I was lucky enough to be in Hungary last week for Budapest’s Sziget Festival. Dubbed The Island of Freedom, Sziget is rapidly becoming one of the biggest festivals in the world, having already picked up the Best Major European Festival award in 2012, as well as being one of the first festivals to incorporate innovative technological advances such as a cashless payment methods. Sziget 2014’s lineup was more than impressive, nabbing established, legendary acts such as Placebo, The Prodigy and Outkast, as well as chart-toppers in the form of Calvin Harris and Macklemore. However, rather than talk about the acts/performances, this review is going to be purely on the festival itself.
When I first arrived at Sziget I had mixed opinions. The entrance was plastered with huge metal gates and fences that, coupled with a countless amount of security, and a rusty iron bridge with chipped paint, it literally reminded me of a prison, not that I’ve ever been of course. I then had the audacity to ask a member of staff where the press tent was, who looked me up and down and responded with ‘you want press tent?’, as if I had no right to be asking for it, he did then tell me but I still had difficulty actually finding the entrance, again due to iron fencing used to sort ‘Szitizens’. I eventually found the entrance where I queued for around twenty minutes before entering the tent, the attendant didn’t even say hello and just held out a hand for my confirmation voucher/ticket, I gave it to her, she scanned it in and gave me a wristband with a weak smile.
Courtesy of my press band, I was able to walk past the queues straight to the entrance, where security were doing vigorous searches of every bag/patron for alcohol. Now they weren’t just security guards, they were all massive people with biceps bigger than my head, wearing bright yellow tops and sunglasses, so yeah, pretty daunting. The security guard who searched me uttered something I assumed was Hungarian to which I replied with ‘Sorry I’m English’, she repeated herself and I was still none the wiser to what she wanted, third time of asking she was now getting agitated and with an exaggerated sigh, I finally managed to catch ‘alcohol’. I had none, she patted my bag a few times and I was finally let in, to be met with a taxi-rank? Yes really. So so far on the ‘Island of Freedom’ I’ve seen more security than festival-goers, particularly rude staff, vigorous security checks, more iron, steel and ugly metal than I ever imagined, and a corporately sponsored taxi company plaguing the entrance with bright yellow cars. If I’m honest the last thing I’m feeling right now is ‘freedom’.
Beyond this visually displeasing entrance and arrival, I finally begin to see the beauty and natural aura of the festival. Much like Glastonbury, you can camp near-enough anywhere you want, and thanks to the retained nature of the island, this makes for beautiful scenic shots that finally illustrates the whole ‘Freedom’ aesthetic the organisers are gunning for. Tents pitched under lush green trees draped in fairy lights make for a great setting that really encapsulates the feel of the island, people pin huge hammocks between trees, they bring huge colourful tarpaulins for cover, they draw up huge signs or flags, anything to make their living space more appealing to other festival-goers. Remember this a week-long festival, your living space has to be fit for this, and more than just a small patch with a tent in it.
Photo Credit- http://www.szigetfestival.com/szemerybence
Unfortunately I was met with another qualm- the maps/signs at the festival are near enough useless. Arrows pointing to areas of the festival don’t actually point in a clear direction in regards to the roads you can go down, and the huge maps dotted about the island don’t actually say where you are on the map, so as a newbie I had no idea which direction things were, particularly when I didn’t know where I was was myself. I spent around 45 minutes wandering the island aimlessly looking for a place to camp, again I asked a member of staff who spouted ‘I don’t know’ and that was that. I finally found a decent place to pitch my tent right in the hub of the festival near the the Main Stage. and off I went for a venture.
Sziget I’m sorry, but again there’s a flaw to your innovation- the cashless payment service. Having flown for just under three hours, commuted to the festival for another hour, and then wandered around looking for a spot for a further hour, all in the European heat- I was crazily dehydrated and all I wanted was a drink. However, as I wasn’t the only one who needed one everybody was queuing for a Festipay Card, I joined one of the many colossal queues to get one, and half-an-hour later the queue literally hadn’t moved. The whole point of this card is to eliminate the queues, the idea is sound, but the result is not-so. Maybe post Festipay Cards to Szitizens along with their tickets, or even-more-simply, give them out along with their wristbands.
Eventually I got my Festipay Card, I rehydrated, pitched my tent up and had a good look round. Now this is where things improved- the festival is an absolute oasis of a place, every solitary detail is thought about and made to look as incredible, beautiful and attractive as possible. Huge model flowers, masses of hand-crafted wooden sculptures, a giant dinosaur/lizard made of bright plastic bottles, the festival is an absolute picture of contemporary art with every aspect considered and thought-about.
I’m not exaggerating when I call Sziget ‘picturesque’, it really is an absolute beauty of a festival, one that can’t really be translated via this review or photos. I vigorously researched the festival before my arrival and a lot of the attractions on the island are vastly under-described, the best example of this is The Sport, Adventure and Fitness Park. I presumed it would just be two goal-posts and a basketball hoop, but oh no, this isn’t your average festival and by now I’ve come to expect the absolute best from Sziget. The five-a-side pitch is a fully-fledged pitch with 3G astroturf, the basketball court is perfect for some half-court tournaments, and the volley-ball area is as good as I’ve seen. Another underrated element is the food selection- featuring near-enough every culinary selection imaginable, from huge European burgers that I couldn’t even finish, classic US hot-dog stands on every corner, elaborate Spanish paellas, and a plethora of Chinese woks, they’re all available for extremely reasonable prices- most meals were around three-four euros, and I couldn’t find anything for over six euros.
The main stage is pretty big, about the same size as Reading/Leeds’ main stage, if you’ve ever been, and the field it’s in seamlessly blends in with the festival- it’s not a separate entity and gives the festival more of a flow and again coincides with the omnipresent ‘freedom’ element. Other highlights of the festival include its seemingly random little gems like The Sziget Eye, a bungee jump and a wedding tent. More specifically, I wandered past the A38 Stage at the right time and there were four graffiti artists working on fresh pieces which was cool, it’s various paint/balloon/beach ball parties are also lots of fun and really do add to the amazing experience of Sziget Festival. It’s also worth nabbing a Citypass to enjoy the incredible city of Budapest, although I will say the public transport is a tad confusing.
In summary, you need to go to Sziget. It possesses unbeatable lineups from the world’s biggest artists, it’s in a beautiful setting right in the heart of Budapest, and it really is one of those things you just need to go and do. The festival does have its flaws however, many I’ve already detailed, I was somewhat naive in thinking that I would be ‘at home’ at Sziget. What I mean is that I was expecting a lot of English speaking people, including staff, but be aware, the majority is non-English-speaking, this isn’t a bad thing, and certainly not something they can improve on of course- I’m a visitor to their country and they shouldn’t have to make extra allowances, it just would have been easier to find things on site and what not. Oh, and one of the things I’m forgetting? The price- a full ticket for the entire week is a measly £200, you’d be mad to not go.
+ Excellent location.
+ Incredible lineup.
+ Picturesque setting.
+ Incredible attractions.
+ More than the music.
+ iPhone app is handy.
+ Great food selection.
+ Everything is thought about.
+ Citypass to Budapest.
– Ugly entrance and procedure.
– Cashless service is flawed.
– Very rude/unhelpful staff.
– Daunting security.
– Useless signage/maps.
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