For over a week in August every year Budapest’s Old Buda island becomes a utopia of music, games and revelry for nearly half a million to enjoy. We send Ben Rhodes to discover the reality of raving it up at Sziget…
The organisers of Sziget festival describe it as “an electronically amplified, warped amusement park that has nothing to do with reality”. Now, I’m a massive fan of: loud things; fun things; and weird things, so this sounded like my kind of party. But did Sziget live up to its mission statement?
When I stepped off the metro, the first impressions didn’t bode well – we were greeted by an Audi showroom and a few high rise block of flats as if we were in the Croydon of Hungary, with not much sign that Eastern Europe’s biggest festival was in full flow a few hundred yards away on the Danube river. Those notions quickly perished as I followed the throngs across to Óbudai-sziget (“Old Buda Island”) where I began to realise the impressive scale of Sziget.
The festival takes up the whole of island, ie. about 266 acres of land, with around 400,000 revellers coming in total throughout the whole week (the capacity on any one day is around 85,000). Unlike most festivals there is proper tarmac roads circling the main area, which was a relief on the first night as even my flimsy Converse could deal with the low levels of mud present. In fact the whole site is much better set up for coping with mud than many festivals (yes Glastonbury, I’m looking at you), with wellies a rare, rather than ubiquitous, sight. Camping also looked a lot more comfortable than many other festivals I have been to, as the tents are shaded by the trees, saving you from the sweaty headache from hell at sunrise… although I have to admit that, like many other “Szitizens” I cheated and stayed in a hotel in nearby Budapest. And here I should offer a word of advice: if you don’t want to piss off your hotelier remove your muddy Converse outside.
The variety of Szitizens is pretty remarkable. Obviously there are a lot of Hungarians, but the party-crazy Dutch bring around 30,000 people each year, whilst I noticed that there were a sizeable amount of Germans and British too in 2014 (come to think of it, virtually every nation in Europe seemed well represented). The average age is early or mid-20s – but even as a 30-something reporter I found enough other “veterans” to not feel like the oldest dude in town. Fancy dress was not as big a feature as at other festivals I’ve been to, which was probably due to a lot of day trippers from Budapest not wanting to get the train home dressed as a Gothic mermaid…
There is a really decent range of bars at the festival (which is a good thing as you cannot bring your own drink), serving up staple beers, ciders and pretty much every cocktail you could possibly think of (there is a whole bar dedicated to Jack Daniels). But in Hungary of course there is only one rocket fuel that the locals will recommend… palinka! We were fortunate enough to have a tasting session of some of the best palinka the country had to offer at the Gotohungary tent, but less privileged festival-goers will find more affordable stuff everywhere, even at the burger stalls. After trying the raspberry, plum, grape and lemon variety on my first night I was quickly able to cast off my post-30 gravitas and throw some serious shapes to Macklemore’s Thrift Store at the maign stage.
If you are going to stay for the whole festival you are going to need the palinka to see you through. It is a week-long extravaganza with big acts spread from early on in the week (Blink 182 & Deadmau5 in 2014) through to the weekend (the Prodigy and Calvin Harris). I was impressed that the majority of the campers I spoke to had stayed for the whole week and didn’t show any signs of flagging by the Sunday. This energy was epitomised by the daily main stage “Fight” with a different theme, from beach balls & bubbles, to the “it seemed fun at the time” Indian paint bombs.
Beyond the main stage we managed to find lots of other things that really give the festival a more varied feel. A particular highlight was the hidden away Sziget beach, where you can listen to Balearic House on the banks of the Danube and watch the sunset with a cocktail in hand (or go for after dark chilled vibe). As you’d expect there a few killer dance stages too, with the imposing Colosseum and the queerified Magic Mirrors the pick of the bunch. During the day you can explore the artists field, delve into the fluorescent labyrinth that is the Luminarium, or do all manner of things in the sky – bungee jump, chair swing, a sky-bar and the iconic Sziget wheel to name but a few. But what I found rather odd was that there were a few things that reminded you that “reality” was just around the corner, for example a set of football pitches (the first time I have seen festival goers wearing shin pads and boots), and perhaps more ominously a McDonalds outlet.
So, as I was swaying homewards bleary-eyed (having had my ear drums pounded with the most earth-shattering bass from the main stage… when did Calvin Harris turn from dweeby Scot to euro-dance demi-god?!), just as I was passing the Audi garage, I came up with what seemed at the time a profound insight: the closer a festival is to a city, the harder it is to feel you have escaped modern life.
This philosophical proclamation came to me when I compared my experience at Sziget to two other super-big festivals I have visited in recent years: Glastonbury, the granddaddy of rock festivals set in the rural valleys of England, which has a much more hippy free-spirit feel, and Burning Man, set out in the glaring sun of the Nevada desert, which is on a whole other level. Compared to these two far-out fiestas, Sziget, with its touches of commercialism and daily life happening right outside, doesn’t – and simply can’t – bring you as far away from reality as they do.
But – and it is a massive BUT – Sziget has the beautiful silver lining of being located right next door to one of Europe’s best cities. And if you buy the Sziget-Budapest CITYPASS for example you can take full advantage of all the capital’s clubs, restaurants and culture, as you get free access to all public transport, plus free entry to one of the world-famous spas.
So if I was going to rephrase the festival’s mission statement to reflect what I felt it achieved, it would be “an electronically amplified, warped amusement park that has something to do with reality, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing”. Not quite as catchy, but that’s reality for you.
Ben was invited to Budapest and shown around by the Sziget festival organisers, Gotohungary.com and the excellently-bearded local guide, Andrasz. Whilst in the Hungarian capital he also reviewed the city’s best rooftop bars and spent 60 minutes trying to escape from an Exit Room…