Review: Sziget Festival 2015 In Budapest
10th - 17th August 2015
On an island that you've never heard of that emerges from the waters of the Danube, a festival is thrown together in the twin cities of Budapest. Sziget Festival has just celebrated its 23rd year of existence, and it's not hard to see why it's lasted so long, or why it won Major European Festival 2012 and 2014. Sziget isn't just a festival but an alternative way of living. A culture clash designed to bring together different nations speaking that one language we all understand - music.
441,000 people (that's substantially more than the population of Cardiff) visited this island across the week, some staying two or three days; some for a full week of mayhem. Music lovers from 95 countries flocked to see a wide range of artists from Robbie Williams to Florence + the Machine, Limp Bizkit to Avicii. One of Sziget's main strengths is the incredible variety on offer across the island. The main stage headliners coming from all across the musical spectrum, representing their respective genres: dance, rock, pop, metal - all got their time in the spotlight.
"By the afternoon you've travelled from France to Sweden by way of Romania and Italy"
The smaller stages offer a wealth of material. The Blues-Irish Stage showcasing Hungary's love and respect for traditional Irish and folk; the Colosseum a spherical dance extravaganza; and for those feeling a bit nostalgic, why not head to the Tribute Band stage for lively bands trying to capture the style of everyone from the beloved ABBA to punk rock giants, Green Day.
The British Knights European stage was perhaps a perfect analogy for the festival as a whole bringing up-and-coming artists from all over Europe to a small stage at the edge of the island. Sit yourself down in the morning and by the afternoon you've travelled from France to Sweden by way of Romania and Italy, with songbirds, DJ's, boy bands and country acts - all there to showcase their music and nations. A perfect way to start the day and remind us all why we're all there - to make links through music.
The A38 stage, named after a famous party boat, offered the major alternative to the Main Stage with raucous sets from Enter Shikari and Dropkick Murphys to the vocal acrobatics of Selah Sue and pop's newest prince, Jett Rebel strutting his stuff. A closing set from Passenger offered one of the week's highlights as he proclaimed we were the rebels battling the Deathstar of the Martin Garrix end show, sending the crowd wild and proving by the end that, for some, the young DJ was no match for one man, a guitar, some simple folk, and a Simon and Garfunkel cover.
With this eclectic selection over the week, even the most disengaged attendee will find something to dance to or at least mosh to...
However, the impressive nature of this variety was at times let down by the fact that the sound wasn't always up to standard. A number of technical faults across the week led to all sorts of problems, from constant delays on the British Knights stage, to a complete cut-out of sound during Foals' set. Artists could be seen frequently signalling to the sound crews to change the levels and up the mic, with Paloma Faith on stage audibly asking her crew to "turn me up, please." Other technical follies included the lighting, which, whilst on the whole was excellent, on the Main Stage struggled at times under the A38's canopy with random spotlight use and unplanned blackouts. On the whole though, the acts were entirely enjoyable, save those minor issues, and the music is certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Image Credit: Sziget.hu/MohaiBalázs
"A style entirely of its own"
If you're tired of music, you certainly have a wide range of options as to how you spend your time. Head down to the Sziget beach, where you can swim in the Danube, or over to the sports courts and play some volleyball or football. Skip to the circus to take in a show or go bungee jumping. And we're only scratching the surface. From film screenings to belly dancing, light displays to the theatre shows, the excitement never stops at Sziget; this year even hosted a very rare visit from the formerly imprisoned Pussy Riot on their mission to make Europe aware of the current Russian plight.
Particular highlights for this reporter included the I Ching Labyrinth, which was an excellent introduction and physical exploration of the ancient Chinese book, including theatrical performances and participatory investigations, and also the Tea for the Soul tent, which offered free fruit tea and conversation. Set up by a Christian organisation to promote the image of Christianity as an accepting religion, it was a perfect way to rest during the evening, when the constant influx of stimuli from the island became too much. These small tents and stalls really separate Sziget apart and give it a style entirely of its own.
"Temperatures of at least 30 degrees day after day"
However, there are some areas needing improvement. One of the major criticisms of this festival is the desperate lack of free drinking water on offer. During our time on the island, my colleague and I only managed to find two water taps that we returned to religiously twice a day, and considering many of the bars dotted around wanted to charge you for a cup and ice, it was a safe bet that they certainly weren't willing to give you any tap water. Despite signs above the taps near the toilets saying that the water was not drinkable, many people resorted to filling up their bottles there just because the queues for actual drinking water were so horrendous. Eventually, the crew at Sziget decided to take these signs down, though it didn't in any way improve the quality of the water (which we tried on the first day). Given that the island was constantly baking in temperatures of at least 30 degrees day after day, you'd think that the organisers would be more health-conscientious and less profit-oriented when it came to water, especially when you consider the lengths to which most major Brit events go to ensure clean drinking water is at hand on every campsite and across the arena areas. Good ol' Glastonbury.
Another area for focus next year would revolve around space for camping. Fortunately, this reporter arrived a day before the official start of the festival and so had no problem finding a spot to set up his tent. However, by the third day, so non-existent was the space for new tents that people resorted to set up their temporary accommodation in foolhardy places.
On the final day, long after the music had stopped playing and after a large storm, a tree branch fell and crushed a tent that was set up beneath it. Unfortunately, this led to the death of a camper who had ignored safety signs indicating a certain area was not safe to camp, despite the best efforts of the emergency response team. Perhaps in light of this tragedy, and the knowledge that Sziget is growing more and more popular year on year, the organisers will reconsider the best options to house the Island of Freedom's hundreds of thousands of visitors searching for fun and excitement, even if this means rethinking the layout of the site.
Image Credit: Sziget.hu/SzemereyBence
"An intense festival"
Sziget is an intense festival and not one that should be pursued by the light-hearted. Music played until 6am daily and started up again at 10. Add to this the music played by the campers and their hundreds and thousands of voices and the noise is pretty much non-stop. For alumni of Reading Festival, think Yellow Field times ten. Don't expect a decent night's sleep here - it isn't going to happen. Better just embrace the madness.
One of the major bonuses of this festival is the showers, which, though often crowed at certain times of the day, were a welcome relief after a day of sweating and dancing around in dirt. Separated showers for men and women and then individual cubicles provided ample opportunity to relax and reflect on the day in moderate privacy. As mentioned, at times the queues for the showers were unreasonable and so we would wait until after midnight, when they were non-existent. Everything in Sziget happens in cycles and if you can decipher the cycles early on, you can really learn how to make the most of your time.
A unique feature of Sziget festival is the method of payment, Festipay, a cashless system whereby you top up a contactless card at a number of booths across the island and then use them to pay for goods at any location. In principle, this is a good idea saving queues at all the retail stands; however, the queues for the Festipay booths were absurd. As my colleague and I arrived a day early, we managed to explore and utilise the Festipay system with relative ease and rapidity, though the same could not be said for anybody who arrived at any point after this. It should also be noted that whilst it does speed up the payment system at retail points, it can be very easy to forget how much money you have on your card (though of course you are told after each transaction) and so get carried away, because, after all, this card isn't real money, right?
Fortunately, neither my colleague nor I suffered any injuries or maladies across the week, though a friend we discovered did and had to go to the first aid tent. Whilst I didn't experience this first-hand, the story she told was not encouraging:
"I went there because I had woken up with a strange red mark on my foot that wasn't going away with my usual antihistamine medication. The first aid tent seemed disorganised and poorly run as there were nurses constantly going outside to have a cigarette whilst still in their nurse uniforms and didn't appear to wash their hands afterwards. I was sat waiting for 7.5 hours before I was seen. People were constantly jumping the queue because they'd been sick, so were therefore viewed as higher priority. There was no discussion of my medical history at all and I wasn't monitored at all during my 7.5 hour wait. I didn't realise that I was actually in the longest queue to start with and wasn't told this which resulted in about 5 people being put in front of me when they were asked to sit down. Whilst I was in the tent my foot and ankle swelled up badly, making my foot difficult to walk on and it became painful (still no monitoring). It was only when I kicked off and burst into floods of tears because the guy behind me was seen before me that I actually got seen. But, even when I was see, the tent seemed underequipped (the doctor used a light on his phone to examine my foot due to poor lighting). Overall, it was a terrible experience that ruined that particular day, as I missed Kasabian and Marina and the Diamonds. Having only one first aid tent is not adequate for an island of 400,000 people. I communicated to Sziget via Twitter about the experience on two occasions and they failed to respond."
Image Credit: Sziget.hu/CsudaiSándor
"The first time many of Sziget's partiers will have been to Budapest"
The final comment is to be made about the directions in and around Sziget. Arriving at the main bus terminal in Budapest, we found that we only knew where to go (from the website) and not how to get there. There was no information at the station, so we asked a member of staff, who gave us directions. Unfortunately, these proved not to be particularly accurate and a lovely Hungarian woman that we met on the trams led us to the correct underground station. Given that it is most likely the first time many of Sziget's partiers will have been to Budapest, it seems that more could be done to help them arrive quickly and confidently. Once you were inside Sziget, the maps were not always entirely helpful as no indication as to where you were was provided at times.
All in all, my colleague and I thoroughly enjoyed our time at Sziget and it will remain an experience that we will remember. The price for the seven day pass is completely worth it and actually very reasonable, though remember to take a fair amount of spending money seeing as you'll be charged for a cup and ice, device-charging facilities etc. The music is phenomenal and the island itself is alive with energy. Will we be going again? It all depends on the line-up. Sziget is an incredible experience and something you should definitely aim to do at least once, but Budapest is very far away and can be a hassle getting to. But, if the right artists come up, then Sziget is a way of living definitely worth the trouble.
- Preview: Sziget Festival 2015
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