Sometimes you go to a festival just to let off some steam. Be a bit hedonistic in a field with some cool people, have a nice time. But what ends up happening to you is so internally transformative you plot that place forever on your memories map as ‘somewhere special’, a place that induces a private wave of nostalgia every time you think about it. Things happen there. You changed in a very small but significant way there.
Meadows in the Mountains in the stunning heights of remote Bulgaria is a place with that kind of magic. This festival occupies such territory in my 2017 emotional landscape for a whole number of reasons, and I’m pretty sure the same is true for every person I partied with (our catchphrase for the weekend was “heart chakra – activate!!”, says it all really). Judging by the mountaintop atmosphere in June last summer, and the heartfelt sentiments you hear from every single person who has seen a life-changing sunrise in Polkovnik Serafimovo, we weren’t the only ones feeling the vibe.
Everyone’s impressions seem to be so wrapped up in the holistic experience of this strange and wonderful little festival, it’s kind to talk about it in terms of highlights and features. Scrambling up a mountain to explore stunning stages made of locally sourced wood, seeming to emerge from the forests themselves. Doing yoga on outcrop platforms perfectly placed for you to stare deep into a mountain valley and ground yourself after a night of partying hard. Eclectic electronic and live music bumping all day and all night, everyone congregating at the Sunrise Stage to bring in the day. Talks and treatments and therapies and expanding experiences of every kind to help you make the most out of being in a stimulating, spiritually refreshing environment.
It’s just one of those places where things come together – and it’s pretty much impossible not to be radically inspired by the high altitude beauty of The Rhodopes mountains. Everywhere you look dense forests, stunning valley views and green fields signal your departure from the world of contactless cards and daily underground travel spent silent and miserable. Bulgaria’s mountain towns have a rustic charm meaning that some conveniences aren’t quite so convenient, but the locals are ready for the festivalgoers every year. We stayed with a bad ass woman known to all as Mama Irena who seemed to have the undying respect of every dude in the village, and cooked for us in the morning while we lounged on inflatables in open-mouthed wonder at the mountains around us, enjoying a Budvar with our hot breakfast.
When you’re partying in another country it’s always nice to feel like a welcomed guest rather than a plague of hedonistic locusts wreaking havoc on the natural beauty you came to explore. It says it all that the fondness of Polkovnik Serafimovo residents towards the festival is about more than the yearly influx of tourist income. Meadows is committed to a ‘Leave No Trace’ policy on litter and the use of the land. The festival feels fully integrated with its natural place in the mountains, which means by extension that so do you during your time there.
It’s still kind of a place for those in the know – it’s definitely up a big old mountain, and you have to bring your own cup to the bar to buy your drink. No disposable plastics are allowed on site – one of the festival’s many innovations to battle waste and carbon emission. Fair weather punters who want to be led around an enclosure like a prized sheep and get a non-biodegradable plastic cup filled with booze in exchange for money might find those two conditions a bit much. But that’s OK, because the people who can get down get to revel in the sense of adventure that comes from taking a hike to find out what lies at the top of the mountain. Savvy travellers who had been to Meadows before had their tin cups dangling from their bum bag straps on carabiner clips, and this simple solution makes you feel like an outdoorsy disco adventurer prepped and ready for almost anything.
As well as hands-free cups this festival is definitely all about sturdy footwear, as you are hiking to the top of a Bulgarian mountain to dance in beautiful (but certainly uneven) meadows and hilltops. What your eyes take in whilst you’re dancing and socializing is so very much worth it. Worth the mission to Bulgaria (Meadows Eco Organiser Ash Brown highly encourages travellers to take the scenic train route through Europe to cut carbon emissions from flying – something to consider). Worth venturing into the woods with your buddy system in place because of your many previous tumbles down the mountain. And most definitely worth the ticket price. How many other opportunities will you get in your life to watch the sun rise up while you are quite literally above the clouds?
I can’t quite describe the effect watching the sun slowly rise through the blanket of mist below had on me. The whole sky was a vivid, purple, watercolour dreamscape, and it was so beautiful I completely lost the ability to speak for about two hours. So many places you go in the world you can experience a unique and special sunrise that makes you glad you stayed up (or got up) for it, but there’s a reason sunrise is such a big event at Meadows in the Mountains. It’s vital to be up that mountain for at least one. And then of course, when you have regained the power of speech, bounce straight to the Sunrise Stage to dance it off with pretty much the entire rest of the festival.
This truly is a place for horizon expanders, and I met many people there who made me feel empowered to further embrace certain ideas – ideas about protecting the environment, about exploring spirituality, about connecting with others through communal hedonism and celebration.
One of those people was Mike Matania, a new friend who was in our festival expedition team and who was also speaking at the Hara stage on the Sunday afternoon. A mental health professional and meditation teacher with the UK Psychedelic Society, it was quite fascinating to watch him party all weekend and then hold an audience rapt on a hazy Sunday afternoon. His packed out talk at the Hara stage meandered peacefully and provokingly through a wide range of existential ideas, bringing us all back into ourselves (and surprising the shit out of us) by ringing a huge sound bowl whilst we had our eyes closed in meditation.
Connection is a big thing people seem to take from Meadows. Connection to nature comes easy when you’re in such a remote place of whimsical natural beauty. At one point we were taking a wooded shortcut back from the festival site, finding our way by the torchlight of our phones. We heard the quiet sound of bells tinkling behind us, and a completely unattended horse trotted from the darkness and came up to me to nuzzle my hand for an extremely surreal five minutes.
Connection to nature also comes easier when you’re at an event so completely committed to limiting its impact on the environment, and gently educating its crowd and the world by setting a laudable example. Whether they’re crowdfunding to plant a forest in Jhapa, Nepal to offset the impact of the festival, creating natural cigarette butt recycling bins around the site, or dedicating a lot of energy to new composting toilets and food waste management, this is a festival that truly lives and breathes its ethics.
The feeling of community and being part of a tribe that people talk about when they come back from Meadows…. It’s hard to describe the beauty of it and also the painful longing for it when you’re back in civilisation, living a sometimes hard and confusing existence marked by disconnection, isolation, big questions looming over us at all times about the future of our species on this planet.
Being a part of something like Meadows reminds you – even if just for a weekend – that we are part of a collective. We can embrace the core humanity of everyone on this planet, we can empower and support people who are doing things to help this planet, and we can become more conscious beings by selectively exposing ourselves to positive experiences that make us rethink who we are when we’re away from it all, how we spend our time when we come back.
Maybe you’ll also get a tattoo within days of landing back in the UK to remind yourself of how you felt forever, or write a song about it like I did. I don’t know. That’s up to you. I just hope to see you there, smiling like a euphoric idiot at the Sunrise Stage, and celebrating something bigger than yourself.
You can buy tickets for Meadows in the Mountains 2018 on their website right here >> https://meadowsinthemountains2018.eventgeniustravel.co.uk/
Photo credits: findingneverbland
Words by Anna Herber