As we touched down at Blodiv airport in Bulgaria for the highly anticipated ski, snowboarding and music festival Horizon my pals and I piled into the mini-bus transfer to Bansko where it was being held.
With Horizon’s music line-up boasting the best of British house, bass, techno, dubstep, garage, disco and Y3K funk, from established and underground DJs, 70km of beautiful slopes to ski and snowboard down, après ski parties and main stage events on the mountain and in the town we had loads to look forward to.
Bankso, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is nestled in the foothills of the Pirin Mountains. The town has previously hosted world-cup skiing competitions and is currently Bulgaria’s most modern ski resort, popular with the young ski and snowboarder crowd. Bansko is gradually gaining recognition as one of Europe’s main ski resorts.
After a four-hour drive, which felt more like a very fast and scary amusement park ride, our mini-bus had arrived in Bansko’s new town. Meandering through the streets where sex shops rubbed shoulders with establishments selling guns, knives and knuckledusters, my first impression was how much more gangster the town felt than I’d expected. This definitely wasn’t an elitist French skiing resort!
In fact, this was Bulgaria’s fastest growing ski resort, which has been continually developing new slopes, trails and roads since 2004. The formerly quiet village is now a full on ski resort with way more accommodation than people living there. Popular with Brits, Russians, Israelis, Germans and Bulgarians for its sunny weather, snow-filled slopes and bargain prices it was the ideal location for Horizon Festival.
Bansko has an old town and a new town, which we stayed in. The old town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and some of the buildings in the vicinity were built as far back as 100BC. However, the new town is now the result of the property boom with a mass of hotels under construction and unfinished roads, which currently look more like mud tracks.
To put into perspective how quickly Bansko is developing and how much effort is being put into catering for the increasing numbers of visitors since 2004, when the eight-man gondola was installed, over 30 million Euros has been invested in ski lifts and facilities and 50 million has been invested in the surrounding area. This has seen the installation of a high-speed quad lift and there are proposals to increase the ski area by 250km.
Locals are wise to the town’s increased popularity and are capitalising on it as much as possible. As tourists we experienced the full furore of this when we walked through the resort and were bombarded by promoters trying to persuade us to go to their restaurant or club.
The grittiness of Bansko’s new town, however, is in stark contrast to the slopes, which are a 30-minute gondola ride away from the town. As we rode the gondola up the mountains on our first morning we were surrounded by the breathtakingly beautiful, snow capped Pirin Mountains. We were then greeted at the top of the gondola by one of the main stages, where House music was being played and the festival atmosphere was in full swing. Besides this venue all the others were in the town.
Happy, holiday vibes and a feeling of adventure radiated off the slopes. As this was Horizon Festival’s first year there was a feeling of not really knowing what to envisage. The festival is the latest creation of Dimensions and Outlook festivals’ co-founder and curator Jack Robinson. Testament to Horizon’s individuality the festival had an intimate capacity of 800 people, which included 100 DJs, local Bulgarians and an abundance of UK students hailing mostly from London and Bristol, who were predominantly male.
A fresh dump of powder had come the day we arrived so there was plenty of snow and the conditions were fantastic throughout the entire festival. Although Bankso is renowned for having lots of powder there would usually be more sunshine than there was that week, so we were lucky to have so much snow.
There was mixture of locals, English families on their Easter holidays and festivalgoers on the piste. Apart from Sunday, when the locals were also on the slopes, the piste was unusually quiet for the time of year. We found lots of fresh lines and some fantastic off-piste routes. The slopes were the perfect level for beginners or those burning the candle at both ends.
At the end of most days we skied or snowboarded to the Secret Hotel. This was ‘the spot’ and indicative of its secrecy to get there we had to venture down the slope, then cut across off-piste onto the road and then clamber through the trees to the hotel. The place had a really chilled daytime vibe, with the decks on the balcony looking out, playing music and the Pirin Mountains providing a glorious backdrop. Nearly everyday after gallivanting down the slopes all day and then going to the Secret Hotel we succumbed to our tiredness and flopped into a deep sleep before heading out.
The music highlight of the week was the Flight Rhythm party at Oxygen. DJ T-Haus aka Tom Mitchell, from Horizon Festival, smashed it with his set. I caught up with him later and asked him how he thought the festival was going. He told me that it was: “going really well. There’s a friendly vibe and everyone’s making friends and wanting to stay in touch. Not like any other festival.”
While chatting we got on to the topic of how many more guys had come to the festival than girls. Tom said: “The main group of young males was probably due to the experimental nature of the music line-up. This type of new, experimental music is made and followed initially by boys. There was no main headline so the festival’s music was more of a spread interest. Also this year was the first year so it was a bit of a gamble, which young guys seem to go for.”
Another memorable night was the Schl Rcrds party at the Red Rose Strip Club when hell broke loose and there was a series of slapstick misunderstandings. It was the most hilarious and prolific night during the whole festival and the music was banging and shook the little Red Rose building to the ground. The line-up featured DJs Loefah, Rude 94, Benton and Klose One.
Mischief surfaced as the strippers started stripping and it became apparent that the festivalgoers were much more interested in the music and dancing on the stage. As the crowd clambered on to the stage to dance the security stepped in and strictly forbade any guys from doing so and the Bulgarian bouncers booted anyone off that did so. After a while, the strippers got the message that the festivalgoers were more interested in the music and they put their clothes back on and started collecting glasses instead.
Another night that stands out was at Happy End, a big bar, where Ben Pierce and Crazy P played. We then went on to Oxygen, a bar/club, in the old town, which was a small venue with toilets that had no doors but the music was great and made up for the venues grittiness.
Most mornings we crawled into bed as the sun was rising promising ourselves we’d hit the slopes by 11am and although we felt pretty jaded most of the time we managed to do it. There was an energetic, light party vibe and everyone seemed to be trying to enjoy the slopes, the music and the parties as much as possible.
The crowd combined with the intimate nature of the festival were a recipe for success. This was clear to see by the abundance of new friendships that were made and the welcoming vibe, which exceeded any festival I’ve been to before.
Amongst the friendly characters I met was Ash, from England, who was selling festival merchandise that he’d created. He was an interesting character who owns an ethical, conscientious clothing company in the UK called Namasdaze. The t-shirts he was selling were each limited to a number of 50 and had cool and different designs, instead of being heavily branded. The independent nature of his company fitted perfectly with the idea of the festival as it was in its first year and so was he.
There were also quite a few locals that attended the festival, with around 200 day tickets sold to Bulgarians. The locals got most involved on the weekend though as, presumably they had to work during the week. The Bulgarian crowd’s gender balance was the opposite of the English groups as there were many more women than men attending.
The food in Bansko is good as long as you stick to local cuisine. Although Bulgaria is renowned for its horse sausages there are many more delicious delicacies on offer than these. There seemed to be an absence of vegetables however I had some great meals, most notably at Zehtingievata House Mehana, which is popular with locals. I ordered the Pork Knuckle with gravy and homemade chips, which was lovely. Other notable meals include The Log House where we stopped for lunch and I tried the chicken soup and Perlenka flat bread, which was also very good. For top-notch traditional Bulgarian food, impeccable service and great veal stew head to Banski Han. All in all eating out in Bansko is a bargain and for the carnivores’ there’s loads of local specialities to enjoy.
On our final day of skiing and snowboarding we ventured off-piste. We then brought an amazing week to an end by heading out to a DnB night at Oxygen, which was funny if a bit aggy at points!
In summary, Horizon was a whirlwind week of piste and parties, which blended well and added another fun element to the traditional idea of a music festival. The combination of well-organised events with awesome music, excellent ski and snowboarding conditions, beautiful scenery, amazing people and bargain prices made this a memorable week and a great festival experience. The organisers did an astounding job, especially when taking into account that this was the first year and it went as smoothly as it did and everyone had such an incredible time.