, chatting with people and bumping into others I had met previously. It was the perfect festival to be alone at as well. The size (no more than 2,500) meant that the many wonderful connections that were made didn’t have to be a one-off thing like they are at larger festivals. You’d just see them later. This contributed wonderfully to the quasi-communal feel of the place. In addition, everyone was so unbelievably loving, friendly and welcoming that it was impossible to feel lonely or isolated.
This caring approach was also directed to the land itself, and it was great to see everyone being careful not to leave any rubbish lying around. We had separated bins! The beer cans went on to be made into bricks for building projects in the area, the food waste to be used as compost for farms, and the plastic to be recycled into building materials. There were even portable ashtrays being sold in the village to prevent people leaving their butts and roaches (in plentiful supply) lying around. To top it off, there were no disposable cups or bottles. Meadows in the Mountains enamel mugs and metal bottles were also being sold, and you always had to present your own vessel when getting a drink. It may sound stupid, but seeing everyone with their mugs attached to their belts further contributed in a strange way to the Bohemian style that was oozing from every pore of the festival, and it just made everything feel more authentic.
About going to festivals alone, however, there is a flip-side. If you’re not feeling particularly extroverted, or you want some home base to return to, even a safety net, being on your own can be bit daunting at times. Fortunately, whenever I wanted the company of more familiar faces, an old friend of mine had come with his whole crowd, and they adopted me as their own in the most beautiful way. As an evening stretched on and I wanted some company, all I had to do was wander around and I was sure to come across them. They were always so happy to see me, and it added another dimension to my festival experience that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
It would be remised of me to write about a music festival and not mention the music. It was incredible. Just walking around there was always so many beautiful sounds coming from the six stages, and I danced to an innumerable procession of DJs. Some things stand out, however. The 13-piece British Afrobeat band Agbeko was one of them. Arranged in a line they busted out some absolute screamers. At one point two saxophones were duelling in a crescendo of semitones, dissonances and shared phrases, and I got so lost in the sound that I actually fell over! The horn section ganged up on one front-rower, blasting them with their stuff, and apologising afterwards. One of the drummers came to the front and waved a huge ‘we are Agbeko’ flag over the audience whilst smacking a cowbell attached to his waist. It was completely out of hand.
Another memorable performance was the four-hour set by hip-hop and beatbox collective Bone Dry Records, with the input of Midnight Zu and Real.Eyez.Nation. Four hours. I actually left and came back several times during the set, and every time I returned the quality was just as high, the buzz of the crowd just as loud and the energy and humour of the performers just as captivating. They were doing four bars each, handing each other physical props to riff on, dancing around, rapping from the crowd and generally enjoying themselves outrageously. It was infectious, and instead of the usual performance dynamic, it felt as if everyone watching was just as much a part of it as the musicians. Check out the main guy, Binbag Wisdom. That man is a king.
There was a gypsy psychedelic rock band, acoustic musicians, a guy mixing with a sitar, folk music, soul, jazz, techno, funk and all manner of awesome tunes. A met two guys called Tim and Adam who are cycling from London to Tokyo making music on their own and with musicians along the way, making an album and gigging (hence their presence at Meadows) to support themselves. There project is called Total Bike Forever, but Tim and Adam are one half of the London-based indie-synth band Bear Muda. There were so many creative people doing wonderful things, it was such an inspiration.
Having never been to a festival before, I think I started on a massive high, and have either ruined myself for future festivals or have set the tone…I hope it’s the latter.
A HUGE thanks to Leren Connor for letting me use her beautiful photos. Check out her words and pictures (and awesome clothes!) at her website