When I first heard about a free festival called Polish Woodstock, I imagined a quaint, foreign interpretation of its legendary American counterpart. Yet after a fair bit of persuasion from a Polish friend, a few of us in Berlin decided to make the trip across the German border. When we arrived, I couldn’t believe the biggest rock festival in Europe had escaped my radar until now.
Our regional train terminated just a few hundred meters into Polish territory and we alighted on a platform in the tiny town of Kostrzyn. After picking our way past the hoards of poeple napping or swilling beers in the shade, we piled onto a bus headed toward the music and began exploring with a pair of disposable cameras.
The sheer scale of the event was astounding. Last year close to 800,000 people attended Polish Woodstock, almost double the size of the original festival in New York. The crowd was almost entirely Polish, with a smattering of Germans and a few other Europeans. Tents, tarpaulins, and parked cars carpeted a sprawling expanse of dusty land, reaching over a hill into the forest. There was no officially-designated camping area, so people set up shop on every available piece of ground that wasn’t directly in front of the main stage. In recent years the festival has introduced corporate sponsorship from Polish beer brands and tech companies, but that hasn’t come with the usual consequences of upgraded facilities and jacked up prices. Garbage removal was limited to stacking bags of trash together in larger piles hidden in the trees. Queues for showers and toilets – if guests bothered to use them at all – were disorderly. On the other hand, beer cost 80 cents and everyone brought their own bottles of vodka. The free-love spirit of the original Woodstock was alive and well. Despite such a mass of drunk, unregulated humanity, we saw no fights. The only behavior on display was good will and kindness from the other attendees. The food operations were also an attraction in their own right, with offerings such as sausage rolls the length of cats and meaty cabbage sides. The supermarket LIDL raised a temporary structure to provide a pre-apocalyptic grocery-shopping experience, and a band of Hare Krishna followers set up a free food tent, if that was your sort of thing.
Throughout the festival, I came across sights that caused me to stop dead in my tracks. A mechanical crane parked near the main stage served as a platform for daredevils to bungee jump over the crowd. Elsewhere, a woman balanced beers on a can tucked between her breasts. Who signs up to perform at Polish Woodstock? A comically varied lineup of average local bands and celebrities seeking another shot at relevance. Shaggy opened for one of my favorite punk bands in high school, the Californian-Irish group Flogging Molly.