The best fest you’ve never heard of

ELLE reviews Meadows In The Mountains

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Review by: Charlotte Cox

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6am and I'm on a bus listening to Craig Charles' musician son, Jack, beatboxing, as a long-haired, Jesus-like man named Chris explains how, after this weekend, he'll be setting out to walk from the Bulgarian hills all the way to Tranyslvania. Behind them, out the window, a pink sun is rising behind mountains carpeted with mist. It's an odd moment. 

I'm travelling to the Rhodopes Mountains in Bulgaria, to Meadows In The Mountains festival – which you've probably never heard of. Neither had I. And, when the chance to go arose, I'd pictured a British festival as I knew it (big, packed stages; studied 'festival chic' attire) transferred to the top of a mountain as I understood it (snow-capped and pointy, like a child's triangular drawing). Wrong, and wrong again.

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The first thing to note is that Bulgaria in summer is hot. Damn hot. Landing in the capital of Sofia, the atmosphere was still warm and humid at 1am, leading to a frenzied scrabble to remove the coat and jumper I'd arrived in. Daytime temperatures were around the mid-to-high 20s, even in the mountains. I'd packed as if travelling to the Arctic. Hmmm.

The other thing on which I was entirely wrong was that this festival is unlike any other I'd been to back at home. Now in its fifth edition and attended by just 1,000 people, it began as a party of about 50 or 60 thrown by a pair of British brothers, and grew largely by word of mouth. Of those I speak to on the transfer bus from the airport (£30 return), many have been before. Several more are performers (there's no room for divas on the mountain – they travel by bus like the rest of us). Crew members describe themselves as 'mates of the organisers'. The whole affect is to make you feel as if you're joining a new – for lack of a better word – community; like you've discovered something secret. Think of the book The Beach and you're on the right lines (only up a mountain, and with less of the shootings and all that).  

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Eventually (and I do mean eventually – a five-hour bus journey from the airport, no less), I've arrived at my festival accommodation: a traditional Bulgarian homestay perched on a mountain road. MITM pretty much takes over the tiny village of Polkovnik Serafimovo, with the central square becoming the main info point and families offering rooms to those not camping. And why would you camp? Although facilities in my house are basic, there is a bed, a clean toilet and a shower. Compared to your average Glastonbury tent, it's the Ritz. As an added bonus, the family are running a makeshift cafe/bar on the veranda. There, I have a breakfast of eggs and haricot beans (£2) while admiring the mountain view and discussing the career highlights of Mark Ruffalo with a man who'd been partying since the evening before. It's an odd moment.

The festival site itself is at the mountain's summit – a 20-30 minute clamber (depending on where you are staying) up a mountain road/dirt track by turns. There are stalls selling beer and doughnuts to incentivise the climb, but if your calf muscles aren't feeling up to it, you can take a free shuttle minibus, followed by a horse and cart over the bumpier terrain. And believe me, you've never felt as rock 'n' roll as you do when you arrive at a festival by horse and cart. 

When you do reach the top, it's only then it hits you just how stunning this setting is. The mountain range undulates like Teletubbyland on steroids; forests line the peaks; the sky is big and flawless blue. And there, among all this, a festival. Obviously. Why not?

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The site takes its cues from its location: lovingly constructed from wood, adorned with bunting. It's small, but the vibe is chilled, friendly, intimate. The two stages bookend the festival, and in between there's a wooden lookout tower, a Trojan horse and 'creative space' Appy Place. When I drop into the latter, festival goers are busily crafting 'rave sticks' by a clifftop. Another odd moment, but I go with it – because goodness knows, you can't rave properly without a glittery sequinned stick.

And rave we do... Only much later. It's important to note that MITM is a largely nocturnal festival – daytimes are spent chilling in the shade, drinking gin and tonic (£4) or beer (£2) from the tree-canopy-style bar, soundtracked by live soul and folk. An impromptu set by a lone violinist goes down well in Appy Place – so much so, I don't even mind when the crowd is urged to click their fingers to 'simulate the sound of rain' during one song. I've just made a rave stick, for God's sake, it's far too late for cynicism.

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It is at night, however, that the Sunrise stage grinds into motion and things start to gather pace. Techno, hip-hop and bleeding-edge house carry partygoers deep into the night, with Quantic, Binh and  Bruno Schmidt particularly well-received. It's hard to figure out who's on when, as running times seem at first only loosely stuck to, then abandoned entirely. But that doesn't matter. Because really, it's not all about the music here – it's about dancing on a mountaintop with your new friends, who I can guarantee you'll make at a festival this small.

And many of them, I can further guarantee, will be from east London. At times, it feels as if the whole of Hackney has taken a field trip to Bulgaria for the weekend. Yet although the crowd is hip, it doesn't feel contrived – like they're dressed up not because that's what is 'done' at a festival, but because hey, they genuinely felt like looking like a cat today. Or a zebra. Or, more worringly, The Joker. I saw 'em all.

It all adds to an atmosphere that is one part super-cool pop-up, two parts the best party your mate's ever thrown (unsurprising, given the festival's origin). Other musical highlights of the weekend include Margaret Scratcher (worth it for the name alone) and a fantastically demented folk band who get the main stage crowd pogoing in unison, shouting 'hey, hey, hey!' Rave sticks aloft, of course.

On my last day, I make it through to see the sun rise over the festival from behind the mountains. That in itself is a headline act – making the sky a watercolour of pink, yellow and red, as beats from the stage create an almost drumroll effect. I break off a conversation about Parisian architecture (naturally) with a man dressed only in matching neon leggings and braces (of course) to admire the show. And at that odd moment I realise, after two days at Meadows In The Mountains, it doesn't feel like an odd moment at all. And that's just fine with me.

THE DETAILS:

Meadows in the Mountains 2015 took place from 12-14 June

A three-day festival ticket (including free shuttle buses and horse and cart and camping) costs £150

Wizz Air fly from London Luton to Sofia from around £120 return

Return 'party bus' festival transfers from Sofia airport to the festival cost £30

For details on next year's festival, see meadowsinthemountains.com or follow @meadowmountain

Photos: Aron Klein, Jack Pasoe

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