Feature – Croatia: The Garden of Eden for Electronic Music

Feature – Croatia: The Garden of Eden for Electronic Music

After 10 successful summers of partying on the Adriatic coast, 2015 marks the final year of The Garden Festival. Since its conception and immediate success, the festival has sparked a trend amongst UK collectives and promoters seeking sun, sand and blue skies as a festival backdrop and it’s acted as a model for other European and Croatian festivals to follow. In light of their final summer, In the Middle caught up with two of the founders, Nick Colgan and Eddie O’Callaghan to learn more about their ventures of the last decade.

Croatian destinations have become almost commonplace within the electronic music scene – Outlook, Dimensions and Hideout all reside on the country’s beautiful coast – but The Garden did it first. Uprooting their lives 12 years ago, Nick, Eddie, their wives Charlotte and Gail and their children, made an ambitious move to begin The Garden’s journey – not knowing where it would take them. “We had a friend who was from here who was instrumental in getting us over the first time”, Nick explains, “he kept going on about how stunning the coast and islands were and when we got here we found he was absolutely right! I think then we knew there was something really special here, the country and its people, which made us want to stay.” Despite the 6 hour trek down the old coast road from Zagreb to Zadar, the families were overwhelmed by Croatia’s offerings. Opening The Garden Zadar, a bar and restaurant in the city, the idea for The Garden Festival then developed when they stumbled upon its original site in Petrcane.

“We knew there was something really special here, the country and its people, which made us want to stay”

A lot has changed since then – budget flights now run to the coast, and a brand new motorway cuts 3 hours of the road journey. For some, Croatia’s development rate has been concerning – going from an idyllic retreat to a major tourist destination for house and techno partygoers in a short period of time. Having moved to Croatia over a decade ago, The Garden team are familiar with Croatia as a tourist hotspot, but also as a home. “Croatia has changed massively in the last 10 years, but I still feel there is a lot of room for development and investment,” says Nick. “Croatia is a big place with a small population of 4 million – and a quarter of them live in Zagreb. I feel that as long as the growth is controlled somewhat and governed then we will be ok”. The Garden certainly owes part of its success to this steady development: the new transport links, low-cost airlines and easy access, ultimately enable the festival to run smoothly and have allowed others to follow in its footsteps.

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When talking about The Garden Festival it’s hard to avoid the discussion of the festivals it has inspired, and you’d be hard pushed to find anyone in Leeds who hasn’t heard of the Outlook and Dimensions brand. Despite the recent abundance of UK-Croatian hybrid festivals, seemingly riding with The Garden’s original concept, Eddie tells me there has not been any rivalry. “Not many people remember, but the first Outlook was at our site in Petrcane, the lads were good friends but it was obvious to all that they needed a bigger site to grow”- Outlook has since moved to Fort Punta Christo, a site near Pula. “We support any event that has a genuine love of music at its core and will prioritise quality over quantity every time.” This statement embodies The Garden’s whole ethos, and the festival is renowned for its warm and friendly atmosphere. Its small capacity is an aspect of the festival that has been continually praised and very deliberately retained. “We think growing slowly and organically is the best way to avoid problems. We have relied hugely on word of mouth, and friends telling friends is always the best way to avoid trouble and guarantee the family vibe we worked so hard to achieve.” The mark had been set by the first few hundred punters in 2006 and was built gradually from there. “Good people bring good people” Eddie remarks, and he’s right. There’s something refreshing about this attitude, which is no doubt the reason that The Garden has managed to retain its magic for all these years. The festival has never had any backstage or VIP areas, once again reaffirming The Garden’s unique approach to event organisation. The team are truly in it for the love of it and the want to provide good music to good people. “Our focus has always been about making the experience as good as we can for everyone who comes, and we have annually been attracting an ever more international crowd. Even when we moved sites from Petrcane to Tisno we have always maintained out original ethos, which is always about making the festival better each year.”

This year’s lineup indeed matches, if not surpasses the incredible program of previous years, welcoming back old favourites like Craig Richards, as well as a mix of DJs and live acts. The Garden guys will yet again prove they are well equipped to cater to an ever expanding niche. The last ten years have seen many artists become a part of The Garden family, and their support has been integral to the festival’s success since day one. Following the announcement that 2015 will be the final instalment, the team were inundated with requests from artists to play, underlining what an iconic event this has become. DJ Harvey is one act the team are particularly excited for. It will be the last ever music played at the festival over at Barbarella’s and is set to be emotional. “Harvey’s eclecticism and vibrant style embodies what we have been striving for all along and will be a perfect way to put a cap on a wild and wonderful decade.” A “very special” guest will also be appearing on the main stage on the final day, and the Secret Island Party is also worth getting excited about.

A unique selling point for The Garden Festival is its length. Running for 7 days at the beginning of July, it’s been congratulated for retaining a more relaxed feel, something like a holiday. “We always thought from the very beginning: Croatia is way too beautiful and the potential for a fabulous time so great that it would be crazy to try and cram everything into a few days.” Developing a true love of Croatia and its landscape, the team have taken into account the fact that people want to travel. Exploring Zadar, Split and the stunning Plitvice Lakes is all achievable from The Garden’s site at Tisno. “With a 3 day festival there is always a nagging sense of missing something but over a week you can dip in and out of the festivities,” Eddie explains. Even most of the artists come for the week, joining the crowd once their set it over and immersing themselves in the festival – “it’s like a music conference without the bullshit boring bits!”

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2015, however, will mark the final Garden Festival. “10 years is a good innings”, says Nick “and we always wanted to end it on a high.” The closure had been on the cards for a while, and allows for new developments of The Garden brand. Nick has been working on a micro-brewery project that will be tied to the existing venues. Eddie and Gail are moving to Birmingham to pursue a “new concept for lovers of clothes”, but will be back in Croatia over the summers. “It is really our home now,” says Nick, “and we will always have something going on here.” The team are also planning a trip to Mexico to look at new opportunities, which definitely sounds exciting. Of course, Barbarella’s and The Garden Tisno will continue to host other festivals and club shows each summer, along with The Garden Zadar. It’s all pretty hush-hush at the moment, but a new event is also set to follow in the space that The Garden festival leaves.

With such an inspirational ethos, The Garden team have so far proved to be visionaries in their field. Bidding their festival farewell this year, we can be sure that wherever in the world they may be, even bigger and better things are to come in their future.

The Garden Festival 2015 will run Weds 1st – Weds 8th July @ The Garden Tisno, Petrica Glava, 22240, Tisno, Croatia.
Tickets are available for £120 here.

[Harriet Shepherd]

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