The secret is well and truly out about Croatia. What was once a relatively unspoilt confine has since become the fashionable spot for festivals, a bulging tourist economy that previously served Central and Eastern Europe now opened up to hordes of Brits.
Some have called it the new Ibiza, which despite being a lazy comparison certainly sheds light on some of the parallels between the two regions (and the needs of the people that go there). One thing is for sure though, we don’t half love it.
The amount of festivals sold to UK punters in the nation went past the twenty mark this year, but it hasn’t always been so bountiful in choice. Cast your mind back to 2006 and the landscape was an altogether different proposition, all that changing when four friends, two of them proprietors of the Garden Bar in Zadar, put on a small event in the village of Petrcane. The Garden Festival was born.
It’s since relocated and swelled in size since that first day, but it’s never moved beyond the immediate family feel that defined that first summer. It’s a sentiment that was the case when we first went there in 2009 and one that feels very relevant on the evidence of this year’s visit - when you go to The Garden, or indeed any festival on their site in Tisno, you’re buying into a way of life.
And one that is that little bit more different than the usual blood and thunder hedonism that tends to come with festivals. There’s always a party going on somewhere throughout the time you’re there, but equally there’s a more laid back alternative (or accompaniment) round the corner. As Festival promoter Eddie O’Callaghan put it when we spoke to him earlier in the summer, the whole thing is really “a holiday with a musical backdrop”.
From the minute we arrived in Croatia this felt the overriding sensation. First port of call was the delightfully quaint Split airport, a tiny one terminal structure framed by an epic set of stony mountains, before a bus whisked us on a journey snaking through the gloriously craggy Croatian countryside.
Arriving in Tisno you learn that the festival site sits on a slight ascent a short walk away from the picturesque village, complete with a number of bars and restaurants set up for tourism, but not to the off putting extent which belies more ‘developed’ destinations.
It’s a great environment for starting a big night out or taking it that little bit easier after a heavier one (more on that later), and instantly you’re put in the frame of mind that this is a festival where you’re going to take it easy.
The site in which the frivolity happens is much the same, a main stage is flanked by a beach based dancefloor and then a much smaller stage to the east, all threaded together by an easy going series of bars and resting points, with options for fast food, massages and even yoga.
You couldn’t get any further removed from the bombast and pyrotechnics that define many rival establishments, instead focusing on that very rare commodity in an overcrowded climate, charm. It’s something the Garden possesses in abundance.
What we experienced was seven days of blissful partying and relaxation, two polar opposites but by far the best bedfellows we can think of for a jaunt away. They were threaded together perfectly by a musical policy which augments the contrasts, mining disco, funk and the myriad of music genres which have mushroomed out of them for a consistent soundtrack which is eclectic but perfectly matched.
As a consequence you can dip in and out of the thrust of it all with deft ease, with the most hedonistic action taking place off site on the boat parties aboard the Argonaughty and its sister vessel the Arbiana, and in Barbarellas a short drive away.
The latter is a fantastic open air club which provided a number of jaw dropping moments as the sun rose early in the morning, and there’s a subconscious feeling that making that journey steps up your party commitment (despite frequent buses shuttling people between there and the festival).
The musical highlights were numerous but, tellingly, not the defining focus at any point. Soul Clap and Wolf + Lamb’s six hour back to back session kick-started the festival in stunning style on the Wednesday in Barbarellas, whilst DJ Nature’s raw grooves stole the show the following evening in the same setting.
Eats Everything brought a more standardised club groove policy on the Main Stage on the Saturday, a set mirrored in excellence by his sparring partner Justin Martin holding court on the Beach Stage three days later.
Boats wise, the Hypercolour offering proved a joy from start to finish, particularly Luke Vibert’s set that went from the most inspired way to define sunshine on a boat (808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ abopve) through jacking house and even some choice speed garage; the whoops for Double 99’s ‘Rip Groove’ nearly capsizing the Argonaughty.
Cedric Maison and Axel Boman equally emerged with scintillating credit, and it was probably the best four hours of music we’ve experienced in recent months.
Both live headliners Crazy P and Metro Area were excellent, Danielle Moore owning the stage during her appearance fronting the former and the latter’s leaning heavily on their excellent self-titled debut album, still fresh twelve years after release.
Crazy P were also behind our favourite Barbarellas session, joining forces with Futureboogie and Maxxi Soundsystem for a rioting Sunday night party which we ended swimming in the Adriatic with an ensemble of new found friends deep into Monday morning.
But you know what, none of them were the deal sealer for why we’ve already planned to go back next year. In fact it was the two sets we earmarked as essential beforehand which proved most telling about our overall experience, owing to the fact we witnessed neither.
That aforementioned early morning swim followed a heady day of fun which meant that we couldn’t quite face the Justin Martin and Eats Everything boat party on the Monday, although we were reliably informed it was great.
And Theo Parrish was supposed to end our festival in style in Barbarellas, but he didn’t manage to make it to Croatia. His last minute replacement Genius of Time proved marvellous, but that cavort into the early hours of Wednesday morning was more about embracing the final embers of a week that had completely captured our heart than it was about being blown away by music.
Tisno and The Garden subtly seduces you; you tend to dip in and out of the festival on account of a narrative you don’t really decide, it just happens. Such is the magic and the spontaneity of it all that DJs not showing up or missed boat parties blur into insignificance, instead you focus on the real reason clubbing seduced you – the vibe.
It was a week of making friends, detouring from regular life and enveloping ourselves in a pretty unique environment, with of course a musical undercurrent. But for all those moments of aural brilliance, hearing Metro Area play ‘Miura’ or Soul Clap tease in Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Aint nothing goin on but the Rent’, the memory that sits with us is swimming in the sea with people we’d known hours as the sun rose, cascading a lush tinge of reddish pink across the crystalline waters.
That moment of reflection, both metaphorical and real, completely defines the Garden experience. We can’t wait to feel it again.