Sziget is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, it's an explosive blast of colour; a vibrant festival with a fine heart and a soft centre. But, on the other hand, it's your worst nightmare; a commercial monstrosity full to an uncomfortable level of crowdedness and in desperate need of embracing decent customer service principles. For the seven days that I stayed on this island just outside of Budapest, I flitted between these two extremes of feelings. In the end of the day, I think I just about loved it but the reservations still linger.
It was a pub conversation at the back end of 2015 that got me thinking about this Hungarian beast. I'd previously dismissed it as something I probably should have done fifteen years ago but older friends than me swore blind that they'd had a great time when they visited. It was their replacement for Glastonbury and it would also be mine. I went home and, in a drunken haze, bought tickets. Mindful that I wanted some comfort, I spent an extra 500 euros on VIP camping and a wooden hut - a mistake and not my finest purchase.
I'd followed the line up announcements with some interest. There'd be enough over the seven nights of the festival to keep me entertained though nothing to make me go 'completely wow'. Broadly, you could file the acts playing on the main stages into three categories; European DJs such as David Guetta, Nicky Romero, and Hardwell, top of the range pop acts like Sia, Rihanna, and Roisin Murphy and harder indie rock acts such as Muse, Bring Me The Horizon, and Bloc Party. That's an over-simplification but you get my drift.
This was also going to be a summer holiday. I'd never been to Budapest before so thought I'd combine the two. Accommodation was booked on either side of the festival, that runs from Wednesday to Wednesday, in the city. I'd urge all who might be considering Sziget in future years to do this. At the very least, you really should spend some time leaving the festival site and wandering around the incredibly beautiful Budapest. Glorious architecture, fine food, proud people and loads of interesting bars selling cheap beer, it was a revelation.
Getting to the festival site, the island of freedom, proved easy. Sziget offers a city pass which incorporates free public transport within the city and from the airport for the duration of the festival. Add in free access to one of Budapest's many thermal baths and reduced admission to a dozen museums, this proves quite a bargain for 33 euros. We get the suburban train to the island on the first day but also arrive directly by a special boat that cruises up and down the Danube on another day.
Despite arriving on the Wednesday of the festival, the first day that live music will blast from the stages, the island already feels busy and crowded. Many now purchase add-on tickets to gain early entry to the festival. They've already gone feral, having spent two days under canvas, by the time we arrive. You can see why people need to do this though. If I'd have turned up with a tent on the Wednesday, I would have struggled to find space to pitch it, especially if I'd not paid extra and upgraded to one of the organised campsites on site. Arriving at Sziget on Wednesday would be like arriving at Glastonbury on the Friday. Limited room at the inn. In the basic camping areas, tents were on top of tents; some were placed on such inclines that the inhabitants would never sleep; others were pitched on nettles or chunks of gravel.
But this was no bother to me; for I'd had the foresight to purchase VIP camping. How wrong I was - I might as well get this grumble out of the way now. Think very seriously about paying extra for VIP camping at Sziget; in short, if my experience is anything to go by, it's not worth the investment. I'd bought something called an 'accordion home'; this was a lockable wooden hut with a mattress inside and plug sockets. Others who I chatted with had spent more and hired luxury caravans. The hut was basic and rudimental in design; it could have offered privacy if it was completely covered at one end by the Perspex window rather than left partially open (and unsecure). A step broke outside our home and a nasty nail protruded for a while until fixed. Evidence suggested that these huts were hastily erected by amateurs. But they offered a level of comfort all the same.
The main issue with them was their positioning. At the far end of the VIP camping area, it took a good ten minutes to walk from them to the toilet and shower provision. It didn't need to but the most direct route was fenced off for a space that was never used. The huts (and some of the luxury caravans) were positioned exceptionally close to the Telekom arena. As luck would have it, this was the stage that went on until 5.30AM each morning playing a hardcore sort of Euro-Techno thing with a bass beat to die for. I'm pretty resilient to festival noise but this was like nothing else I've ever heard. Perhaps, it was a design fault but the wooden huts reverberated and shook each time one of the bass notes struck. Your body lifted from the plank of wood rendering the simple earplug pretty useless. I'm told that the luxury caravans shook in similar fashion. Many had to give up on their VIP investment early, such was the level of discomfort.
Perhaps such complaints could have been handled better. The staff at the reception to VIP camping could do little more than laugh at you when you tried to explain. A couple of E-mails that I sent to the Sziget customer service team still remain unacknowledged and unanswered. I honestly don't think I've been to a festival before where there has been such complete disregard for the customer. But I'll get off my soapbox now.
Yes, the accommodation issues did impact upon my enjoyment but there's a whole bunch of things that Sziget gets completely right. By and large, the musical delights at this festival don't begin until 4 in the afternoon. Before this time, people can wander around the island exploring and investigating the other things on offer.
I loved the Ability Park. This is an area with a range of exhibits which sympathetically provide insight and simulations into what it can be like to live with a disability. We put on blindfolds and find our way around a maze-like track armed only with a stick that we shake in front of us. We sit in wheelchairs and navigate around a course of inclines and declines, twists and turns - our arms don't half ache and our brows don't half sweat whilst doing this and we appreciate the every day efforts of those who permanently use wheelchairs. We play basketball in wheelchairs and football with goggles that alter our sight. We learn little bits of sign language.
The NGO Island is also pretty neat to explore by day. This is a stretch of the island where gazebos and tents advertise the causes of Hungarian charities and voluntary groups. Conversation is encouraged and many of the tents put on activities and quizzes. I win a T Shirt from the European Migration Forum even though my knowledge on some of the finer legalities of refugee status is a bit shaky. We get a sense how global this festival is when we see pinboards and maps marking the journeys people have made. We check out the Amnesty International tent and have a chat with those raising the transgender profile. You do get a real sense that the organisers of this festival don't want Sziget to simply be seen as a rite of passage music festival; rather they take the responsibility to educate and inform seriously.
What other festival has a Museum quarter? Sziget welcomes small exhibitions and displays from a number of prominent Budapest museums. We pass by the tent showing off the wares from the Museum Of Ethnography but do stumble upon this fascinating folk art social history space when we explore the city. For much of our Museum quarter morning, we watch films about tolerance, cultural diversity and the current plight of refugee and asylum seekers in the 'Tent Without Borders'. There's a really moving display set out on the floor of this space marking the objects that people leave behind when they're rushed out of their homes at incredibly short notice.
The daytime activities aren't all as serious as this. Many make use of the foam party to wash off the sweat and dust from the previous night's dancing dalliances. Adjacent to the foam party is the sports village. Teams play five a side football, basketball and volleyball whilst others prefer a more leisurely activity such as darts or table tennis. Some sit in the tent, sponsored by Budapest's own bid to win the Olympics in 2024, watching the games from Rio unfurl on giant TV screens.
For those who really want to chill by day, there's a chill-out garden at the far end of the site. Water from the Danube laps up against the shores here. Swimming is forbidden (the currents are too dangerous) but there are a multitude of hammocks, chairs and artistic creations mostly under a canopy of trees that provide shelter from the sun. With blissful music playing throughout the day and into the evening, many risk insect bites by shutting their eyes and drifting off into a land of sleep. There are spaces for massage here; tents in which you can practice yoga, tai-chi and barefoot pottery.
Those wanting somewhere even more peaceful than the Chill-Out garden head to the Luminarium. Opening each day at midday, you've got to be in the queue soon after this to experience this tranquil, unique bubble, such is the popularity of the space. Built by an artistic team from Nottingham (apparently), the Luminarium is a giant, inverted bouncy castle. Segmented into different caverns each with a different lighting effect, you wander around this incredible womb whilst listening to gentle, ambient, soundwaves. Sometimes, you spot a pod that's available and you're compelled to lie down and rest your head. It has a healing effect and though we enter weary, we leave relaxed.
Many mention that the queues for the Luminarium are too much but at least they have some semblance of order. Another popular area, the Cirque De Sziget, really does need an overhaul in future years to ensure it's not a tragedy waiting to happen. There are two large circus tents and some outdoor displays. At five in the afternoon and at eleven(ish) at night, the doors of the tents open and people rush, push and jostle to get a golden ticket and a seat inside. We queue twice, late at night, to try and see 'Soap', a mesmerising show involving bathtubs, acrobatics, soap suds and wide-eyed curiosities. Despite waiting for about an hour on both of these nights, we only just get a seat at the second go. The problem seems to be that there's not much of a system here. Given the amount of security guards elsewhere on site, there's an alarming lack of organisation here. The crush when we do get in is worse than anything I've ever known at Glastonbury. I send an E-mail to Sziget's customer service department but, true to form, no response is received and I'm reliably informed that the crush is even more severe and intense the following night as people desperately try to push in to see their show.
Given the general numbers on site (Sziget send a mail saying that about half a million visitors have attended over the duration of the festival - this will include day ticket holders), the organisation is mostly solid. Queues and pinch points are to be expected I guess. Extra security measures are invoked upon entry to the island - a way of ensuring that nobody on the island is on counter-terrorism lists apparently - and so we inevitably queue at the gate. Sziget is a cashless island and so people have to queue for some time to top up their festipay cards from various booths dotted around the island. The main issue that many report here is that a fair few of these booths hardly open meaning that sometimes you can be stranded with no food or beer. Aside from this, the main pinch points occur, as you might expect, when popular acts are about to take to one of the music stages. Fast forward until 4PM in the afternoon and I'll give you a whistlestop tour of most of the music stages.
Sziget's main stage is named after Dan Pantainescu. Dan was Sziget's international artist booker until he passed away following a car crash a few months ago. Each night, four acts play on this epic, open air space at the heart of the festival. There's little by way of filler here and no short half hour sets. To different degrees, these are acts who have made it. Over the week, it's those who really throw themselves into their shows here, who work hard to engage and captivate the audience who shine, whilst those who simply jump through their usual hoops get found out. Dan Smith from Bastille, and Ricky Wilson from Kaiser Chiefs both throw themselves into their sets. At one point, Dan runs to the lighting gantry in the middle of the main stage field and connects with the crowd from an elevated position there. The Kaiser Chiefs remind us how many hits they've had but also prove that they're not quite done yet with their sprinkling of new songs sounding polished. Die Antwoord will never make music that makes me go 'wow' but their exhilarating stage show, full of extreme light, epic costume change and movement, surprises and becomes a highlight from this stage. The Lumineers offer something a bit different and I'm struck by how strong their catalogue of story based country and Western tinged songs are. Of the headliners, it's Manu Chao, Sia, and The Chemical Brothers (live) who nail it by pulling a special show out of the hat; Rihanna, (probably the headline act of the week) generates a mass of complaint with her lazy and late, unspectacular approach. "She was clearly miming and didn't change her costume once", said one observer but we'd already flown that nest. Rihanna's challenged in the award of most pedestrian main stage act by the ever so dull Jake Bugg, who looks like he really doesn't want to be in Budapest and Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds who send the Sziget crowd into a soporific slumber before waking them with some slowed-down Oasis singalongs.
The second stage, the A38 OTP stage, is a massive undercover tent. This tent has its first act each day on at 4.45PM but then runs through until 3AM most days. Some pretty big acts are booked in here alongside some who could be better described as up and coming. The tent heaves on the night that Bloc Party headline, clearly still an important and prominent band across Europe. We take a front row space by the barrier (the first time I've done so in a long time) for Roisin Murphy,. She doesn't disappoint with her shambolic, ramshackle costume changes and her lively pop. Oscar & The Wolf state their claim to be Belgium's greatest, living pop export whilst Norma Jean Martine, and Boy catch the attention of those in this tent early enough in the day.
Some of the more interesting things, musically speaking, appear to happen away from these major stages (isn't it always that way at most large festivals?). There's not many festivals that have a dedicated opera and classical stage but Sziget does. Lying down on incredibly comfy beanbags, we spend a great few hours watching random punters trying their hand at conducting an orchestra. We watch an hour long show that whets our appetite for Hungarian opera. Appealing, inclusive and not at all snobby, this really succeeds in debunking some of my preconceptions about how some art forms mightn't be for me.
A fair bit of our time is spent at the World stage. Like West Holts at Glastonbury, this is the place to come for fiddles, conga dancing, folk singing and a bit of space away from the mass of the crowds. To my shame, I hardly know any of the bands that we see here but none disappoint. Folk bands from Iceland merge in with Celtic influenced bands from Spain; Klezmer gets an outing and instruments are introduced onto the stage that I've never seen played before. The Europe stage is another fine place to sit, chat and observe something new. It's more of a mixed bag and, at times, the band on the stage make such an awful cacophony we're left with no choice but to hastily leave. But, for the most part, there are bands playing here, proud to be part of the Sziget experience. Over on the Telecom Volt stage, there's a line up that's made up solely of bands and acts from Hungary. We only dip into this fleetingly but conclude that the local scene is in pretty good health. How could we miss Freddie, this year's Hungarian entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, doing his set of powerful rock ballads in the middle of the afternoon?
I've already touched on the fact that Sziget is an all night party. After midnight, you're less likely to see bands as the DJs come out to play. Try as we might, it was pretty tough to find much variety. Unlike other EDM festivals, Sziget seems a bit stuck in the exuberant party music space. There's lots of DJs from the Netherlands who specialise in getting the crowds bouncing. For me, when they shout from their booths, it's the clubland equivalent of the 'scream if you want to go faster' cries often heard from fairground attendants.
I'm sure that, for many, one of Sziget's very obvious attractions is the value for money it offers. Interestingly, a ticket for a week in Sziget, still costs about as much as an average monthly Hungarian salary but, being aware of this, day tickets are offered to ensure it's not simply over-run by others with more disposable income. Once on site, beers (provided by Dreher) clock in at 650 Hungarian florints (£2 or so). Cider (tasting sweet and nothing like the drier scrumpy back home) is a bit more. Many indulge in cocktails and buy buckets of the stuff to share with straws. This costs more but the measures of alcohol added to the mix are generous. There are plenty of bars meaning that queuing is rarely required even at busy times. Speciality Hungarian drinks (the delightfully named Unicum) and a whole section serving up Hungarian wines mean we'll never go thirsty.
Some have been critical about the lack of food options but this wasn't my experience at all. Indeed, it was possible to try a wide range of culinary treats from around the world and much of it was exceptional value (typically about a fiver for a feast of food). I'm sure many lived off slices of pizza but we dug deeper. The dedicated vegan stalls always delivered great plates of food, intended for one person but with enough sustenance for two. A Mexican stall in the Europe stage field cooked up burritos from fresh and a small burger van got repeat business because their halloumi burgers were out of this world. Quality, street food seems to be a growing thing in Budapest and Sziget acknowledges and embraces this fact. For those that get really desperate, there's a makeshift Aldi supermarket on site. This is something I have never seen before. In a grill area, next to the supermarket, Aldi staff are happy to cook things that you've bought from their fridges and freezers. The fresh bakery here does a massive trade in croissants and other pastry delicacies.
There's some bits I've not talked about. My review would be even longer if I mentioned the chess tent, the cinema space or the travelling funfair where you could throw balls at coconuts and attempt to crack nuts with hammers. All of these have their appeal. I've never seen a pole dancing strip joint at a festival before and I'd kind of hoped that gender politics were advanced enough amongst most festival goers that such a venue wouldn't be needed. But, here at Sziget, there's a tent offering private dances and all sorts. For journalistic endeavour, I briefly venture into this lap dancing tent and spy men drooling and hyper-ventilating as women pump and grind from a catwalk. For me, such a tent felt odd, especially when elsewhere on site, there's very real social purpose.
I think I would visit Sziget again given the chance. I'd definitely approach it differently. Camping on this island of freedom is a young person's game and for me that ship has sailed. Budapest is such a beautiful city and access to the island is so simple that I'd find an apartment to base myself in and then travel to and from the festival each day. There's no doubting that there's a mammoth amount of fun to be had at Sziget. By and large, the crowds experiencing it are friendly, lively and chatty. At times, you find yourself yearning for a bit of space - I don't think this festival could feasibly increase its capacity any more - but I'm very glad to be able to tick it off my list. It beats a day in the office.
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