Some seven kilometres from the beautiful and historic town of Zadar is the equally beautiful village of Petr?ane, nestled into a cove on the Mediterranean Sea on the Croatian Dalmatian Coast. One of Petr?ane’s main landmarks is the large Hotel Pinija complex that, for the last three years, has had its families of German tourists ousted for much of the summer in favour of legions of, mostly British, clubbers looking for a slice of more authentic dance culture than Ibiza can offer them.
The ‘Ibiza in the old days’ vibe at Garden Festival is frequently commented upon, and with good reason. The festival is, essentially, a Mediterranean getaway for a small group of in-the-know people who, annually, trot off, without much fuss, to an out-of-the-way peninsula to wear sunglasses and dance to a selection of retro-inspired but progressively contemporary DJs and live acts. These are all people who just want to have a good time, in the old-fashioned club sense: who want the Space terrace or Café del Mar like it used to be; who want to hear disco and electro-funk all night long; who want the 12-minute version of ‘Dirty Talk’.
They get all this and more. From start to finish the festival delivered on all of its potential in unassuming but assured style. It would be hard, given just how many good-time vibes were floating around the festival site, to really pass any negative comments – the sea was a bit warm, the people too beautiful, the usual festival dramas nowhere to be seen – it’s kind of pointless, so I’ll drift straight into a slightly awestruck description of an incredible festival site.
A few hundred yards from the main lobby of the Hotel Pinija, the festival site proper begins. Walking along a short outcrop of rocks by the sea on your right, with regular steps down to bathing platforms, you first reach a small terrace with a bar selling champagne. Following the curve of the beach round there’s a wooden deck stage under a lighthouse, big enough for a few hundred people to dance, with a handful more on a short platform below at the sea’s edge. Backing onto this stage is a Tiki bar serving cocktails. From this it’s a few yards to the main stage, which is comprised of a sprawling set of paddling pools, sunken dance floors and curving pathways pointing up at a both a stage area and a palm-fringed DJ hut.
The stage is right next door to Barbarella’s, the festival’s after-hours nightclub which, I can genuinely say, is one of the best looking club venues I’ve ever been in to. Perfectly circular, inside it’s an incredibly well emulated ‘70s discotheque, with, however, a bang up-to-date Funktion-One sound system.
Oh, and did I mention the other stage is a boat… a bloody boat that takes you out onto the sea while you listen to Greg Wilson, Rub N Tug and Todd Terje. You get what I’m saying; from first impressions, it’s a little hard to complain about.
We stayed in a small, cheap, but very nice apartment a stone’s throw from the site entrance, and were well looked after by our Croatian landlord’s family, who seemed to be enjoying the buoyant tourist trade off the back of the festival without complaining too much about the loud music. Garden Festival runs over the first two weekends of what is, in total, a two-month festival programme operating under the loose title of The Garden Petrcane. Following on from Garden itself are Soundwave, Airbound, Likeminded, Electric Elephant, Disco 3000 and Exodus festival weekends. In between these main events there are several Barbarella’s clubnights to keep long-staying punters entertained, and it was one of these that we stumbled into on our first night to watch, with modest fanfare, Maurice Fulton and Crazy P absolutely rip it up.
Big name DJs, like those mentioned above, playing highly intimate shows was a big feature of Garden. The headline DJ sets on the three days of the second weekend of the festival – Greg Wilson, Gilles Peterson and Henrik Schwarz respectively – all gathered big crowds of people. But then there was also the beach stage, close to the lapping waves at the water’s edge, shaded by evergreen trees, where Prins Thomas, Todd Terje and Mark E cranked up the disco vibes to highly appreciative crowds of just 100 or so. The Haggis Horns and Overproof Soundsystem live shows filled up the main stage pools with enthusiastic dancers, but there was always room to flail without fear of smacking someone in the face. It was refreshing not to be sweaty and jostled and angry seeing these people, à la any London Friday night. It did rain on the Friday night of the Garden weekend, meaning the sound was knocked down significantly on the beach stage, but we danced on to Greg Wilson in slippery conditions, jumping treacherously onto low walls to pretend that we were at the Hacienda in 1988.
The weekend’s highlights were, for many people, the boat parties. Two a day, these left from a jetty across the Petrance peninsula, one in the early afternoon and one in the early evening. The idea was simple: music, alcohol, boat. It worked for all those onboard, although after four hours we were regretting not bringing our own sandwiches, and squeezing our bladders to avoid the 20-person queue for the boat’s one toilet. An unfortunate girl ended up being urinated on by a group of chancing men trying to piss off the top deck, but it all added to the piratical spirit.
In truth, despite this glowing review, Garden might not be for everyone. I enjoyed it, but it was on the borderline of my tolerance for the more excessive elements of club culture – people raving about the ‘vibe’, girls ‘on tour’ in matching miniskirts exposing burnt red flesh, pilled-up show offs aimlessly gurning at crowds and waving their arms like dance conductors. Instances of these things were few and far between, it was much more of a celebration of quality dance music, played out in excellent conditions, than anything else, but still if you’re not a fan of endless flesh, or endless disco, or sand in your knickers you might want to retreat to the chilly fields of an artier, more angular festival, for your more awkward kicks.
For my part, I loved it. The music was great, the people endlessly friendly, and while not outright cheap, the food and drink had a price-to-quality ratio it’d be hard to top. In all, this was a festival done well, and done for a select few who were able to get tickets for an event the organisers had deliberately kept low in size. This made all the difference, keeping that early Ibiza, in-the-know feeling strong, and making sure none of the facilities were over-run. As someone who has become accustomed to complaining about festivals, basing my reviews on how few times I felt the need to complain over a weekend, to have really nothing bad to say is quite a coup for Garden. Well done.
Words and photograph: Jonny Ensall