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The Croatia Diaries: Ultra Europe

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The last we’d seen of Croatia Wave they were covered in glitter, green spandex and Yoga girls in a forest somewhere near Tisno. The next morning we’d woken up to find Tamara Saul furiously smoking in the kitchen, announcing that “The Croatian Internet Is Broken.” The house keys had gone missing, having been hidden (after a particularly aggressive pre-drinks) under a rock that turned out to be a tortoise, that had run away. DT’s laptop had unfortunately decided to take the day off. 02 called us and informed us we’d spent £23 in 4 days specifically in rejected drunk dials to an ex-girlfriend.

Like a kind of come-down Adam and Eve, it had been a fun week, but it was now time to leave The Garden.

DT jumped on a bus out of Tisno, and at around midnight landed at Split, wherein a series of phone calls, a taxi in the wrong direction and two transfer cars later, we arrived at our accommodation – Split’s university student halls, vacant for the summer save a small group of summer students, including a friendly, heavily tattooed Croatian bro and a local Split girl on our corridor so insanely good looking we couldn’t physically speak on the three lifelong-two-second moments she tried to introduce herself, before wandering off confused at the site of a profusely sweating Scottish gorilla attempting to ask whether or not it was a good morning in semi-Slavic with hand gestures.

The next day we arrived at our next adventure. Ultra. So far in July we’d done Brit-Tastic-Shuffling with Hideout and Counter-Culture-Hippy-Boats with Garden, but nothing had quite prepared us for this.

Screaming into Split’s Cold-War-Spaceship Poljud Stadium with all the subtlety of East European fashion just last year, Ultra Europe is one of the only (and Croatia’s only) stadium-EDM-fests of its kind. 150,000 people descend on the grounds for three days of fire, fireworks and funhouse-DJ madness, soundtrack provided by the likes of Aoki, Afrojack, Alesso, Guetta and Example, not to mention Carl Cox who was hosting the UMF Worldwide Arena – a techno party fittingly based out in the car park.

The air was positively charged with hundreds of thousands of Facebook check-ins as Croatians, Spaniards, Turks, Greeks, Americans, Brits, French, Australians all filtered in, a kind of crazed congregation here to worship social-media’s best musicians for 72 hours of bruised barriers and cracked beer cups. DT joined several hundred press herded through the press entrance and into the main press centre – a massive office with a dazzling area of stressed, sweaty journalists, photographers performing a kind of ritual weapons-check and people barking at an array of totally knackered macbooks. We were at home.

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One failed WiFi log-in later (Nokia. Seriously…) we headed into the belly of the beast. Already at 6.45 the stadium was half full, mostly with people picking their spots. There were groups of enthusiastic US beefcake bros jogging to the front barriers and tapping them with “There, we made it!” before instantly going to find a drink. There were groups bearing flags and facepaint practicing military style drills with “Guys!, Tonight, when I shout, we all gather round the GoPro like this!” There were groups standing way back in the stadium, despite the abundance of space, deciding that was it, this was their camp for the night. The music was already roaring, The Chainsmokers laying down ripped electro, thumping kicks and a series of re-edits of Selfie, with each successive ‘selfie’ vocal stab in run-up tracks prompting at least a third of the crowd to reach for Iphones. In the backstage artists’ area (fittingly located by the stadium place of worship), shortly afterward, we met The Chainsmokers, who by 8pm were necking shots of Tequila with two blue-spandex-wearing dancers that had been on stage during their set. There were several journalists there on maximum schmooze. All were made to do several shots, before interviews that then took place with the duo wearing the background dancers. DT reluctantly declined the offer to “man up and get fucked up!” (One of the duo sort of offering a dancer’s hand in the process) and headed out to take some pictures. Back out  in the main area, DT navigated past an Audi A6 inexplicably placed on a large podium, groups of gorgeous Croatians wearing branded T-shirts saying “Live Your Dreams. Believe In Better!” selling cigarettes and thousands of people wearing Ultra T-shirts, sunglasses, hats, half of which were homemade. On stage there was a two hour moving monologue centered on why the singer shouldn’t / should be/ with his ex/current girlfriend, concluding every four minutes with the theme that they have each other for just this one night. But hey, people seemed to dig Example. Down in the photo-pits, photographers of every nationality literally fought each other for access to a crazed crowd, with Croatian TV crew (courtesy of massive cameras and shipping-standard cables) dominating the general Freudian equipment fest as an endless area of sweaty men shoved big zooms into teenage girls’ faces. It would’ve all been a bit intense, if it wasn’t for the intermissions.

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These happened every 90 minutes at Ultra. Instead of asking the artists – all of have crafted a career out of mixing tracks to, er, mix their tracks together, the end of each artists’ set concluded with…silence for about twenty minutes. Until of course, The Voice entered. The Voice is an Ultra mascot, entering the stage wearing Ultra hoody, Ultra hat, Ultra flag before coming out with the following:

“How y’all doing out there! My My My I see a lot of faces, I see Brits, I see Australians, I see Greeks, I see Brazilians. I travel all over the world but I have never seen a crowd like this. Are you having a good time? Make sure you tweet at Ultra, hashtag Ultra Europe, hashtag Croatia. My My my, I see a lot of faces, I see Brits, I see Australians, I see-“

-for around 15 minutes, before the music started again. Backstage we met Nicky Romero (forthcoming on DTTV), who quickly befriended us, before meeting his 7 foot tour manager, who quickly tried to murder us, for reasons none of the three of us really understood. One brief shouting match between DT and the tour manager later there was a mutually introspective cigarette. Ultra was a frayed place for media, it seemed. Around 4am there were more fireworks still, until DT called it a night.

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The following day we were shunted onto an Ultra Boat Party  with DJ Dey, Klemen and Rory Lynam – who greeted us respectively with a high-five, a pint and an industrial sized box of condoms (“I’ve spent time abroad. Don’t take risks…” explained Rory, casually pouring the lot into our camera bag as we attempted to maintain a normal conversation with Dey) We sort of tore around the bay for a few hours, the crowd a crazy mish-mash of Irish, German, French and Americans. A kind of Noah’s Ark of drunken dancers. To their credit, the journey may have been eccentric, but the mixing from all three DJs was straight up.

That night, we decided to explore. We found Rory Lynam playing to a packed crowd in the stalls of the car park at the UMF Radio Stage laying down a tougher brand of house, before venturing over to the Worldwide Arena and watching Carl Cox absolutely kill it in a mad four-deck, smokey riser, fizzling-build, slick-drop display of general awesome. So that was nice.

It got to Day 3. This time we drove out to a campsite in a different city and watched Klingande play in torrential rain before interviewing him in the back of a van (forthcoming on DTTV), then being formally presented with an Ultra Camp Party T-shirt. This might have been our favourite day yet. Once again every inch of the arena – this time in a campsite miles away from the actual festival was brimming with both amazingly enthusiastic, worryingly clean looking ravers and aggressive press determined to get the most out of this.

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That night we met Slovenian favourite Gramatik for a chat on all things Croatia (forthcoming on DTTV) before venturing up to the VIP to meet rowdy Australians all of whom were on Yacht-Week – where shoals of Australians meet up to breed with shoals of other Australians before making the long journey back to their homeland. (Google search “Waterworld” for images), before moving another level (literally, in the stadium) to the VVIP where East Europeans sprayed Belvedere shots and sparklers, before going up another level to the Platinum Heineken VIP where we were given an awful lot of free beer. We then ventured back down the photo pits where, tonight, the VIPs had sort of been allowed in, which meant the place was now an orgy of eyebrow-singeing 8 foot pyrotechnics, stressed photographers and Europeans in red chinos and pressed shirts presumably called Hans taking selfies. Aoki appeared on stage and to his credit smashed it, as well as pelting a delighted crowd with dozens of cakes.

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No EDM-Fest would be complete without an Afterparty however, and this one took place two days later in Hvar. Hvar is sort of like the elite men’s changing room of Croatia – a lot of wealthy individuals go there to subtly compare yacht length. The Ultra afterparty took the form of a pool party in a five star beach resort / hotel. Diplo headlined, resulting in the traditional practice of pool parties as mellow, sexy affairs descending into a total drunken twerkfest from about 3pm, with legions of bros in the swimming pool thrashing around like enraged infants and people on shore marching around with frankly bizarre banners. DT met a Croatian journalist in the VIP area of the hotel and was discussing the pros and cons of the Croatian festival explosion at 1am when an Indian girl marched over and announced that we were her future husband, dragging us down to the bottom floor for a lot of beer and a somewhat intense conversation. We liked Hvar. 

Then, at 3am, we hopped on a boat party back to Split. DJ Dey (this guy is the workhorse of Croatia, it’s nuts.) playing in the absolute pitch dark save for a moon over the water. Like most of the crowd on board, we quickly passed out, on the dancefloor. We woke up at 5am drenched in sweat, oil and about 3,000 photos.

Ultra Europe was a completely insane EDM-hype fest. That itself is always going to be divisive, but when it comes down to it, it was fun. Those that went weren’t exactly seasoned music-lovers but, perhaps because of that, the festival had an unselfconscious, bright, holiday-esque vibe. The entire thing was slick, well engineered, bright, loud and no doubt will be even bigger, even more ridiculous next year.   The most important point of all however, is that Ultra Europe is owned and run by three investors, two of whom are Croatian, and one of whom, incidentally, is Slovenian. That technically makes it the only international electronic music festival that directly benefits Croatians. And in a country that increasingly feels like one gigantic venue for hire – this is only a good thing. We’ll be back next year. 

 For all our Photos from Ultra head to our Facebook gallery