This July sees the tenth – and last – Garden Festival at a former holiday camp for oil workers in Tisno. Over a decade, this seminal event has moved from its former base at an abandoned discothèque in Petrčane and helped changed the face of Croatia as a whole. Planeloads of foreigners have partied and come back for more. Some have even set up their own events along the coast and adventurous locals have done likewise. Now Croatia is a festival destination of choice. Time Out checks in with the organisers - Nick Colgan and Dave Harvey, to talk about The Garden, it's last outing in Tisno - and beyond.
Nick: ‘It wasn’t an easy decision. When I told Dave and everyone, they all said, ‘You’re joking! We can’t finish it!’ But ten years is a long time to do anything. There are lots of projects in the pipeline. I’d like us to go out on a high. This year will definitely be one to remember.’
Dave: ‘I came to the first one in 2006. I’d been told that some Brummies were starting a rave in somewhere called Croatia. I blagged my way onto the line-up and I was in!’
Music producer and party supremo Nick Colgan founded The Garden club in Zadar in 2005. With years of experience on the road with UB40 and organising parties in Argentina and California, while on holiday Nick had found a lounge-bar location high up in Zadar’s Venetian city walls.
Nick: ‘Wherever I go, I’m always looking out for a party venue. The Garden was a spontaneous idea. The owners gave us ten days to decide. I’d never run a bar in my life. Any longer and we would have said no! When we opened up, we put in loungers and we had to have the staff lie down on them to show locals that it was OK to recline and drink in a bar at the same time.’
After that successful first summer, Nick realised he needed an event to give the venue more international attention: the Garden Festival.
Nick: ‘I was walking the dogs one morning, near where we lived in Petrčane. I literally stumbled across this abandoned nightclub. The setting was perfect, the sea, the headland, everything. There was even an old hotel. Everything depends upon the location.’
Dave: ‘What I most remember is the collective experience. There were only 300 people there but they all went away with something special – and kept coming back.’
Nick and his team expanded the agenda year by year, bringing in boat parties and attracting thousands of festivalgoers.
Nick: ‘As soon as people get outside from wherever they’ve come from, they feel they can let loose.’
Dave: ‘Just add water.’
Nick: ‘When 3,500 people came one year, we had to cap the numbers. It was getting too big. It didn’t feel right.’
As the Garden Festival was getting established, Dave became more involved. Then it was time to move.
Nick: ‘We searched high and low for a new venue. Then my right-hand man, Eddie, phoned me a blind panic one Wednesday afternoon. ‘I’ve f-f-f-found it!!’ He could hardly speak! I jumped in the car and, sure enough, he was right.’
The Garden Festival location at Tisno is set in its own bay, a natural amphitheatre with no nearby residents. A former holiday camp for workers of state oil company INA, the site also had plenty of options for accommodation.
Nick: ‘It was odd but amazingly beautiful.’
Dave: ‘It was picture-postcard, sunken right into the landscape.’
Nick and team also moved their club at Petrčane, Barbarella’s, set in that abandoned disco, to Tisno, a short bus or boat ride away from the new festival site.
Dave: ‘I remember zooming up there by speedboat and thinking to myself, ‘How the hell are we getting away with this!’ The location also lent itself to a more ambient feel. Not quite Balearic, more… Adriatic.’
With more and more festivals springing up in Croatia, inspired by The Garden, comparisons began to be made with Ibiza.
Dave: ‘They’re two very different animals. Millions still go to Ibiza, they pay a lot of money and they catch the world’s best DJs. What we do is more niche.’
Nick: ‘Here it’s still one big family. It’s not exclusive, there are no VIP areas. The morning after our very first night at Petrčane, Eddie phoned me. ‘Has anyone organised the clean-up? We need to clear all the rubbish!’ So we were all out there, picking up beer cans before the next day started.’
Dave: ‘It was the same thing at Tisno!’
Nick: ‘I think it’s good for the soul! Everyone pitches in together. One year we only had the refrigerated van until the Monday morning. It usually delivered fish and it stank! Before it had to drive off, all of us, DJs, everyone, were pulling crates of beer off this lorry as fast as we could.’
The collective effort typifies the Garden spirit – and the lengths Nick and team go to keep their hosts in mind.
Nick: ‘All along, we’ve involved the local community in the whole process. That’s really important. I live here, my family lives here, our children go to school here. Plus people don’t misbehave, they respect the space and each other.’
The various other festivals generated by the Garden – Electric Elephant, Soundwave, Stop Making Sense – became part of the same family, under the same umbrella and at the same location. After the Garden closes its gates forever on July 8, Electric Elephant starts up on July 10, Stop Making Sense on July 16, Suncébeat on July 22 and Soundwave on August 6.
And the Garden Festival?
Nick: ‘Dave seemed the natural choice to take over. He’s been behind our programming for years.’
Dave: ‘I jumped at the chance. The Garden made me. I belong here. I even got married here!’
So, the Garden Festival II?
Dave: ‘Love International! That’s the new name. It’s going to be a lot of fun.’
Meanwhile, Nick Colgan is planning projects in Croatia and beyond – much further beyond.
Nick: ‘I’ve been looking at Mexico. It’s a bit off the beaten track, not really a one-stop shop like Croatia. It’s time to look further afield. I think it’s important to do what you believe in. What’s good will carry on.’