Surviving Sziget

By | Category: Travel destinations

Kaye Holland heads to the Hungarian capital to hear household names play at Sziget – one of Europe’s biggest festivals

Tired of paying premium prices for music festivals in muddy fields? Seek out Sziget – aka seven days of (affordable) eclectic music, circus acts, lectures, theatre performances and sun worshipping in Budapest.

The first festival – the brainchild of entrepreneurs Gerendai Károly and  Péter Sziámi – took place  in 1993 following the collapse of communism. Back then the self proclaimed “island of freedom” attracted around 43,000 party goers who paid peanuts (approx 300HF or 70p to you and me) for their passes.

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Sziget Festival

Fast forward to Sziget 2015 and a record 415,000 music lovers (compromising 91 nationalities) handed over a cool 15,000 HF (£34) for a colourful Sziget wristband – but that’s still a snip compared to other big name festivals (here’s looking at you Glastonbury, Exit et al).

Which is why I found myself boarding a special ‘festival ferry’ and journeying along the majestic Danube River to the leafy island of Obuda in the north of the city.

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Arriving at Sziget

While I’ve been to Wireless (a day festival in London) I have to admit that I’m not much of a festival goer having always viewed them as a ridiculous wallet emptying exercise. (Once you’ve factored in prices for passes, food and booze, they can be banker’s bonus expensive).

But Sziget shows that festivals don’t have to break the bank. And as someone who is of the opinion that travel should be about new experiences (if you swap lying on a sofa for stretching out on a sandy beach, then frankly you’re doing it wrong), I decided it was time to pop my festival cherry and give Sziget – with its scorchio temperatures ( a big improvement on the UK’s August weather wash out) a go.

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Sziget Festival

But I probably don’t need to sell you on Sziget. Chances are that for anyone with even a passing interest in music, Sziget – winner of the best major festival category at this year’s European festival award – has always been on your radar.

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Sziget Festival

The A-list likes of Kings of Leon, Limp Bizkit, Rudimental, Robbie Williams, Florence and the Machine, Marina and the Diamonds, Ellie Goulding and alt-J all headlined the main stage at this year’s event. Too commercial? An antidote to mainstream music could be found at the A38 stage – which, while I was there, hosted The Voice’s new coach, Paloma Faith, as well as Foxes, Nero and Ella Eyre.

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Sziget Festival

However I spent much of my time getting my groove on in the afro-Latin-reggae village and going wild at the Blues stage, just one of the many mini stages scattered across the colossal site. Make no mistake: you may need to a map to find your way around the island.

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Sziget Festival

Music aside, Europe’s ultimate summer party place had plenty of other attractions to occupy and entertain revellers. I enjoyed hanging out in the Hungarikum village – where I was able to immerse myself in local life by learning  traditional dances and tasting typical Hungarian dishes – before meandering around the Museum quarter and getting crafty in the Art Zone. Cultural appetite sated? Lose yourself in the Luminarium, an 800q-metre inflatable sculpture made up of labyrinthine tunnels.

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Sziget Festival

A week long music festival is obviously never going to be the quietest place on the planet, but it is possible to find shush at Sziget. Simply head to tip of the island, home to a beautiful beach called the Chill Garden where you can bask in the sun with a beer in one hand and a book in the other.

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Chill Garden, Sziget Festival

I also discovered that eating is a topic close to most ‘Szitzens’ hearts. Truly I’ve never seen so many food trucks: Thai, Mexican, Vegan and fish n chips fare were all correct and present – and paid for via contactless top-up cards. You could also shop for festival fashion (read flip flops and ankle boots, ’70s crochet, essential denim cut-offs, flower crowns, crop tops and temporary tattoos) to make sure  your outfit was  a headline hit.

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Food trucks at Sziget Festival

The hardcore can camp at Sziget Festival but, depleted after the debauchery, I opted to stay at the Novotel whose tastefully decorated guest rooms boast all the mod cons (think free WiFi and air con for those sticky late summer evenings) that luxe-packers like me could hope for. Hotels, I’ve come to realise, are my favourite place to think and write and simply escape from (the often harsh) reality.

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Happy campers at Sziget Festival

The Novotel also proved the perfect base for exploring – purchase a Sziget city pass and you’ll benefit from free travel on the buses,tube, trams and ferries plus discounted tickets to most major attractions  – the  charming old city of Buda. (The Hungarian capital is divided by the Danube with hilly Buda and its grand old architecture on one side and the more modern – and flat – Pest – on the other. The two were totally separate towns until 1875 when they were united to form modern Budapest.)

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View from Fisherman’s Bastion

Classic postcard sights include the Castle District. No matter how many times you visit, the views from Fisherman’s Bastion of Budapest’s picturesque parliament (it’s especially stunning at night when the beautiful building is illuminated by light) will always make your heart flutter. Million dollar vistas can also be enjoyed while riding the giant Budapest Ferris Wheel – Budapest’s answer to the London Eye.

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Budapest by night

For while the festival lived up to its hype, the real revelation – for me – was the city itself chock full, as it is, of historical treasures such as St Stephen’s Basilica (home of the mummified hand of St Stephen aka the first Hungarian king), sculptural installations like Shoes by the Danube (a heart rendering memorial to those who were shot and their bodies dumped into the Danube towards the end of the Second World War) charming cobblestone streets, painted houses and palaces to swoon over.

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Balthazar restaurant

It’s also peppered with incredible cafes and restaurants including Balthazar  – a stylish spot to taste local dishes like ghoulash (expect chunks of beef, potatoes, and vegetables, plus plenty of paprika and spices in a soup) and spicy paprika sausages.

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Hungarian delicacies

Budapest is also loaded with superb shopping opportunities. I spent a wonderful Sunday morning bartering with locals at both the Farmer’s Market and Flea Market – the antithesis of air conditioned shopping malls that plague much of Europe. Even if retail therapy isn’t your bag, do go for the markets represent a  great opportunity to meet the locals – who may prove to be Budapest’s biggest drawcard. Everyone you talk to will have strong (and passionate) opinions on Hungary’s current Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán – a former professional footballer famed for antagonising the European Union.

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The Farmer’s Market

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The Flea Market

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Szechenyi thermal baths

Also worth a visit are some of the thermal spas – not for nothing is Budapest known as the city of baths. I suggest seeking out the famous 102 year old Szechenyi baths over on the Pest side of the city. The massive  (there are 21 pools in total) medicinal baths are a balm for the overstimulated 21st century soul and the juxtaposition to the hustle, bustle and sheer hedonism of Sziget.

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Splashing about at Szechenyi

Following several hours splashing about in Szechenyi’s warm, healing waters, I left feeling whole again – with some lasting memories to see me through dark days back at the desk – and convinced that Budapest may just be Europe’s most underrated and affordable city.

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The Danube River

At the risk of descending into copywriting, I’d recommend you visit. That would make the tourism board’s day. But don’t worry about them. Be selfish and go to Sziget, Budapest – or both – for yourself: you’ll have a blast.

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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