Bulgaria: Ski Holiday Meets Music Festival at Horizon in Bansko
Traditional Bulgaria meets dubsteppers in 'bear onesies' at Horizon, the latest ski holiday-music festival hybrid
By David Trayner
A stony-faced man in shellsuit pants tied tight to his torso carefully counts out pancakes as a sallow-faced DJ in jeans slung just below his dignity piles rubbery eggs in a quivering mountain.
A waitress stares transfixed as the dubstepper's shaking fingers set off a mini-avalanche and a sweaty sausage drops from the plate unnoticed.
Her eyes are watching it bounce and roll across the floor when a face appears inches from hers and barks in gruff Glaswegian: "Hullo gorgeous, hae ye got onie broon sauce?"
Wide-eyed hipsters and bleary-eyed Russian families are mingling over the 6.30am breakfast buffet as the first Horizon festival unleashes 500 members of the underground British dance scene on the unsuspecting ski town of Bansko, Bulgaria. Some guests are preparing to head out for a full day skiing on eastern Europe's best hill, while others are getting ready for bed.
The Scot is Jack Revill, aka Jackmaster, co-founder of dance label Numbers and one of the festival's headliners. Two hours earlier and one floor below he'd finished his first set of the week in the Park Hotel Gardenia's subterranean restaurant, transformed into a sweaty techno den for the night. His impish request is meant to be charming, but his sharp features, piercing eyes and perfect quiff remain unmoved and the confused Bulgarian waitress just backs away towards the kitchen.
Horizon is the latest ski holiday-music festival hybrid to spawn since Snowbombing went nuclear more than a decade ago. Promoters took over nine out of Bansko's reputed 180 bars and clubs in the last week of March last year and filled them with British DJs and clubbers. While Kasabian, Example and Carl Cox played Snowbombing in Mayrhofen the following week, the aptly named Horizon featured up-and-coming acts more likely to be found on Twitter or Soundcloud than the back of the latest Ministry of Sound Annual.
Some were so anonymous they could warm up for their set on the dancefloor. It was humbling as I threw awkward shapes like a wedding uncle to see one of the legion of teeny boppers around me walk away calmly and take a place behind the decks. That said, names such as Loefah and Klose One clearly meant more to my fellow holidaymakers. When School Records hosted a night in strip club Red Rose, the pole dancers turned in early as the crowd only had eyes for the DJs.
It may sound risky to plan a ski holiday three weeks before the end of the season in a resort that only reaches 2,600m, but organiser Jack Robinson pitched it as a chance for young clubbers to try skiing or snowboarding on the cheap. The co-founder of the Dimensions and Outlook music festivals in Croatia said: "It's a holiday with music. We're providing a soundtrack."
Many of my fellow passengers arrived in fancy dress for the three-hour flight to Sofia, including one who can only be described as a cyber Jack Sparrow, and almost none loaded ski equipment onto the transfer bus, so Robinson appeared to be hitting his target market.
One of my favourite moments came while hiking a kicker in front of the Mountain Stage at the "secret" Hotel Izvorite, hidden in the forest between two lower ski runs, as Route 94 threw out chunks of deep house. Strapping in at the top was an 18-year-old in a bear onesie and day-glo face paint.
"Hey man, this is my second day on a board," he beamed, before throwing himself enthusiastically off the jump.
And when the music starts on the mountain at midday and continues in resort until 6am, it doesn't leave much time for exploring endless terrain. That said, Bansko does boast more than 70km of wide, well-groomed runs and a modern lift system. Off-piste is off the cards that late in the season but snow-making on every run guarantees skiing and the snow park has enough to occupy easily bored shredders.
Freak high winds on the eve of the festival meant the four kickers only opened two days in the week, but rails and boxes below were open all week. Snowboarder Seb Kerns, who was also DJing at the festival, said: "There is definitely something for everyone in this section and most of it was hitable and getting a good bit more action than the jumps, with people riding it on and off quite a lot."
The town itself, a 6km gondola ride from the pistes, is one of the strangest ski resorts on earth. Rarely have I felt so alien as on the long, hungover walk from hotel to lift station in full snowboard clobber past Orthodox churches, sex shops and huddles of old women in headscarves. But Bansko's bars and clubs are better – and at £2 a pint much, much cheaper – than most in the Alps.
The secret hotel parties, which ironically few guests found before the third day, had a DIY outdoor party vibe. DJs played from a first-floor balcony to ravers in backpacks shuffling on the forecourt below. Pints in plastic glasses were served over a table as graffiti writers sprayed a giant canvass to the side. Bulgarian producer KiNK got a lift from his dad for his storming live performance and a spontaneous snowball fight broke out during a set by Throwing Snow.
The best venues were the many traditional "mehana" restaurants, which offer homely tapas-style Bulgarian food accompanied by often exceptionally talented house bands. Horizon arranged a £20 all-inclusive banquet with bubbling skillets of tongue and mushroom and heaps of succulent barbecued meat at Hotel Molerite on the penultimate night in a bid to tempt young guests away from the mystery meat kebabs on the main strip.
The band's showman clarinetist calmly screwed apart his instrument as he and his mariachi-style group performed an increasingly frenetic Bulgarian version of a classic Mexican tune until he was tooting the melody through the mouthpiece alone. As the good local wine took hold we danced between the tables to Serbian rap.
The buxom singer in the more intimate Zehtindjieva Kashta mehana gave a pitch-perfect rendition of Sade's Smooth Operator as the owner, evidently overexcited to have foreign guests on whom to practise his English, performed a dance around a chair.
As we worked our way through a giant ham hock so tender the flesh fell from the bone at the slightest brush, he hovered into view miming with a clarinet. Horizon may have introduced a few hundred young clubbers to winter sports, but if this is now their impression of a ski holiday, they're in for a surprise when they get to Méribel.
• Flights and accommodation (at the Park Hotel Gardenia, Bansko, +359 749 86900, parkhotelgardenia.com) were provided by the Horizon festival, which takes place from 8-14 March 2014); festival + accommodation packages from £199 (horizonfestival.net. Wizz Air 0906 959 0002, wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Sofia
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