The month is March, the sun is starting to emerge and the snow is falling. Where are we? We are, of course, in Bansko for the first festival on our 2014 calendar – Horizon Festival. The rules of Horizon are simple: ride hard, party harder. With snow-sure slopes for the day and hard hitting DJ’s for the night, there’s something here for every bass hunter and piste runner, and with the festival now in only its second year it’s shaping up to be a name to watch. Here’s the first part of our take on the massive 7 days we were there!

The Town

Bansko is a ski resort situated in the southwest of Bulgaria, just at the base of the Pirin mountains. It contains all the amenities that one could expect from a town: shops, mehanas (tavernas), bars and hotels, with more ski and snowboarding shops than could ever possibly be visited in one trip, and there’s even an ice rink near the centre. The locals are more than happy to help around where they can, and most understand enough English to get by.

The town is rather big for a ski resort and depending on which hotel or apartment is allocated to the festival goer it can mean a lot of taxi’s in the night time to avoid getting too cold. Fortunately enough, Bulgaria is ridiculously cheap for a British citizen. As anyone that has been skiing or snowboarding before would know, the resorts always increase their prices as the holiday maker will have no other option. In Bansko’s case, this means that a meal (including drinks) will cost on average about 25 lev, which is around £11.

The cost of a beer is about 5 lev, which is slightly more than suggested by Horizon but in reality is still around £2 – so isn’t exactly something that can be complained about. It’s worth shopping around for food and drinks while on site; the locals know about the festival and are willing to give discounts and special offers if shown the wristbands and know you’ll be staying for a week. The shops are also willing to accept some kinds of haggling, so don’t be afraid to politely give it a try (within reason, of course).

 ShotsCheap shots: the best (and worst) kind of shots (Dan Smith)

The festival offers ski and board hire via their website, which includes boots in both cases. For the price offered it’s a good service and keeps all your booking details in one place, but it is possible to shop around online for other rental services in Bankso for alternative means. Most of the rental shops are near the gondola too, so if you do choose to rent then there’s not much lugging around of equipment. The festival has some linked bars like Pirin 75 which offer half price drinks when shown the wristbands, so the savings are even further.

The Accommodation

Horizon offers a multitude of hotels and apartment solutions for the accommodation during the week. Prices start from as low as £179 for the week when caught at the earlybird stage, for which you can stay in a 4 star hotel with a pool and spa included. The Park Hotel Gardenia is one of the bigger hotels on offer, which doubles up as one of the festivals venues during the nighttime. Some of the hotels offer breakfast included in the stay, primarily made up of a selection of hot and cold food via a buffet style counter. The selections are quite ample to set up for a day on the slopes, carb loading and plenty of protein to get the muscles going! One of the more peculiar aspects to the breakfast selections is the addition of cake. It’s not expected, it’s a bit out of place, but it’s sheer genius when you’re in the mother of all hangovers.

GardeniaGardenia (Horizon Festival)

The Slopes

Most of the partiers at Horizon are there for the snow alongside the artists, so it’s crucial that the snow is useable. There’s about 80km of piste up the mountain, with a single gondola going up to the lifts. The gondola is something of a challenge when you’ve been out the night before (it takes at least 15 minutes to reach the end) but once the journey’s over, there’s plenty to play around on. It’s not set up with any green slopes, making it a slightly difficult place for complete beginners, but Horizon does offer lessons during the booking process and there are plenty of instructors on the mountain during the day.

BanskoSlopes in Bansko (Dan Smith)

For those who are more advanced, there are plenty of blue and red runs, topped off with a snow park up towards the peak and some challenging blacks for those feeling brave. As an interesting addition for a small extra fee, a festival goer can pay to ride with the pros, where international level skiers and snowboarders join up with small groups for demos, how-to’s and ride-alongs for a day. This twist adds a new level to the slopes, allowing a more active approach for ticket holders to improve their ability while staying on site.

The Stages

As with most festivals, the outdoor stages are the biggest and most exciting places to be. Horizon boasts two outdoor constructs, placed partially up the mountain, allowing for access via skis or snowboards and for those not snow-sport inclined (or those perhaps damaged by either), there are handy shuttle buses for the small price of 2 lev each way. Now, the first thing to note on these stages is the sheer scale of them compared to the venues in town. The feeling given off by these is certainly more like that of other festivals that crowds have come to expect, with impressive lasers and light shows. When you’re stood in the mountains, in the last light of the setting sun, a light snow falling, the stars coming out and plenty of partiers all around dancing to the same beat, it’s hard to imagine a better place to be.

Dub PhizixDub Phizix on the Tofana Stage (Laura Mackie)

Whilst it is quite difficult to jump around on hard packed snow (which quite quickly turns to ice from our experience, but it can be just as fun trying to stand up), the acts keep going in the sub-zero conditions and no-one seems to mind after a couple of beers anyway. The line ups for the Secret Hotel seemed to be a never ending list of goodness, with beats coming off the mountain well up until midnight. As you’d expect, there are bars at each venue with plenty of drinks to keep you warm in the night and fires set up to huddle around for when you’re feeling a bit danced out. The DJ’s were also often found standing around these after their sets, so it became quite a good place to hang out with them after some killer beats.

Keep an eye out for the second part of our review, where we’ll take a look at the music and the nightlife, coming soon! Shout outs to the people we met out there including the guys at In Reach, Exit Records and of course, everyone at Horizon!