The tiniest music festival in the Transylvanian mountains, Wonderest originated right here in Budapest. Grown out of the popular musical Garden Wonder series, Wonderest is the final form of this exploration of music, bringing attendees and musicians together for a weekend away from society and responsibilities. With the festival now packed away, we look back at what it was like, and what we can expect in the future.

If you’re looking for an escape from the city, without having to deal with arranging any travel plans yourself, then Wonderest is the festival for you. A dedicated travel bus took festival attendees to and from the grounds, with stops in Budapest, Hatvan and Debrecen, before heading straight to Transylvania. The bus ride out was a relatively quiet affair – it departed Heroes' Square at 6am, so many riders choose to grab some shut-eye en route. By the time the bus was returning, however, it was alive with conversation, as friendships formed quickly over the course of the four days.

Arriving at the festival site itself did require a fair bit of stamina, as a steep climb up the dirt road was no small hurdle between the bus drop-off and the campground. Those thinking of attending next year should bring a sturdy pair of shoes for this walk, if they don’t want to find themselves weary and sore by the end of the first day!

Local farmers put down their work as attendees passed, waving and shouting encouragement. In fact, the locals were quick to get involved in the activities at the festival, showing up to offer horse rides, home-baked goods and servings of blueberry pálinka over the weekend.

Once we made it to the festival, a straightforward registration process granted us our wristbands for the weekend – one to indicate our attendance, and another acting as our food ticket. Two meals were provided each day, at roughly 3,000 forints each, with an additional drinks card for coffee, lemonade, wine and spirits.

It’s difficult to get this far without mentioning the surrounding scenery – which is so lush and serene that we almost can’t do it justice without running the full gamut of synonyms to “beautiful” and exclaiming them all in a breathless outburst. Alpine flowers and shrubs adorn the hillsides all around the camp, with the dark greens, blues and greys of spruce trees in the background forming a most charming picture. In the evening when the fog rolls in, the scene becomes something out of fiction, almost too exquisite to be real.

The festival is also dog-friendly, and it’s hard to say whether the humans or canines enjoyed their time more in this fresh, wondrous, bewitching environment.

The musical acts were predominately acoustic, Indie-Folk with a healthy dash of ambient and even electronica thrown in. The single stage faced the main gathering space, with audience members sprawled on blankets and yoga mats as close to the stage and they wished.

In some instances of rain, the audience even came up on the stage to sit directly at the performers’ feet. It’s an extraordinary laid-back, personable affair which disguised the incredible amount of planning and preparation which went into the event.

The event organiser, Hanna Gulyás, kept a calm, buoyant countenance at all times, but it was clear that she was an extraordinarily busy woman, always being called to address this question or that new object of duty. This being the first year the festival was held in earnest, there were still a few hiccups along the way, including the arrival of the police on the first day over misunderstandings in paperwork.

One of the most memorable experiences from the festival sprang unexpectedly out of this bungle. As music was not allowed to proceed on the first evening until bureaucratic mandates were sorted, a secret concert was set up in the woods. The announcement was made to festivalgoers for those who wished to attend, and we crept into the dusky shadows of the forest’s edge, following the little footpath, until coming across a magical scene.

Illuminated by a single overhead lamp, and fairy lights strung across the bushes, Australian musician Edward Hughson strummed his guitar, and as the sound of the creek mingled with the music, listeners perched on the hillside fell into a silent reverie, spellbound by the ambiance of the evening. Perhaps no music festival has ever played to such an attentive audience.

The police duly appeased and the sun shining bright the following morning, the programme proceeded as planned (or mostly, at any rate). Besides music, the festival had other activities for attendees, including morning yoga sessions, film screenings, panel discussions and a foraging trip, led by local guides. It was on this adventure that we were shown minute, wild strawberries – a pop of sweetness – wild thyme, edible flowers and spruce sprouts, and expanses of blueberry bushes on the cusp of bearing fruit. (If only the festival had been a few weeks later!)

It was during this adventure that the warmth and sunshine began to fade, accompanied by low rumbles of thunder, and festivalgoers only just made it under the communal shelter before torrents of rain, hail, lightning and thunder pounded the site. While explosive, however, these summer storms were short lived, and did little to dampen the spirits, as impromptu sing-along sessions soon popped up around the fire.

Card games and film screenings also passed the wet moments, and a few unbothered souls raced through the downpour with that enraptured glee we rarely glimpse outside of childhood. In such a setting, the expression of self is not only tolerated, but wholly encouraged.

In this way, unapologetically unhurried, communal and authentic, the festival lapsed between music, laughter, conversation and a general appreciation for life. Wonderest is a place to converse comfortably with strangers, and bond over a glass of beer.

The festival’s beer was brewed specially by Bers Nova, a Romanian brewery run by the charismatic Paul Olau. When washed-out roads prevented the last shipment from making its way up to the grounds, Paul offered any volunteers willing to re-dig the road a reward of free beer, and a heroic task force was assembled. Even these sorts of troubles were met with smiles and gracious forgiveness, feeling more like a small town community than a paying clientele.

Food at the festival was another deviation from the norm. Foregoing the festival favourites of greasy hamburgers or cheesy lángos, Wonderest employed renowned vegan chef Gergely Zsolnay from FLOW Café to design the festival’s menu. Everything was cooked with fresh produce from local Transylvanian farms and suppliers, and was prepared onsite by Zsolt from Csíkszereda, Transylvania and assisted by his girlfriend Viola.

Each meal was cooked over a wood-burning fire. Nothing short of gourmet, each meal was a delight, with servings large enough to satisfy day-long activity and extras left over for anyone who wanted a second serving. Being a zero-waste festival, attendees were instructed to bring their own kitchenware and cutlery, into which the food was served. 

Coming off the heels of quarantine, lockdown and self-isolation, the opportunity to meet new faces and converse with fresh acquaintances was nearly more a breath of fresh air than the breath of fresh air itself. Perhaps now more than ever, the simple act of conversing is an invaluable gift, and an undemanding festival like Wonderest is an ideal environment for it. Good music, good food, good beer and a good location come together to form an unforgettable experience.

We’ll see you there next year.