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Adventure across the Wilds of E. Euro Pt 1

Part 1: Croatia and the Garden Festival
By Michael Heap, our Al Jazeera man from the desert.

Croatia is a country with a lot of history, a lot of recent history. 20 years ago it was communist as part of Yugoslavia. 15 years ago it was in the midst of a bitter and costly war with Serbia the so called 'Domovinski Rat' homeland war– often shortened to just 'Rat' war. I don’t want this to turn into a history lesson but suffice to say the memory is an intrinsic part from the young peoples childhood. It was bloody, with just over 10,000 dead and 37,000 seriously wounded.

Exit from Doha

As always the process of doing anything in Doha isn't easy - in any normal case you need to apply for an exit permit. Fill out a form. Take it to your line manager for a signature. Take it to HR for another signature then take it to external affairs for them to stamp it. Then take it to the airport dept for approval and then get a stamp in the passport for your exit. About a days worth of legwork just to get out of the country.

The Adventure Begins

Doha is trying to bill itself as a hub for international travel. However, this hub doesn't quite lend itself to any jetting off to eastern Europe as just trying to get to Croatia was an adventure in itself requiring 3 flights over 36 hours, with changes in Bahrain and Frankfurt. Suffice to say filling your time in Frankfurt airport isn't easy but when food, beer and espresso is readily available, it’s very easy to slip into a comfy booth and plough through beer and espresso for 5 hours only to emerge totally wired. Frankfurt airport also has a casino (read one armed bandits rather than baccarat) and a licensed sex shop (think Anne Summers rather than a Soho sex den, shame) anyway it was nice to be back in liberal western Europe for at least a few hours!

Arrived at Split airport, Croatia. All the gear turns up bar my personal rucksack. So it’s fine, I could have made a documentary on the fly if I’d wanted. But for the time being I was stuck with a personal inventory of 1 shirt, 1 pair of trousers, 1 pair of combat boots, 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants, 2 t-shirts and a pair of ugly ass flip-flops that I had to buy to get out of the boots.

The fun and games continued with the taxi that had been booked failing to turn up. Most of the crew managed to secure a lift in an 8-seat taxi, however that left me on my own waiting for a later flight to come in and possibly catching a lift with others. After hanging around for about an hour, a lift was secured to the festival site with the band Crazy P – more about them later.

The journey was an interesting one with the driver explaining about the national parks as we passed through them. They were heavily land mined during the war, with huge amounts of unexploded mines still in the region, leaving people unable to walk through the forests except on designated tracks for fear of being blasted.

My adventure was big but tame in comparison to those who'd trekked out from the UK and had to deal with the attempted terrorist attacks at Heathrow and Glasgow airports. Why is it that so many foreign parties of note start with some kind of tragedy? The first Big Chill Naxos party was marred by a sinking ferry in which all hands were lost. If it wasn't for a delayed plane I would have lost 100 friends and we would have all missed the cream of the UK electronica scene too!

After arriving at the festival the crew met up with some of our mutual friends who'd arrived earlier, all in all the posse was 12 strong.

The festival itself was set in the grounds of a big 1960's hotel on a headland that juts out into the Dalmatian coast with Baltic pines running down to the pebbly beach and waters edge, surrounding the site itself. But as the festival was not to start that night, we headed into the village looking for food and beer.

The village, if I can call it that (more of a summer holiday town), reminds me of places on the Mediterranean, or perhaps on the Cornish coast with all the houses set around a beautiful cove of turquoise, crystal clear water. The combined posse had dinner at a lovely rustic restaurant then retired to café Moro a local bar for beers by the sea, finally calling it quits at 2am walking back around the corner to the hotel.

The Festival Begins

Waking at 11am on Friday morning, with the festival due to start at midday numerous calls were made to Split airport to enquire about my luggage, with little success. I walked down to the grounds of the festival. This is where it starts to go sideways in the best of possible ways. We all descended into what can only be described as a love puddle – so many great people, so many great times. So the next few days morph into a blur of strong feelings, emotions, vibes, beats and a great loved-up sensation. I will try to do my best dear reader to keep this to a time line but my memories are not exactly linear and it’s likely to end up in a monologue.

Friday afternoon was spent lazing on the beach in the shade of pines with one lone fluffy cloud in a lovely 35 degrees (it was approaching the late 40's when I had left Doha). The girls dipped in and out of the water, everyone stripping off to bikinis. My, my! Some of the fellow Brits, straight from the stormy London weather were looking a touch pale – some were almost translucent! My desert tan shone through – I suppose it’s one of the great joys of living there is it's generous brush of rugged bronze.

Some of the crew disappeared on a boat party, the first of many, to suss out their vibe and atmosphere. The relative brokenness of the motley crew returning at about 9pm was echoed by tales of drunken men over board, a broken leg, concussions and general insanity all to the sounds of Back-to-Basics house! This signaled it was to go very sideways in the next few days.

As afternoon turned into night and we were enjoying far to many frosty cold Croatian beers, we made our way to the main stage to see Crazy P play, and in the middle of the dance floor we found a permanent paddling pool built into the dance floor itself. The main stage wound up at midnight, and we found ourselves dancing in the nightclub till dawn to the sounds of the Faith crew, with Stewart Patterson and Terry Farley representing.

I remember staggering out of the club at about 4am with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen – the Swedish ambassadors daughter no less!

The next day was a slow soft start beginning at 3pm with another call to the airport – my luggage had been found but was in Frankfurt, and was unlikely to get to Split that day. So I was in a foul mood from that point onward. I wandered into the village in search of water and to find Andy, Karen, Foo and Sarah planning a crew BBQ at their villa. Several hours of hilarity ensued including splitting wood, cooking with reebar, before a slow return to the festival for more of the boat party and the rest of the crew. Greg Wilson and Mr. Scruff played as the sun went down. Then some beautiful beats from Japan's Soil and Pimp crew (if you haven’t heard them run to your nearest independent record store and buy their entire back catalogue!) in the nightclub till the dawn chorus. I sat and watched the sun come up over the mountains with Sarah and Karen's friend before heading to bed.

Day 3. Best day I think I’ve ever had. My luggage returned – hurrah! I could shed the jeans I had been wearing for the previous 5 days. It was the boat party day - time to get on the 'Love Boat'. Well what can I say, a Halcyon afternoon with about 70 super chilled dudes onboard – lots of old school jazz funk and classics from the chill era whilst cruising the Dalmatian Islands. I remember having an in-depth conversation with a journo from the Guardian about AL Jazeera and the market share we were stealing from the BBC and CNN, how everyone was bigging up our content. It was about 30 degrees, sailing on a turquoise sea, not a cloud in the air. We stopped for an hour on a beautiful little island. Some went swimming while I went exploring and found the local church and architecture. God the locals have it good commuting, shopping and doing all their other daily excursions via boat.

Monday: Slept till 2pm, hung out in the cafe till 6pm with my lovely ladies – Gillian and Paula who I’ve known for years but hadn't seen for over a year. We did the boat party from 6pm with a late dinner and club.

Tuesday Afternoon: After a sleep-in Andy and Karen gave me a lift to Zadar where I caught the bus to Zagreb after leaving the crew. Some of whom were going to Bosnia to look around the development/reconstruction work that has occurred in the last 8 years since the culmination of the conflicts there. Some decided to stay in the Split region for a few days. Not for me I was headed to Serbia via Zagreb. After investigating the flights I decided to take the bus.

This is where the real adventure begins. Buses, more buses, night trains into Romania, 60,000 people going off to the Prodigy, having breakfast in the place Dracula was born, finding abandoned bob-sleigh routes, walking to the top of a mountain with my parents. All that and more.

To be continued…

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