If you're planning to spend the weekend in the Dutch countryside with a load of Disney princesses, orcs and witches, go prepared. After three hours of sleep, a nine-hour bus ride, several hours photographing cosplayers and a couple more hours walking through a forest, I finally found the hut that I'd be sleeping in for the night.
I had no idea where I was, my phone was half-dead and the only petrol station I'd passed didn’t sell beer. I was at Elfia – Europe’s biggest fantasy festival – and I hadn't thought anything through.
Elfia – which this year took place in some historic castle gardens near the village of Arcen – is a mixture of open-air convention, Renaissance fair, concert and cosplay contest, spread over an entire weekend and supposedly attended by around 25,000 guests.
I’ve been to the cosplay village at Gamecom and visited a number of roleplay conventions; I'd consider myself a pretty open-minded, nerdy kind of person. But crossing the drawbridge onto the castle grounds for the first time, I felt like I was stepping into a completely alien world. An orc walked past, followed by three excited senior citizens snapping photos.
“There are a lot of older people here today who actually just wanted to take in the castle and the gardens,” explained Maike Schober, a PR for the event. She wasn't in costume.
I wish I'd had a couple of extra cameras and a few more arms so I could document everything going on around me. One thing I did manage to capture was a group of giggling girls hanging out on one of the many bridges surrounding the castle, all of them taking turns holding a dog in a black-and-turquoise Victorian dress. Several princesses were posing for pictures; I couldn't work out whether they were based on anime characters or roleplay royalty, which made me realise how embarrassingly out of the cosplay loop I'd become.
At one point, an older lady in steampunk gear gave me a dodgy look when I lit up a cigarette in the rose garden. I'd half-hoped I'd strike up a friendship with a load of elves – that we'd all get high together in the idyllic, medieval grounds of the castle. Unfortunately, as I quickly discovered, drugs aren't popular with any mystical beings – not orcs, not wizards and certainly not elves.
By the afternoon I'd worked my way through the castle and its gardens, soon finding myself in the large open space where the real festivities were taking place.
Food, robes, slightly tipsy Sailor Moon characters – it was all there, mingling among the various booths. A wood elf, a stormtrooper and the Mad Hatter were taking selfies. Entire families in costume pushed strollers through the muddy grounds. A steampunk pistol vendor warned “young warriors” not to touch the weapons on display, while a troupe of wannabe D'Artagnans flailed around in a nearby sword-fighting workshop.
I kept on walking, bumping into Captain Jack Sparrow before realising that I'd completely missed the jousting tournament. Disappointed, I sat and watched a woman in a fairy costume stroke a white pony to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. A bunch of people were staring at her breathlessly; I'm not sure what I stumbled in on.
Passing a hair-braiding stand and a group of Ghostbusters locked in discussion, I realised I was lost and took some sluggish steps to what I assumed was the exit. Just as I spotted the gate in the distance, storm clouds began to gather.
Hooped skirts billowed, leaves whipped through the gardens and a group of furries suddenly materialised and didn't do a whole lot. I decided it was time to leave, and with that two members of the Knights Templar – each about 50 years old – pointed me vaguely towards my hut.
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