On the dance floor at sunset, swaying bodies cast elongated shadows. A D.J. stands on a wooden stage, dark hair tucked behind her ears, moving between tracks on a vinyl mixer. Just beyond, a couple strips and jumps into a lake of infinite blue, speckled with orange and gold.

Garbicz, Poland, doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it as Black Rock City, the epic site of music-festival-to-the-stars Burning Man. But the tiny town just east of Berlin hosts a festival with major cool factor, and it’s leaving its more mainstream older brother in the dust.

Garbicz follows in a long line of historic nightclubs spanning Paris’s turn-of-the-century It Spot, the Moulin Rouge; New York’s 70s-era Studio 54; and, more recently, Berlin’s Bar 25.

Bar 25 in 2009. Like many of history’s epic nightclubs, Bar 25 was short-lived.

In 2004, when the fall of the Wall was not yet forgotten and Berlin’s nightlife was just cropping up, Juval Dieziger and a few friends turned a riverside wasteland in the city into a nightclub for the ages. At a time when Berlin’s vibe was austere, characterized by dark clothes, industrial music, and diffident youths, Bar 25’s motto was something else entirely: “Less testosterone and more love.”

Pink wigs, orgies, and dance music channeled Studio 54 energy, and people loved it. Bar 25 would open on Friday nights and close on Monday mornings, with a group of flamboyant employees living there all week long. “We’ve created a world here for ourselves,” one of them says in the documentary Bar25: Days Out of Time. “We prefer it to outside.”

In 2010, Bar 25’s closure at the hands of a building developer sparked citywide protests. Today, the club’s former owners run Holzmarkt, a complex which includes a restaurant and the nightclub Kater Blau, in its place.

The 411 on the Berlin Party Scene

“There are different types of party people in Berlin,” explains Sophia, a student at Berlin University of the Arts. “The Berghain people,” she says, referring to the popular Berlin nightclub known as the world capital of techno, “dress in black and listen to darker music.”

“Then there’s the Club der Visionaere people, near academics who take music very seriously, and the Kater people,” of Holzmarkt’s Kater Blau club, nicknamed “house cats.” (Kater means “cat” in German; the name “Kater Blau” translates to “blue hangover.”) “They’re all about self-expression, and dress and act the most eccentric when they go out,” Sophia says.

It’s the Kater Blau crowd who is behind the Garbicz music festival, widely considered to be Berlin’s best party.

A festival-goer takes a swim break.

A German territory before World War II, the town of Garbicz sits on the other side of the border with Poland. It’s just an hour and a half’s drive from Berlin, yet the atmosphere is decidedly Polish. Most locals hail from eastern Poland and were relocated to the border by the Soviets only after the war. They barely speak English, and the town’s buildings are spartan, a blur of cement that is home to about 300 inhabitants.

But the area also harbors a vast nature reserve with a lake at its heart. The land the Garbicz venue sits on was acquired in 2006 by London architects Thomas Zieglmeier and Mark Newman, with Jack Wiak and Zibi Gondek, who quickly abandoned initial plans for a house-hotel project after meeting Dieziger in Tulum. “We had the place; the Bar 25 guys had the party,” says Zieglmeier.

Nearly a decade after Garbicz’s 2013 debut, an 8,000-strong crowd populates the lakefront venue for a four-day-long yearly festival. There are seven stages hosting different D.J.’s, plus yoga-and-meditation centers, acai-bowl stations, and places to pick up hummus dishes and wood-fired pizza.

Sprawling art installations sit under century-old trees, and the sound varies from disco music to industrial techno. There is an organic feel to the production—all of the structures are in wood, seemingly a part of the landscape.

“We had the place; the Bar 25 guys had the party.”

A few days before the festival, people start streaming in, taking their assigned places in booths and tents. Attendees often know each other, and many are regulars on the music-festival circuit. “We are doing a festival from professionals for professionals,” says Fritz “Windish” Dyckerhoff, Garbicz’s head of production.

Disco dancing.

Rangers roam the grounds to ensure festival-goers are having a good “trip”—psychedelics are popular at Garbicz—occasionally spraying sunbathers with water and magnesium.

D.J.’s are handpicked. “D.J.’s and artists are normal people that want to celebrate as well,” says Dyckerhoff. The organizers don’t want people coming just for a D.J.’s name. (Nonetheless, this year Germany’s No. 1 D.J., Marcel Dettmann, was the final act.)

Music lineups are kept secret until arrival.

“We are doing a festival from professionals for professionals.”

Its covertness and authenticity have made Garbicz the main rival to Burning Man, once the ultimate festival destination. “No more Burning Man for me,” a young Egyptian woman in a headdress told me recently at Garbicz. “I want to feel like I can run around naked if I want to.”

It’s not hard to see why people want to escape the Western dust: in the years since Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey wrote the 10 principles of Burning Mandetailing “radical inclusion,” “radical self-reliance,” “communal effort,” and “decommodification”—in 2004, the desert festival has become an expensive Who’s Who best exemplified by a complaint I overheard there in 2018: “There’s quinoa and salmon on the menu again?”

Camping options at Burning Man in 2019 went for up to $100,000 a week, and those camps were often equipped with staff, chefs, and decked-out private bathrooms. For weeks leading up to the event, influencers asked other influencers, “What camp are you in?”

The looks at Garbicz channel the vibe: crazy yet casual.

So far, Garbicz is very much not about the money. Tickets cost around $200—compared with Burning Man’s baseline $425, before experience-related costs bump the prices up exponentially—amenities are low-key, and Instagram culture is kept at arm’s length. “Most important,” says Dyckerhoff, “we don’t want visitors; we want participants.”

Attendees are international, a smattering of Germans, Americans, Italians, and more. “Our group comes from Amsterdam every year,” one woman tells me. “We love the community.” A man from Ireland in a rhinestone tank top echoes, “This is the other world I escape to every year.”

Outfits are just as extravagant as their Nevada counterparts—leather bootstraps, sky-high platforms, glitter—but they are put together with nonchalance at the last minute, not earmarked months ahead of time by a New York stylist.

Regulars greet each other with affection, while foreigners are looked upon with open interest. “You want a cigarette?” someone asks. “Have three!”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s edition of Garbicz has been divided over seven weekends, with open-air parties hosted on Saturdays and meditation and yoga on Sundays.

A couple of days after the festival, an e-mail from Garbicz hits my in-box: Hope alle ist gut!

For now, the festival’s anti-Establishment, come-as-you-are spirit has deterred Instagram-filter fanatics. “Somehow,” one regular tells me, “those who shouldn’t come just don’t manage to find a ticket.”

Garbicz is on this year through September 6

Elena Clavarino is an Associate Editor for Air Mail