Let me start of by saying this: Castlefest is not a festival. It is a world - or even a universe - all on its own. Every summer, for four days in a row, the forest of Castle Keukenhof in Lisse, The Netherlands, is transformed in a realm of fantasy, steampunk, re-enactment and much much more.

For those of you who have no clue what Castlefest is, but have been to a convention before, imagine this. You take all of the convention, but spread it out over a small forest instead of a big hangar. Along the paths you find some blacksmiths, leatherworkers, fur traders and dozens of other kinds of shops. On the large open spaces, you put 4 stages with some of the best (Pagan) Folk (Rock) bands from all over Europe. Add a re-enactment village of canvas tents et voilà: Castlefest!

 You could just go find yourself a good spot to sit - under a tree maybe? - and be amazed by all the different characters, creatures and people that pass you by all weekend. Might be a thing for some types of photographers even. Elves, Vikings, Knights, LARP warriors, Wizards, Steampunkers, some aliens, ... and even wolf dogs! The age of the passers-by is as varied as their appearance, from babies to elderly people. You might need to rub your eyes or pinch yourself to be sure you’re awake.

Or you could go shopping and get lost in all of the marvels you find. Many of them hand-made by the shopkeepers themselves. Until your stomach starts growling, at which point you really should try out the delicious food. Pieces of ham right off the bone splendidly roasted over an open fire, or hemp-seed sandwiches with marinated turkey, or chilli sin carne, ...

With all that to overload your senses you might even forget the 4 stages with bands performing from morning to night. But you really shouldn’t, because the bands are amazing.

On Thursday, the for opening concert Scotch got the honours of warming up the audience and getting the party started. They played a very varied set with different folk styles and a lot of energy, setting a good tone to build on for days to come. After that came a fire show by the duo Solstix. While they seemed to know their trade, the magic was kind of lost because it was still full daylight out. For safety reasons the show was held on a piece of asphalt on the ground, making the show only visible to a small part of the audience. A shame really, but you can’t mess too much in a forest... The main event of the evening was Afro Celt Soundsystem’s first gig in The Netherlands in 10 years. If you think the name is strange, wait till you hear the concept! Take Irish whistles and bodhran and traditional tunes. Add an energetic layer of hot-blooded african percussion and a kora (a 21! string lute-harp) and drape the whole thing with a light sauce of keyboards and electronica. Might seem weird, man does it sound great! Once the party got started, it never stopped till the end of the show. The joy of the musicians, the variety in tunes and the sheer energy the band unleashed.. amazing! They even got the whole crowd to sing along for a song with only kora music, in african.

You could fill the rest of the weekend with running from one stage to the other to see all bands. It’s even possible, since many of them play multiple times over the weekend, taking care of any overlap problems. But we decided to take things at a calm pace, because you’d miss out on so much otherwise.

We started off Friday at the crack of noon with Trolska Polska. Up for their second tour on Castlefest after last year, this Danish band has built their entire repertoire around Trolls. Every song is either a different type of troll — Scandinavian folklore has plenty of those to go around — or a tale about troll adventures. From their outfit, performance down to their merch stand, Trolska Polska does everything to bring you to their world and they succeed very well at it, too. Definitely worth seeing if you have the chance.

We got a bit lost along the winding paths and all the shops after that unfortunately.

But we wound our way to the re-enactment village where La Horde was playing some time later. A merry band of French Folk Pirates, La Horde is all about having fun on stage. Silly jokes, covers of 90s dance classics in folk version and even pillow fights - when you’re a pirate anything goes! Speaking of which, there is a pirate bar at Castlefest manned by a Jack Sparrow. But back to matters at hand. After that we wandered over hill and through forest toward the tunes of The Dolmen. This British band has become a regular at the festival over the years and they’re always nice to see. Inspired by celtic heritage and tales of the sea, they play their own style of straight UK folk rock and set up a good party. Newcomers can be surprised by the very low singing voice of the female bass player on some songs, or the sudden musical chairs on stage where the members exchange instruments. It’s hard to find anything on them online, but if you can see them live it’s definitely worth it.

Having filled up on roast ham in the meantime, we set out again to go see Omnia. Probably the biggest Dutch name in the pagan folk scene. Part of the festival’s organisation in the early years, no edition of Castlefest is complete without them. Although their style has been changing the last few years away from their tribal celtic roots, they can still give a very good show. Especially on Friday when they were joined by Joe Hennon of Shantalla who also used to be part of Omnia. We were treated to many older songs, but to me, those are still the best ones. Before the start we had been feeling the evening chill, but by the end we were hot as the summer sun. The band rocked and the crowd went wild! What a blast to finish the day with.

Saturday started with what would be the best show of the festival for me. Four years after their previous visit, the german band Omdulö was back in the line-up. Fronted by 3 lovely ladies on hurdy-gurdy, flute, bongo and ocean drum with support of 3 men on drums+didgeridoo, guitars and electronics. They bring forth a dreamy blend of poetry, mythology and very original folk compositions. Wonderful music that together with the charm of the band spreads from the stage like waves of love and positivity. No crazy show here, but very very pure music that makes Omdulö’s performance stick to your memories for a long time and leaves you with a blissful feeling.

Next up for us was Rastaban, a band based in Namur, but with members that have roots all over Europe. Long time fans of Omnia will recognise Luca on slideridoo and Mich on drums in the roster. But don’t be fooled, this is no second-rate band. On the contrary. They sail their own course and bring a lot of fresh energy to the stage resulting in a vibrant performance. You’ll have a hard time staying still to Rastaban’s tunes.

..and then we wandered off again. There’s just no resisting the shops here! Oh and a rumbling stomach too.

Some time later we joined an enormous crowd at the main stage for the annual wickerman ritual. Every year, a large wooden stick figure often in the shape of an animal, is built next to the main stage. It always has a cavity in which anyone can put wishes or sacrifices. On the Saturday evening of the festival, the wicker is set on fire in a large ritual for all to see with flames reaching metres high.

Then we got back to the far side of the festival grounds (seen from the camping) for the Bulgarian Irfan. These people weave a mystical atmosphere with eastern European and Persian music blended with a small amount of darkwave. Almost a polar opposite to all the energy put out by most bands on the festival, those who seek calm will surely find it here. The dreamy floating music interspersed with very soft-spoken explanations in between will take you to another world for the duration of the concert if you are open for it. If so, this is a really good band to go see as well. But for some it might sound a bit too new-age like.

From Bulgarian mysticism we went to German Paganism. Faun had the honour to close off day two. And they came ready for a big show. Night had fallen so they could get the most out of the stage lights, creating fitting atmospheres that bring the myths and stories of the songs to life. Halfway through another surprise came up, in the form of a fire dancer to top the whole show off.

Even better live than they are on cd, the set was a real treat to the senses. The audience was packed and loved every bit of it. So much so, in fact, that it was difficult to get close for good shots. A wonderful tribute to Castlefest’s slogan “where fantasy becomes reality”.

All Saturday tickets were sold out, the ticket booths even stayed closed for the day. But the organisation’s plans for re-distributing the people worked out well, as the terrain never felt overly crowded.

The sun woke everyone on the camping up early on Sunday for what would be a very hot final festival day. It also made everything run a little slower, but that’s okay. Up early anyway, we went to see the French band Stillevolk around 11. Openers traditionally get a smaller crowd, but by the end of set everyone in front of the stage was dancing. Stillevolk plays with a rock attitude (it formed in the pagan metal scene) but brings a surprisingly medieval sound, inspired by the old French troubadours. The combination of both hurdy-gurdy and nyckelharpa as main instruments goes a long way to creating that specific sound. Stillevolk also brings some of the darker elements of folk to the front for that little sharp edge.

As the line-up for the day consisted mainly of bands that had already played earlier in the weekend (a great way to catch up on anything missed) we decided to combine a final tour of all the shops and stalls (and pick up some stuff) with seeing some of the concerts from a little more distance. Synthesising the experience, as it were.

Traditionally, the festival closes early on Sunday, so that visitors from all over can still go home the same evening if they want to. But it was not over yet. One last eruption of drums, pipes and exhilarating energy was still to come. Prima Nocta was in for a real party. Sometimes called the Belgian Corvus Corax, the band lived up to the name. They’re no clones, though, and have their own style with much less medieval traditionals. Drums pounded with boundless energy that was taken up by the other instruments and amplified by the audience. The stage rocked and the crowd went wild. Once the jumping started, it didn’t stop till the end of the concert. And halfway through, a basket of human-sized fruit showed up on stage (the organisation) for an honorary round of stagediving. Many of the songs were dedicated to the children of one of the band members, hitting everyone’s sweet spot. When 8pm closing time came around, nobody was having any of it. Mark van der Stelt, head organiser, came to tell us it was closing time, but he had to yield to thousands of people calling for more. And so we got to party on for another half hour! Woohoo! Prima Nocta may not be Corvus, but their dedication, energy, joy on stage and performances are just as strong. It’s only a matter of scale, really.

Since we were staying till monday, we took the rest of the evening to bask in the sun and the afterglow of the festival. Letting a world like that end...it’s not done willingly or easily. But I’ll be back next year for sure.

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