Meadows in the Mountains

July 1, 2015 Events, Travel 2 Comments

Talk about heaven on earth! A couple of weeks ago we packed our bags and flew out to Bulgaria, to a festival now in it’s 5th year lovingly created by one Sasse family.

I already had high expectations for MITM (Meadows in the Mountains), and I’m so pleased to say it did not disappoint in the slightest. From a photography perspective it was paradise. Even after just landing in BulgariaI I knew it was going to be a visual feast, looking out of Sofia airport towards a mountainous backdrop at sunset was impressive in itself. The next leg of our journey consisted of a testing 7-hour coach trip in the pitch black dead of night. But when we awoke the next morning, daylight revealed we were in the most beautiful, ramshackle village deep within the mountains – our new home for the next few days.

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Most of the houses in the tiny village of Polkovnik Serafaimo are very run down. Some extremely dilapidated or unfinished, all of which added to the soul of our rustic surrounds. The village is literally perched in the foothills of the Rhodope mountains, on the border of Bulgaria and Greece. MITM takes place on top of one of these beautiful mountains, and every day it took us about an hour in total to walk from our house into town, jump in a free festival taxi, and make the last part of the steep ascent on foot to the festival site. Although all very much part of the adventure, if you’re reading this from a festival-goers perspective I’d stress that it’s not easy / quick to get to and from the houses to the site.

Tip No 1: If you’re wanting to spend all day and night there, I’d suggest packing a bag of layers for the night; daytime temperatures reach mid-twenties but as soon as the sun dips it gets pretty chilly. Good walking shoes or boots are a must too, trainers are ok as long as it doesn’t rain but it’s no fun slipping and sliding your way up and down the mountain if the heavens decide to open!

Aside from the architectural charm and pine-covered mountains, the old village inhabitants made for incredible subjects when it came to capturing the real essence of Polkovnik Serafimono. Faces bore a thousand lines, each probably telling a thousand stories of years hardship and toil. Even at the grand old age of 85, our “Mama” was still out tending to her crops every single day – the locals just didn’t seem to stop! In fact the only odd occasion they slowed down was to come and chat to us. In Bulgarian. They didn’t seem to mind we didn’t understand or speak a single word back, nor did they make any attempt to understand us; pretty comical after a 30 minute “conversation” where neither one of you has any clue what the other is saying. Still, the locals (young and old alike, although mostly older mountain villagers) were consistently warm and friendly, greeting us with smiles and waves upon every passing. To be honest, 800-odd festival goers probably made for quite the spectacle for them! Everyone at the festival we met though was extremely well-behaved, which probably encouraged the locals keep up the hospitable attitude.

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The festival scene itself was one of the most breathtaking I’ve ever witnessed. Once up on the mountain, all around is undulating meadows covered in soft billowing grass. The festival production team had done a fantastic job designing the aesthetics, including a huge wooden Trojan horse, two stages, a holistic geodome, and all sorts of hidden treats and surprises. The site called for much exploration – nothing was sign posted and you’d only discover things through either being lead by others or by pot luck. For more of my photos in and around the site, head to my portfolio.

Tip No 2: If you’re a hayfever suffer – STOCK UP! I don’t usually get it too bad, but suffered big time in Bulgaria. The one teensy shop in the village doesn’t stock a lot in general (loo roll, snacks, crisps and pickled sardines) and you definitely won’t find any tablets in the vicinity, so come prepared!

Most photographers will agree, the best time of day for light is either first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. Lucky for us – since we spent every evening and sunrise partying on the mountain top! As the sun dipped golden light bounced off everything. The second night we were there, we were fortunate enough to have a clear morning sky. So as soon as the darkness fell away, a brilliant crescent moon revealed itself against a deep Arabian blue and glowing orange gradient, one of the most gorgeous skies I’ve ever seen. But the best bit was yet to come… when the sun rose it brought with it an ocean of mist, a mystical shroud that added to an already magical view.

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There was a huge variation of skies which all gave our surrounds very different appearances, depending on whether it was cloudy or clear. This made for an interesting challenge camera settings-wise. Even when the weather was consistent, in the evenings I’d have to adjust ISO and aperture to accommodate for the difference in light and shade of subjects just a few feet apart. The mist made for especially difficult shooting conditions. Picking lenses was difficult too. Ideally, I would have brought all three out with me; the 50mm would be great for getting in amongst the crowd, up close for more intimate shots and also handy for low-light. 24-105mm is my favourite as a walk-around, and would give me the flexibility to zoom in a little if needed for the candids. And the 70-200mm would help where the 24-105mm lacked in low-light, also great for stage / artists shots if people were moving around.

Due to the location and travel involved, I decided to bring only the latter two lenses. I think because of my shooting style, I tend to keep the 50mm more for portrait work as I like to take a more journalistic approach than anything else. I did struggle with the 70-200mm, finding I had to step back a lot to get people into shots and I couldn’t get as much landscape in as I’d liked. But when I swapped for the 24-105mm, where I made up with some extra wide angle, I of course lacked in f/stops and lost some of the low-light advantage. Because of the steep ascent I couldn’t pack or carry more than one lens plus extra clothing. I ended up taking one lens out per night and I think in the end, got a nice combination of shots.

Tip No 3: If you’re wanting to get good shots day and night up on the mountain and not planning on coming down in between, take a decent rucksack with you.

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Music-wise due to the time of day /night I was up on the mountain I caught mostly DJs. There is no itinerary available, only signs on boards up on the top so it’s quite tricky knowing who’s playing when. We found mostly electronic / house / techno acts, all extremely good and to be honest it’s a nice change to not be at a festival running round trying to catch everyone playing. Emphasis was not so much on the music but on the all-round experience, which suited us just fine. With Glastonbury coming up Meadows made for the perfect contrast. For me it was all about location, beautiful countryside, nature, meeting so many lovely people and the non-stop adventure.

From a cost perspective, everything was mega cheap. In the village there was only one pub – the Pink House, where you could indulge in bottled of Prosecco for 15 Lev (about £6), and food from the two cafes were ridiculously cheap too. Omlettes were 6 Lev (about £1) as were salads and chips. Soft drinks were priced at 1 Lev (30p ish!) and pints around 6 Lev too. Festival drinks prices were around the same. You get given a tin cup too, assisting with the “leave no trace” policy.

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The last night we drove 15 minutes to the next town of Smolayan for a delicious meal at the Rodopchanka restaurant, rated no 2 on Tripadvisor. The town itself was beautiful, more old shabby town houses built into the surrounding hills and the restaurant itself was just gorgeous. Although there was only the three of us we decided to go all out and make the most of our last night. We feasted on several main meals including oven baked trout fillets with veggies, chicken wrapped in bacon stuffed with broccoli and stilton, and wild mushroom risotto. Plus three big salads and a “mish mash”, a traditional vegetarian Bulgarian dish consisting of onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, eggs, feta and olive oil. HEAVEN! Adding to that garlic bread soft drinks and coffee, the bill came to 60 Lev which is about £30, bargainious. It was a top-notch restaurant too with stellar service, AND we had the delightfully friendly Ginger and the Ghost approach us for a chat (we only realized after who she was after some Instagram stalking) which was the cherry on the cake to our perfect ending.

Next year is already being planned, we’re aiming to spend a few days either side of the festival to explore Bulgaria some more. Which leads me to…

Top tip No 4: Leave yourself some time and energy to go wandering! Bulgaria is an amazingly diverse country, highly recommended for those like me, filled with wanderlust and constantly itchy feet. Check this out for a few ideas:

If you were shooting at Meadows or have done so in similar surroundings, I’d love to hear from you in terms of what kit you used, lenses, and any other tips in general. Please leave any comments below or get in touch directly.

Head to my FB page for my full Meadows album and my Bulgaria album. And if you fancy next year’s adventure, check out the Meadows FB page.

Thanks 🙂 x

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