From war zone to party paradise: how Croatia became Europe’s newest, hottest music destination

This article was created for The Travel Project by Emily St John, travel editor for MTV Australia.

Created in partnership with MTV Australia

It’s easy to get swept away by the European summer; arriving, conquering and departing a destination, taking with you only a few blurred memories.

But there are some places that grab hold of you, leaving marks with their rich history and diverse sceneries. Croatia is one of these places.

While conjuring images of the dotted coastline and sun-soaked beaches will instantly fill you with wanderlust, what many young travellers don’t realise is just over twenty years ago, this beautiful country was a devastating war zone.

My name is Emily St John, and I’m MTV Australia’s Travel Editor. In partnership with Contiki and The Travel Project, we set out to uncover how Croatia was able to revive and rebuild a broken economy and displaced population into the vibrant bucket list destination it is today.

To simply surmise the 1991-1995 Homeland War would ignore important intricacies. So instead, we attempted to piece together a more personal understanding, walking side-by-side with locals, listening to their firsthand experiences. In doing so, we uncovered the true power of human resilience.

First, I travelled to Dubrovnik, a town now known worldwide thanks to the HBO phenomenon, Game of Thrones. 

But apart from its pop culture relevance as the set of ‘King’s Landing’, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was one of the main targets of rival artillery.

Guiding me was ‘War in Dubrovnik’ expert Vesna Barisic, who was just 24 at the time of the war and who stayed to support her husband, father and brother, despite the immediate danger.

As we walk through the streets of her home, Vesna points out smattered marks on sandstone pillars; strong emotional reminders of the war. We walk on to the Old Town museum, where the faces of locals who lost their lives defending the city are displayed on the walls. She stops in front of a photograph of a young man, visibly upset.

He was her cousin.

Vesna admitted to me that in the first few years following the war, she wouldn’t and couldn’t speak of it to anyone. But when she was eventually called to be a guide, to explain her firsthand experience to others, she ultimately found her new role therapeutic. Her strength and willingness to share her story after having lost her home and many close to her, was awe-inspiring.

She told me, “There is an entire generation of Croatians who lost their innocence and young adulthood as a result of the war, but now, that is what we’re looking to restore.”

After an estimated USD$37 billion in damages, 20,000 deaths as well as thousands more displaced, Croatia is beginning to return to its pre-war peak in the 1970s.

With tourism directly funding billions to the Croatian government – one in every six euros – it is the new generation of travellers seeking out the sun, water (including Yacht Week), and the flourishing music scene, that is putting Croatia back on the map.

As of 2017, there are now 40 music festivals – including global phenomenon Ultra – held across the summer period from May until September.

But it all began with The Garden Festival in 2006. I spoke to festival founder Nick Colgan, who first stumbled upon the pristine Dalmatian coastline on a holiday back in 2003. Thanks to the power of word of mouth, what started out as a fledgling 300-attendee event turned into a sought after experience for 3,000+ people in just two years.

Together we walked along the path of the festival’s first site at Petrčane.

“When I first arrived here, there was a complete generation of people, including myself, who had missed out on Croatia due to the war,” Nick explained. “I saw this place and I knew we just had to do something.”

After ten years of drawing young travellers back to Croatia, The Garden Festival has now evolved into Love International. Held in Tisno, the festival boasts boat parties, sunrise sessions, and of course Barberellas Discotheque, one of the most iconic open air clubs in Europe.

In 2017, the eight-day event will also feature performances by Axel Boman, Black Madonna, Craig Richards, Gerd Janson, and Prosumer, to name just a few.

But the vibrant festival scene is more than just about the music. It encourages attendees to go outside of the location and visit the iconic mountains, national parks, Plitvice lakes as well as immerse themselves in the local food, customs and traditions.

As I looked out on the crystal clear Croatian water, I reflected on the people I’d met and their determination to move forward. I was struck by how they banded together, embraced this new phase in their country’s history, and welcomed young travellers like myself to experience everything their culture has to offer.

Change isn't always a good thing but in Croatia's case, it's what now sets it apart as one of the best summer and music destinations in the world, and a place I can't wait to visit again.

The Travel Project partnered with MTV Australia to tell the story of Croatia’s journey from war zone to party paradise. If you want to work with The Travel Project, or you have a travel story you think the world needs to hear, head to contiki.com/thetravelproject.