Ah, the Edinburgh Festival! Where hapless tortoise-paced tourists, drama geek flyerers who can’t take a murderous expression for a “no”, and mouth-breathers of every description all coalesce to once again create a cultural chakhokhbili of music, comedy, art, performance and pedestrian-induced hypertension. But seriously, I love the festival and unfortunately I didn’t have the time to see very many shows here in Edinburgh this year because of my guilt-free holidaying over summer (which also explains my seven week absence, I haven’t just sacked off this blog!). Instead, I stumbled upon a very different festival that I would love to return to someday.
I didn’t really know what I was going to experience when I knew I’d be going to Budapest’s Sziget Festival. Due to a number of murky and complicated social factors, planning my travels with my friends was regrettably rushed and under-researched, but our couple of days in Budapest turned into one week as we quickly realised how erroneous we were to devote merely one day to go.
Sziget Festival is one of Europe’s biggest music festivals that takes place on an island on the Danube river in Budapest. The festival started off modestly in 1993 and has since exploded to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people every August. The festival encompasses many genres of music on a variety of stages as well as the usual carnival rides, food stands, tattoo parlours and opportunities for sporting activities. And, of course, its central location allows for excursions to explore the Hungarian city’s beautiful architecture and culture.
I have been to only two festivals before Sziget (excluding Edinburgh Festival) both in Australia – Harvest Festival and Soundwave Festival. I managed to get in as a volunteer for crowd care (to avoid the $160 entrance fees!) for these festivals which involved exchanging four hours of my time rooted in one spot in a fluorescent vest in order to “ensure the safety and comfort of festival-goers” by pointing out where toilets are and alerting any insalubrious people to somebody more appropriately qualified to deal with them. These festivals were fun but there was a certain limitation to Australia’s festivals’ atmosphere which I put down to my own sobriety, post-crowd care fatigue and Australia’s killjoy predilection for strictness and security.
Not that Sziget wasn’t strict either. The wristbands required for entry were scrutinised intensely for any indication that it could be second hand or tampered with. Security checks, rightly enough, confiscated our not-so-innocent bottle of water. While this meant having to settle for buying in-house cans of beer, I suppose this intolerance for inebriation, in the long run, made for the balanced and chilled atmosphere of Sziget which I so enjoyed. Horror stories of British music festivals, with its bothersome behaviour of coked-up strangers passing out in your tent or toilets so rancid that people will micturate and defecate anywhere and everywhere, have in the past put me off making the effort to go to music festivals.
Our first day at Sziget was hot and sunny. Because we hadn’t the equipment or the foresight to camp, we stayed in hostels for the duration of our stay in Budapest, which meant we took the tram and then the tube to get to Sziget. As we discovered, the first two days of Sziget were consciously structured to be much tamer than following days with obscurer performances playing first and for revellers weighed down with camping gear and bulging rucksacks to have the chance to settle in and get one’s bearings on the massive island. We explored the site, drinking in the atmosphere as well as our cans of Dreher and unanimously agreeing to prolong our stay to see some bigger performances. While we missed out on the last four days of Sziget, 2013 saw the following big acts performing: Biffy Clyro, Blur, David Guetta, Dizzee Rascal, Franz Ferdinand, Hadouken!, Mika, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Nicky Romero, Regina Spektor, and bucketloads more performers from all around the world.
After a day out exploring more of Budapest, our second day at Sziget was even sunnier and hotter, so hot that males wandering around with tops on were the mad minority. We took shelter at a beer garden near the main stage and drank in the shade, shielding our pasty Scottish bodies and absorbing the smells of frying meats and the susurrus of distant music. We somehow instantly befriended some passing Dutch guys for the night which naturally went down well with my Dutch friend already in our entourage. The rest of the evening and well into the night became manic and Lowrian but one moment that sticks out was seeing some DJ I can’t remember the name of in a huge tent packed with people. I sweated from places I didn’t even know I could sweat from – even the brim of my cap was soaked through.
Intentions to see certain performances that night were never fulfilled because we ended up being scattered and losing all track of time and place. Therefore, our final day we made sure to be more on the ball. If there is one thing that I always forget throughout life is that seeing anything live is 100% better than playing it from a screen or speaker. We saw Dizzee Rascal doing his thang and then later on we were entranced by the majesty of Biffy Clyro. Both were truly amazing. Later in the night, we stumbled to the front of the audience of Jay Lumen which in all the magnetism of the festival atmosphere was of course a great time, despite what the video might portray.
And that was that, and it was time for us to stumble back on to the metro and think about moving on to our next destination in Europe, but not before a much-needed recovery day spent in the Széchenyi Baths where various hot and delightfully cold pools did us some physical and psychological healing.
If you have never been to a music festival before, I highly recommend Sziget Festival. As well as the variety of performances on offer and the fact that it takes place in such a beautiful and interesting city, the festival’s atmosphere and ethos seems to have that perfect balance of revelry, excitement and security. British culture, for better or worse, emphasises heavy drinking as coming hand-in-hand with having a good time but while such bacchanalian behaviour always makes for great times and stories, there is the risk of danger and destruction, particularly when forced upon you by strangers. Australian culture, from my own experiences, takes a completely opposite stance on the relationship between alcohol and freedom as their definition of what constitutes intoxication is much less lenient. Not that you should even need alcohol to have a good time, of course! (But it helps…!) Sziget has got the balance spot on, and there is so much else that it offers, that I wish to return at some point in the future.