Music festivals are a big thing at the moment, but oh dear, aren’t they expensive – and as for the weather …! Sad to say, but the UK (and Holland, Germany, Denmark… well, most of northern Europe) really doesn’t have a reliably warm enough climate to enjoy an extended season of outdoor, music festivals. But Istria does, with its balmy evenings and clear star-lit skies, and it’s fast becoming a top music destination with numerous, affordable music events throughout the season. One of my favourites is Montraker Live, Vrsar’s music festival, held at the end of July. Of course the bands are different each year, but the theme’s always rock (Montraker is Istria’s only rock festival); the bands are always world-class and, at only 70 kn (c. €10 or £8) a ticket (or 140 kn for all three concerts), it’s stupendous value. I went along to this, their fifth festival and had a ball.
Music organizer, Rac, is a music journalist with strong contacts throughout the industry, so always ensures Montraker has a great line-up. This year, there was a strong rock-blues theme with Letz Zep, Eric Sardinas & Big Motor and Wishbone Ash.
The festival kicked off on Thursday night with Letz Zep, a leading Led Zeppelin tribute band. They came with big billing – Jimmy Page himself has said they are by far the best Led Zeppelin tribute band – and they didn’t disappoint. Real showmen, they sounded, looked and performed amazingly like the real thing, playing all Led Zep’s greatest hits to the delight of the audience. I wriggled my way to the front of the stage and sang myself hoarse. I might never see Robert Plant sing live, but I can now say I’ve touched his clone!
On Friday it was Eric Sardinas & Big Motor. I first saw Eric in Antwerp when he was just starting out and vowed to see him again. It might have taken me over twenty years, but it was worth the wait: the man’s a superb performer, a total ball of energy and commitment, who gave us his all. We were warned to expect a big, loud show and that’s how it started: but for me, the highlight of the show came later, when he slowed things down a little, and dug into his blues heritage – his Robert Johnson and Elmore James pieces were magnificent. With superb technique, he has the reputation of being one of the world’s best slide guitarists and at Montraker, you could clearly see why.
This year’s big-name was Wishbone Ash, who closed Montraker on Saturday night with some virtuoso guitar work. Huge in the 1970s and still going strong today, Wishbone Ash was one of the first bands to introduce twin lead guitars. They gave us a stunning performance, clearly showing why they are classed as some of the top guitarists in the world (Andy Powell features in Rolling Stone’s all-time top 20). I was amazed to see performers of this calibre at such a small festival like Montraker.
While the bands were great, for me the true star of the festival was Montraker itself! By day, it is Vrsar’s beach area; by night, it becomes a wonderful venue, with the concerts held in a natural hollow, nestled among pine trees. Only a short stroll from Vrsar’s seafront, it’s easy to get to and there’s even a large car park, right outside.
But that’s all logistics: for me the beauty of Montraker is its relaxed atmosphere. The venue’s intimate (it holds a maximum of a thousand, but is never that full), and the concerts are attended by people of all ages. It’s a true family affair: P snapped this shot of two little ‘uns, oblivious to the music, playing in the light of the drinks stand.
There’s plenty of room to sit on the bank at the side and watch the show, or, like me, worm up to the front and get up-close-and personal with the musicians. All this on a warm summer evening, with a starry sky and beautiful, flood-lit Vrsar behind you. Wonderful! What more could you ask of a musical event?
For me, the only potential downside was Montraker’s late start. I’m an early bird – 11 pm is usually a late night for me, so I was rather daunted by a 9:30 pm kick off. What could I do to ensure I was properly awake?
The answer was easy: have a leisurely dinner first. All too often with concerts, you need to grab a quick bite before running to the show. With Montraker starting at 9:30, there was time for a proper meal out. I asked organizer, Natalija from the Tourist Office for some suggestions and she arranged us three wonderful restaurants, all a short stroll from the concert.
Ahead of Letz Zep we went to Fancita, a restaurant for those in the know. Up a suburban side-street, it’s sign now covered in vines, Fancita’s not a place you’ll stumble across. It’s a place you go on recommendation, and word of mouth has ensured it’s packed all summer long. Run by chef Paolo, and his sister Klaudia, we were given a warm welcome and served a five-course meal that would not have been out of place in any top restaurant worldwide. Beautifully presented, it showcased exactly what can be done with top-quality, fresh, Istrian ingredients. Click here to find out more about Fancita and our personal gourmet experience.
Next night was Eric Sardinas, so we chose to make a sardine night of it (my apologies for the pun) and went to Srdela (which is Croatian for sardine). Another Vrsar culinary gem, Srdela is in a wood hut, next to the children’s funfair and tourist market – not an obvious place for a fantastic fish restaurant, but that’s exactly what it is. Mirijana made us feel immediately at home and fed us a huge seafood feast. If you like great, unpretentious fish and shellfish, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Click here to learn more about Srdela and all the dishes we tried.
For our final culinary treat, Natalija arranged for us to go to Monte Carlo, a relatively new restaurant a short step back from the harbour, at the foot of the steps up to the old town. After two huge meals on successive nights, we were by now feeling somewhat stuffed and rather daunted by what we’d face. “Have what you like,” said Jelena, handing us the menus, “everything’s great: my husband’s the best chef in the world!” We decided to limit ourselves to just two courses. Having had fish the night before, we opted for meat and chef, Adriano, produced … well I’m still dreaming about his pljukanci and his mum’s chocolate cake… yuuummm! It was delicious and the atmosphere on their pretty terrace, relaxed and friendly. Click here to see what we ate and discover a little about their future plans.
At the moment, Montraker’s mainly attended by locals – most holidaymakers simply don’t realise what they’re missing. I guess you need to live somewhere to discover its best kept secrets. But the secret’s out now so if, like me, you love a good old-fashioned rock concert, I really can recommend trying one of these three restaurants and then taking in at least one of the shows – I suspect it could end up as one of the highlights of your trip.
For more adventurous festival fans, it’s not just Montraker. Leave your wellies behind and instead bring your suntan lotion: relax in the sun or explore Istria by day, and enjoy Istria’s food and music by night. There’s plenty of events to choose from.
Hopefully this post has given you a taste of what to expect at Montraker, so why not come next year? Like this year, it will still be three nights: probably the third weekend in July (17th – 19th). I’ll let you know, as soon as the dates are confirmed.
Rac is busily arranging things and is planning an amazing line-up with Uriah Heep, Dr. Feelgood and Clem Clempson (vintage rock guitarist) from the UK, and the new blues-rock supergroup Royal Southern Brotherhood from the US. Our tribute band will be The Doors Experience from Austria.
He also hopes to make a bigger event of it with support bands – mainly upcoming young artists – on stage from 6:00 pm, with the main band starting at either 9:30 or 10:00 pm.
A huge thanks to Natalija and the Vrsar Tourist Office for this wonderful, three-night experience. If you’d like to arrange something like we did, or come and stay, and discover this delightful seaside town, Natalija and her friendly team will be more than happy to help you make the most of your visit. Either use the link above or e-mail them on firstname.lastname@example.org