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REVIEW: THE GARDEN FESTIVAL

Croatia's original UK dance fest

We’ve all been there. A day roasting on the beach, followed by dinner and a few tastes too many of the local vino; next thing you’re in an Sambuca-stained club, surrounded by sleazy muscle Marys and the worst music imaginable. Not anymore! Rather than Shagaluf or Ma(capital G)orca, young Brits are doing decent dance holidays in their droves, and now Croatia is a destination second only to Ibiza. At the core of it all is The Garden Festival – where it all started; the movement’s Ground Zero.

When Nick Colgan and Eddie O’Callaghan, two Brits visiting Zadar in 2003, were rushed into making a decision about a small venue in the city (dubbed The Garden), they unknowingly set in motion a wave that'd change the cultural landscape of this unassumingly beautiful nation on The Adriatic crest beyond recognition.

Stumbling upon a small set of woods next to a hotel with a club (they renovated in the image of Barbarellas, the chic soul club Nick first finished in the '60s) beside a quaint fishing village Petrcane not long after, the duo’s first The Garden Festival was born in 2006. Prompting 100 to make the trip, crippling them both financially in the process, it spurred a wave of derivative events, making Croatia an unlikely haven for switched on dance heads not only from the UK, but all over Europe and beyond.

Today, there are more than 10 festivals dedicated to credible dance music on the Dalmatian Coast. Especially over the past three of four years, it’s gone doolally. Hideout sprung in 2011; Unknown, Sonus and Love System all launch this summer. But while saturation point is inevitable, as of yet, it’s showing no signs of curtailing.

“I don’t think it’s something that can keep on going and going, it’s unsustainable.” Nick explains under an umbrella in the courtyard of the site’s restaurant (yes, there is a genuine – and genuinely tasty – traditional tavern actually inside the grounds of the festival). “But as long as what they are doing keeps the quality the same, I don’t see a problem. That’s the difficult thing.”

Nick cites the emergence of Ultra Festival during the week immediately following the festival (the same time as Electric Elephant, also at The Garden location) as a potential tipping point; a sign that international attention is reaching a point of culmination, marking Croatia no longer as a spot just about small-to-medium boutique festivals dedicated to subterranean, more niche styles of dance music, but one on the verge of worldwide, stadium-sized recognition.

Still, the preservation of local ideals has always been at the heart of The Garden Festival, and its location. Nick and Eddie are both local residents and have been for about a decade. Moving the festival to a larger, more secluded location – a staff holiday village owned by a national petroleum company tucked away in some forest behind Tisno – has not only held true with the event’s ethos – “let the garden grow” – but it’s helped keep the event’s noise at arm’s length from site’s largely untouched surrounding area, something that eventually became an of issue of contention in the more peaceful province of Petrcane after five successive years at the site. “With everything we do it’s important to include the local people, so they benefit from income into the local economy,” adds Nick. “We try not to impose ourselves too much.”

With escaping sound no longer an issue, the most evident influence of the festival onto its charming surroundings of Tisno is the influx, onto its rustic streets, of some of the most attractive and keenly dressed early twentysomethings we’ve ever laid on. Throughout the week, DJ Mag cannot turn a dusty corner or pass a bar or restaurant without catching a smattering of quiffs, unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts and vests (the boys) – not forgetting the obligatory Croatia-branded sailor hats – or a carefully conceived crossing of bikinis, blouses and hot-pants (the girls). The result is something ripped straight from the “best look” pages of Grazia rather than the shadows of a London warehouse.

An erudite awareness of high fashion aside, this Garden gang also has a keen sense of dancefloor awareness. “I wanna see Psychemagic later,” we overhear one switched on lass – no older than a student – remark on a dark, dusty lane.

Attracting a slightly more mature crowd than the boisterous boys and girls we see on the plane to Hideout this same week, they’re also an amicable bunch. Waving and smiling as they pass you cotching on your veranda. Besides, if you can sell 3000 tickets for an event where your headliners consist of none bigger than Eats Everything, Crazy P, Catz N Dogz or Metro Area, with support from the likes of Bicep, Maxxi Soundsystem and Maurice Faulton, you can be fairly certain the majority who turn up have a flavour for sounder-than-average sounds.

But it’s not just the music that's helped spread The Garden’s word like wildfire, ensuring its growth organically year on year, consistently attracting the biggest numbers – bar Soundwave – to the location’s other events (Electric Elephant, Suncebeat, Stop Making Sense) each time.

Existing as the originator – the quintessential seed from which it all sprouted – of course counts among purists, however you can hardly call the people here fuddy duddy loyalists. Instead, you get the impression that The Garden Festival – with its vibrant, brightly coloured cartoon iconography, tastefully lit vibe and sound quality that’s second to none – has, quite simply, captured people’s imagination.

And it's easy to see why. Ample care and consideration – sensitivity to what makes for a paradisal party environment from the outset – has set the benchmark for others to follow. The Tisno location, offering basic-but-comfortable accommodation on site – as well as boutique camping and the many blocks of family-run holiday apartments outside its gates – while civilised, is a playground (literally, if you count the swings, roundabouts and crazy golf course) of prosecco/cocktail-fuelled festival fun, albeit with a more intimate, get-to-know-each-other vibe than most festivals.

By day, Balearic grooves from the Beach Bar boom across the location's gleaming shore while people catch rays, float on rubber rings or stomp about casually supping fizz. Meanwhile, those craving some quiet hit the concrete jetties of the town, ride jet skis or hire motor boats at an affordable price to explore the many surrounding barren islands and stony beaches, while the more wild among us brave The Argonauty boat at the height of the day's heat for parties hosted by Faith, Futureboogie (co-curators of the event's line-up), Hypercolour and Schtumm! and co.

Of course, there is some crossover. You can spot a few groups guzzling bottled beer in the town, while this correspondent and his crew find ourselves offshore on a rented vessel at the festival site, rescuing a lad on a lilo drifting towards Italy to revelrous cheers from the beach. Though, unlike the intensity of a festival like Glastonbury, or even Serbia's Exit, the sparsity of the surrounding area allows plenty of opportunity of escape and enjoy downtime during the day, and some evenings – even if the line-up is perhaps a little too tempting to miss.

After dark, though, energy builds exponentially throughout the night as we see DJs such as James Holroyd dropping the piano deepness of 'Same Old Place' by Genius Of Time, or Maurice Fulton launching into Chris Rea's Balearic pop classic 'Josephine' to an audience of sweaty hugs and upright hands at the sea-licked, glitter-ball spinning Beach Bar.

Transferring over to the cartoon flower adorned main stage – dressed up like a mini-Bestival centrepiece – the sound of Eats Everything bringing his biggest tunes to his festival headline set with dance anthems such as 'Saturate' and 'Higher State Of Consciousness' alongside house tempo d&b re-edits and his own remix of Breach's 'Jack' one night, and Catz N Dogz finishing off with 'Star Guitar' on another. Then, there is return of the nighttime Argonauty boat from its voyage into the sunset, providing yet another pick-me-up, sending the infectious buzz from the boat across the festival. Before mainstage closers from Idjut Boys' 'Love Is In The Air' are enough to encourage us to get the bus shuttle to Barbarellas open-air club colosseum for the third night in a row.

With the likes of Maxxi Soundsystem, Crazy P and Team Futureboogie pumping things to their absolute peak – keeping everyone in until the lights up at 6am – it's a difficult place to resist, let alone leave...

Photos: ©Tim Ertl www.timertl.com

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