A Festival? In a Transylvanian Castle? I Mean, Sure

Electric Castle's lineup looked like someone emailed every booking agent in the northern hemisphere saying: "right, Romania, who fancies it?"

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21 July 2017, 12:15pm

Every place in the world has its calling card. For Melton Mowbray it's the pig feet in the pastry of their pork pies, for Seville the inky gloss of their oranges; say the word "Ibiza" and you can practically taste the lysergic tang of those endless nights. For Transylvania, on the other hand, it's death. It's big black capes, leather wings, castles and coffins. And why? All because some Irish author who died 105-years ago decided it was just that sort of place. You've got to wonder whether Bram Stoker fully appreciated the magnitude of his long-term contribution to Romanian tourism.

For over a century this mythology has been attracting people to the place, seducing them into boarding cramped Wizz Air flights (or the pre-plane equivalent) across the continent to chase the promise of bony turrets, charcoal mountaintops and full moons. The same is exactly true for me. As soon as an email landed in my inbox containing the words "Cluj-Napoca" and "Press Trip," I was sold. Why not spend a weekend watching Alt-J play on the bat-bothering old bugger's stomping ground?

Now, it's important to stress that there's a lot more to Cluj-Napoca than a pale bloke with a big collar and pointy teeth. The botanical gardens are excellent, there's a very interesting ethnographic museum and I particularly enjoyed contemplating my eventual end in a sprawling Hungarian cemetery, which is open to visitors. Our hotel – the filmically named Hotel Belvedere – looked not unlike some drunk captain had crashed a luxury cruise-liner into the side of a mountain forty years ago and abandoned it. The reception area was a feast of chipped marble, faded red carpets and yellowed chandeliers. Post-Soviet-Lux is definitely my new aesthetic. Drop in next time you're cruising through the Balkans.

The author on a visit to St Michael's Church

The city is the second-largest in Romania, and thanks to its student population it's slowly becoming something of Medieval Homerton. The cobbled streets and cracked, gothic facades are broken apart by coffee shops and vegan eateries. Rental prices are apparently skyrocketing at the moment, which is normally a sign you'll be able to get a good Aperol Spritz or a nice flat white nearby.

Naturally, with a young population ever-growing, over the past few years it's also become a burgeoning spot for festivals. Across the year the town hosts a film festival, a jazz festival, an art festival, a comedy festival and lots of very, very European music festivals. We were visiting for Electric Castle, a four-year old event that takes place on the estate of Banffy Castle – a building which, prior to hosting Deadmau5, was set alight by Nazis, and near-dismantled during the Communist era. What remains of the original structure, and its gardens, now provides ample space for one of the biggest weekends in the Romania music calendar.

And it really does make for a beautiful site. Outside of the main stages there are plenty of hidden idylls. Low-hanging canopies, lakeside hammocks, and dimly-lit terraces are tucked away all over the place. Size-wise you can whip round the entire place in about 20 minutes, taking in a ferris wheel, a swing roundabout, and a delicious halloumi and mushroom burger on the way. Beers are cheap, and the sky is pink. You know the score.

In terms of the main stage, though... Look. A bit of honesty here, because honesty, reader, is important. How can you trust me if we can't be honest with each other? If a festival is in a country that you haven't been to before, you might agree to go without 100 percent checking you like all the acts on the lineup. Which is, by the way, how I ended up watching Paul Van Dyk in the grounds of a 15th-century castle.

We had a lot of fun at Electric Castle, but the lineup on the main stages sort of looked like someone put an email out to every booking agent in the western hemisphere saying "right, Romania, who fancies it?" We're talking Nero, we're talking Dub Pistols, we're talking Zedd, we're talking Alt-J, we're talking Beardyman, we're talking Duke Dumont. From an outsider's perspective, it's hard to see any ostensible lineage between this motley crew (using the phrase here, Mötley Crüe weren't playing). The strange blend of brash American EDM, Euro-trance, electro-swing and UK indie was a bewildering combination.

Initially, I was a little put off by this, however, somewhere during House of Pain's spirited rendition of, yes, "Jump Around," I got thinking. As Everlast and Danny Boy galumphed to and fro, bellowing at the audience to "jump up, jump up and get down," and the audience relished the opportunity to do just that, I asked myself: what is fun? Am I having fun? Is everyone here having fun? And I found the answer to be: yes. House of Pain look a bit out of breath, but they are also, I think, having fun. We are all having fun. So at least there was that.

I drank another twelve beers and carried on thinking. It struck me that this was a festival with a different sort of purpose. Yes, you could sniff at the likes of DJ Sneak, or a silent disco blaring brass band covers of Avicii songs, but you'd be pissing in the wind mate; shouting in vain at a very loud speaker system playing Mr Scruff songs. Nobody cares. The music here was almost perfunctory, instead the focus was the setting; the opportunity to decompress over drinks and fairy lights – and that's just fine.

That said, we were quite struck by Estonian rapper Tommy Cash. If he's already on your radar, that's probably a result of the video for his track "Winaloto", which dropped last year to collective amusement and alarm – nicely achieved thanks to shots of Cash's face superimposed between women's legs. On stage he's an absolute menace, charging around in a burgundy tracksuit with a wry, delinquent sauce that is genuinely arresting. His music was icy and charged, and despite some badly-judged visuals, he proved to be a personal highlight.

As Sunday night built to a close, I finally felt my shoulders relax. None of this is to say that "taste" doesn't matter, but it is to say festivals can run on something other than their lineups. This is where Electric Castle won. It's genuinely charming. The festival care about the castle, the castle cares about festival. It's a place where the punters care about each other, the food stalls care about the environmental implications of their waste, and at least a few people still care about House of Pain.

Cold lager sluicing near the back of my throat, I surveyed the final scene. Franz Ferdinand marching along to "Take Me Out," an army of Romania students grinning wildly, the ferris wheel ticking round endlessly. Then, I turned on myself and let it in once more; yes, I am having fun. This – Romania, Franz Ferdinand, nice people and chips – is fun. Which is a good feeling. For if you can't look in the mirror and catch yourself smiling from time to time, then you're no better than the toothy bastard himself.

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(All photography by Ethan Weatherby)