Review: ION Festival 2022
September saw thousands of party-goers flock to the Albanian Riviera for the long-awaited ION festival.
I’m in a concrete bunker, sweat seeping out of every pore, as the thrumming beats of techno legend Jeff Mills work the hundreds-strong crowd into an increasingly frenzied melee of gyrating limbs.
Two hours later we emerge from this vast underground labyrinth, gasping for cool air.
It’s 4am but for some the party is just getting started. “Where are you going? It’s Nina Kraviz next?” shout a group of bare-chested Brits, pumping their arms as they plunge back down into the haze for the start of the Russian DJ’s set.
For three years, such scenes of sweaty hedonism were but a distant dream for LWE, the brains behind ION, a week-long festival of electronic music held in Dhërmi, a little-known slice of Albanian beach paradise.
While the festival was originally planned for 2020 and then 2021, Covid-19 restrictions meant that it had to be postponed twice. When I spoke to Alan Crofton, Managing Director of Mainstage Festivals who run the ION site, he could barely disguise his relief that it was finally happening.
“We launched it in 2019 and it’s been a rough ride, so to finally see it come to life has been amazing,” he said.
While dancing to Mills and Kraviz’s headline acts left everyone buzzing, just the location of ION, the sleepy Albanian fishing village of Dhërmi, had already made for a unique festival experience. Waking up on Thursday morning, I was immediately confronted by the mesmerising sight of the Ceraunian Mountains. A gigantic range which extends for more than 100 kilometres from the Greek border all the way of the southwestern coast, they loom over the festival site.
It is said that Julius Caesar and his army once braved these treacherous mountain passes to secure a decisive military victory, setting Caesar on a path to becoming Emperor of Rome. Daytime hikes to various historical sites were on offer to more adventurous revellers, while Dhërmi’s sandy beaches offered a more conventional way of refilling the energy tank from the night before.
LWE have declared their intention to turn this corner of the Albanian Riviera into Europe’s next big festival destination, one capable of rivalling Greece and Croatia, and their blend of headline artists and emerging talents made ION’s music line-up a compelling mix.
Thursday saw us dancing to the dawn to the pounding techno of rising UK star Daniel Avery on The Deck, ION’s beachside hub, while Friday’s Main Stage featured Maribou State playing their customary plethora of unique sounds under a full moon.
Deciding where to spend each night was no easy feat, but we often chose to begin with the cheesy tracks of the Yacht Club to get the party started before heading to The Cove, a packed venue right on the water’s edge. As Jennifer Cardini’s garage post-punk inspired set whipped the crowd into a near hypnotic state of mind on the Saturday night, one of my colleagues made the mistake of straying a little too far down the sands and found himself soaked by a rogue wave.
Each day brought a choice of vibes. Like Mainstage’s Kala festival, held in the same location earlier in the year, wellness activities are worked into the programme, with morning and evening yoga classes, breathwork instructors, and even a shaman-led spiritual session which offered a chance to experience rapé, a sacred tobacco used as part of medicinal rituals by tribes in Brazil and Peru. Blown up the nose with a wooden pipe, causing a burning sensation in the upper nostrils, it’s definitely not one for the faint-hearted.
But what set ION apart from the other European festivals I’ve been to was the wealth of imagination which went into designing the various stages. Where else would you get to dance to funky beats on the rooftop of a 15th century fort, once the home of a notorious general in the Ottoman Empire? On Monday afternoon, we warmed up for Mills and Kraviz by taking a speedboat a little way down the coast to the Gjipe canyon. Surrounded by imposing rock faces, around 100 festival-goers partied to British DJ Ben UFO before diving into the turquoise waters to cool off.
Local Albanian DJs were also provided welcome opportunities to showcase their music to a wider audience. During one afternoon I sat down with Dhërmi local Andi Qafmolla, known as Andi Q, who headlined the Yacht Club stage on the Saturday. “This is something I really appreciate,” he says. “You see the line-ups for some Croatian festivals and there’s not a single local artist. Here there are at least four or five. It just shows that the organisers here are not just coming to take advantage of the location, they’re helping to grow the Albanian music scene as well.”
Being an inaugural festival there were still a few hiccups. The organisers admitted the transport situation to Dhërmi was somewhat chaotic with most festival-goers flying to Corfu and then being faced with a nigh-four hour ferry trip up to the Albanian port of Himare. While ION was billed as a cashless festival with ticket-holders being issued RFID wristbands, most of the shops and restaurants around the festival site only accepted cash.
But these are minor points. Overall the first-ever ION was an enormous success, and we look forward to seeing what the organisers bring to the table in 2023.
ION Festival returns 6-13th September 2023. Early-bird tickets go on sale in November.