There’s just something in the water in Croatia. Or maybe it’s the water itself; a perfect blue with impossible clarity, the kind of colours that wouldn’t be out of place in The Philippines, Zanzibar, or Malaysia.
Whatever it is, Croatia has it. Endless miles of unspoilt coastlines, 1,135 mainly uninhabited and utterly gorgeous islands, sleepy coastal towns that fully befit the National Tourist Board’s slogan, ‘The Mediterranean as it Once was’. Oh, and one more thing – probably the best music scene anywhere in Europe. Ibiza, girl, you’ve got a serious rival…
Whatever your musical jam, Croatia can offer it, with a side helping of magnificent waterfalls, impeccable national parks, thick pine tree forests, and ocean sailing.
But where did it all begin? After all, just ten years ago, Croatia was still pretty much unchartered territory for young travellers, let alone festival goers. The war had ended a few years before, but the country, its residents and the economy, were still finding their feet. The likes of Ultra, or Dimensions, were mere twinkles in the eyes of their founding fathers.
The birth of Croatia’s music scene comes down to one man, Nick Colgan, a club promoter and former manager of UB40, who hails from Birmingham, in the UK. After first visiting Croatia in 2003 on a family holiday, Nick, together with his wife Charlotte, opened The Garden Lounge in Zadar, in 2004.
The problem was, no one was there to enjoy it.
“There was a whole generation of people, myself included, who had missed out on Croatia, due to the war” Nick explained. “Croatia wasn’t on the map, it wasn’t a place where anybody knew about”.
So how do you encourage people to come visit a place they’ve probably never heard of, or if they have, they think of as still a relatively war torn country? Simple, you throw a party, and that’s exactly what Nick did in 2006, together with his partner and fellow club promoter, Eddie O’Callaghan. That party was called The Garden Festival (now Love International), and in that first year, just 300 people came to the sleepy coastal town of Petrcane, where the event was held. And yet, it was magic.
“The first Garden Festival was pretty much just friends and family. There were more people standing behind the DJs than in front of them, and for 2 of the 3 days the weather was terrible. But on the last day, the sun came out, and we knew we had found something special.”
Whispers soon spread of this intimate, secret festival, where big name DJs played just for the love of it to the backdrop of the setting sun on the Adriatic, and within just two years the Garden Festival had grown to a 3000 strong crowd. Nick and Eddie had struck festival gold, and other promoters were sitting up and taking notice.
“After the first Garden Festival we realised we had something going, so what we wanted to do then was spread it out to other events, so limit the capacity but do it over a long period of time.”
Within just a few years, festivals were happening up and down the 1,100-mile stretch of coastline, not to mention taking over islands and old forts. The likes of Outlook, Soundwave, Hideout and Unknown, soon started drawing in big crowds, not to mention even bigger DJs. Croatia was officially on the map.
Yet the best thing about Croatia, still, is that that it feels undiscovered. The beaches are uncrowded, the locals welcome you as old friends, and there’s a real sense of still being part of something new, something just a little bit magical, which harks back to the original ethos of the very first Garden Festival.
“I don’t like them being called festivals to be perfectly honest. For me, they’re a holiday with a music backdrop.”
I’ve been to Croatia four times now, and each time I’ve fallen in love a-new.
From first attending The Garden Festival back in 2009, to looking at the festival scene now, of course its evolved and changed, but it’s still special, and it feels like it still has more to give.
It’s not about getting pissed or laid, it’s about the whole package. It’s the music, it’s the ocean, it’s the beautiful old cities, it’s the incredible natural beauty, and it’s the people. Croatia is a new type of festival destination, for a new type of traveller – one that’s open minded, adventurous, and who most of all has a deep and unmoving love of music.
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 www.contiki.com/thetravelproject.