Sun, Sea and Sound-Systems: How Croatia Became a Festival Hub

In just over a decade, the Dalmatian coast country has become Europe's biggest party destination.

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Jun 19 2018, 9:28am

Guests at Soundwave Festival in 2012. Photo: WENN UK / Alamy Stock Photo

In Croatia, they have a wind called the Bura. Named after Boreas – the Greek god of both the north wind and winter – it gathers in the northern Velebit mountain range, before howling down the coast and into the Adriatic sea. With regular gust speeds of 100km/h, it's claimed by locals that the Bura will clean the sky. When Bura blows, as it does mercilessly for hours at a time, it blows dry and cool and makes summer feel like winter.

All things considered, these are not the ideal conditions for your first festival. Especially one that 400 curious English ravers have flown to, on a promise of sun, sea, and sound-systems.

"It was a total nightmare," says Nick Colgan, 56-year-old founder of The Garden Festival, over the phone from Zagreb. "It blew from Friday, when we opened, until Sunday afternoon. It obviously made a massive difference. After that, we thought, 'We've missed our chance here.'"

Fortunately, the vibes at that debut Garden festival – Croatia's first international festival – back in 2006 were so sparkling that Nick spent the following months being emailed by punters pleading for him to curate a 2007 edition.

Fast forward to 2018 and Croatia is a bona-fide festival hub, with at least 17 international events across three primary sites. You might know Croatia best as the home of Zrće Beach, which – if you watch BBC Three – you'll know is lapping Faliraki and Magaluf as the de facto holiday destination for booze-and-STI-hungry Brits.

So how did this festival revolution happen in a country that, only two decades ago, was still pulling itself from the wreckage of a war of independence?

Garden Festival. Photo: David Bowen

Brummie Nick Colgan, and his wife Charlotte, invited friends Gail and Eddie O'Callaghan to Croatia in 2003. The foursome visited the Roman city of Zadar, and viewed a venue on top of its fortified stone walls. It had views overlooking Zadar harbour and the twinkling Adriatic beyond. On a whim and several prayers, they bought it together and opened The Garden Zadar restaurant and bar in 2004. "We quickly realised that, to sustain our lifestyle over there, we needed to attract more people, because Croatia was suffering back then," says Nick. "Tourism was at a very low point and a lot of the younger generation had left."

In 2006, the two couples held the first Garden Festival in the grounds of the Hotel Pinija, in the tiny fishing village of Petrcane – permanent population: 601. Speak to any attendee about the Garden Festival – especially those early years – and they'll quickly melt into soft-focus reminisces of a newly-found festival Eden.

"It was on a peninsula with this mad cosmic architecture," says Dave Harvey, co-founder of Love International and long-time booker for The Garden Festival. "I don't want to make comparisons with Ibiza, because that's different, but that feeling of being at the start of something was really exciting. People kept coming back and it was a real word-of-mouth thing."

By 2009, the festival had grown to 3,500 capacity across two weekends. With an infrastructure in place and a cottage industry built up around the annual influx of 20-something astronauts, Nick had invited other like-minded promoters to start their own festival on the site. One of these promoters was Noah Ball, who programmed the first Outlook festival at Petrčane in 2008.

Sadly, Petrčane and Outlook were not a match meant to last, with the younger crowd drawn to Outlook’s bass-heavy line-up sticking out like a heavily dilated pupil in sleepy Petrčane. "I remember someone tagged the church door," says Colgan through peals of laughter. "The priest came round to see me. We did a shout-out over the mic for whoever did it to come and clean it up. They did, but I still have to put €500 into the church fund every year because of that."

Outlook moved to Zrće Beach, on the island of Pag, for its 2009 instalment. By this time, Zrće Beach – a purpose built resort famous for EDM and European muscle bros – was a firm fixture on the international party circuit. Its church – and the sprawling open-air venue that was the progenitor of a party strip that grew on this sleepiest of Dalmatian archipelagos – was Papaya.

Swedish House Mafia playing Papaya in 2012. Photo courtesy of Papaya PR.

The club opened in 2002, but its chrysalis moment came when Dutch trance king Tiesto played there in 2008. It was Papaya and Zrće Beach's turning point. In 2009, Papaya booked Tiesto again, plus Armin van Buuren and Paul van Dyke. "The whole destination started to interest the global media, as well as other DJs, and each summer that followed the story started becoming bigger and bigger," says Papaya's PR manager, Tea Cafuta. That story continues to grow, with Novalja – Zrće Beach's neighbouring town – now estimated to attract 1,500,000 overnight stays per summer season, with wavy accounting for around 15 percent of that number.

Zrće Beach's muscle-top bro vibes weren’t quite right for Outlook and, after one year, the festival moved 235km away, to Pula, and the far more salubrious environs of the 19th century Fort Punta Christo. They've been there ever since, with their line-ups – a celebration of sound-system culture, including grime, reggae, dubstep, garage and hip-hop – securing its place as one of the continent's most innovative festivals.

In 2012, Outlook spawned a sister festival, Dimensions, which plumbed the deeper reaches of electro. "They are music festivals for good people," says Noah. "You know you're not going to walk into a 'Brits abroad' situation – blokes with their tops off, bright red and drunken tomfoolery."

Unfortunately, that Brits abroad reputation does carry a well-earned weight, and our relationship with Croatian authorities has not always been Nutella-smooth. Last year, headlines were made when The Sun quoted the Mayor of Novalja, Ante Dabo, bemoaning the "barbarism" of English tourists in Zrće Beach.

Despite this, local people I interviewed were unanimously positive about the free-boozing Brits, and generally aware of how valuable tourism is to an economy where the young are leaving in droves, and which accounted for 24.7 percent of the GDP in 2016. Crucially, 23.4 percent of jobs are indirectly supported by the tourism industry.

"We love our Brits and consider them some of our best guests," says Antonija Kaleb of Hostel Zrće. "Croatians are a proud nation, and the town of Novalja has the highest respect for its UK guests, but sometimes they find it hard to combine the perception of Novalja as a family destination and the brand that Zrće Beach has become."

This kind of generous attitude isn't applied when it comes to drugs. Since the festivals began, there's been a fractious relationship between the police and those looking for chemical enhancement at Croatian festivals.

Marc Rowlands, journalist for The Guardian and Mixmag, who has lived in Croatia covering the festival and club scene for the best part of a decade, recalls early SunceBeat festivals in Petrcane. "A couple of customers got beaten up very badly by the police," he tells me. "They'd come round the festival in plain clothes, looking for people smoking marijuana on the beach, then take your ID, go back to your apartment and search your place from top to bottom. It was an on-the-spot fine of €200."

Those on-the-spot fines endure, and there is some speculation whether they're seen as a cash cow for the local police municipality. Last year, 173 people (103 of them Brits) were arrested for drugs offences at Outlook, amid claims drugs were being planted on festival-goers. "At Outlook and Dimensions, we've made it quite public that anyone who has a police run-in can talk with our operations team. But often when you dig into these [planting] stories, they end up being not-totally believable," says Noah.

Dimensions and Outlook have, over the years, invested hugely in their relationships with local authorities. Annually, they have the mayor come down for a meeting with press and key stakeholders, and like most festivals where some people take drugs – so, all of them – they try to strike a balance between pragmatism and law-enforcement.

The Hot 8 Brass Band playing in the sea at Soundwave Festival. Photo: Dan Medhurst

Noah is also the founder of Soundwave, a festival that programmes a more soul and jazz-influenced line-up, which will celebrate its 10th (and final) festival this summer. Soundwave takes place in the idyllic coastal town of Tisno, where, in 2012, Nick Colgan moved his stable of boutique festivals. There are six that now take place there – Love International, SunceBeat, Soundwave, Defected, Dekmantel and Hospitality On the Beach – though Garden had its final year in 2015. From its glittery ashes arose Love International, founded by Tom Paine and Dave Harvey, who had booked many Garden Festival line-ups. It's broadly aimed at a younger crowd, after Garden's attendees all had kids and moved to the outer reaches of the Central Line.

Over at Zrće Beach, Fresh Island and Hideout are programming reliably on-point line-ups, with the former responsible for bringing the likes of Nas, Snoop Dogg. A$AP Rocky and, yes, Tim Westwood to the stone-lined beaches of Novalja. Speak to all the organisers, and while it's clear that Zrće Beach is viewed as a steroid-pumped beast of its own creation, everyone's part of the festival ecosystem that delivered a huge chunk of the annual 765,000 British tourists to Croatia in 2017.

Throughout all this, one can't help but take the godawful imperial view that all these festivals have somehow informed and improved Croatian club culture. Not so, according to Marc: "The festivals are almost exclusively imported affairs," he says. "It would be wrong to assume that festivals have had any kind of impact on the growth or development of Croatia's music or club scene."

But there was been one unexpected benefit for Croatian festival-goers: a number of local events have spring up inland, largely thanks to the prices on the coast being far too high for the average Croatian wage.

Events like Ferragosto JAM in Orahovica and River festival in Karlovačka programme local DJs for a Croatian audience. "They are very cheap and popular with Croatian youth," says Marc, as he sketches a picture of a festival idyll. "People camp in the woods. They’ll swim in the river, barbecue whole pigs, drink their own beer and dance all day and night to the deepest house and techno with a smile on their face."

All of these festivals are inland, too, so there's a much lower chance of the Bura blowing through.

Thanks to Damo Jones at Tandem PR for his help with this article.

@dhillierwrites

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