One of the first things that a good Hungarian friend of mine said to me when I told her I was moving to Budapest and staying during the summertime was: you have to go to Sziget Festival. To be honest, until that day I didn’t even know of the existence of Sziget, much less about its uniqueness. My first thought was that it would be just a small music festival like many others that take place during the summer in Portugal, my home country.
I was wrong, so wrong. It’s different from anything that I have seen before and from what I imagined I would find. The programme does not take you for a fool, which for me is the main difference compared with my experience with Portuguese festivals: they always promise a world full of experiences and unforgettable memories but end up being just another concert (though usually good ones).
So, most of the time festivals don’t become unforgettable experiences. Sure, I will remember one or two concerts from my favourite bands but will I remember the festival? In addition to the concerts on the two or three main stages, there are some free pens, bags, hats and other marketing stuff that people really don’t need but they will stay in a giant line to get it.
And it’s sad. Not the looking for free things (don’t get me wrong, free is one of my favourite words in the world), but because, in the end, that’s the memory that they are going to take with them. The memory will be in a drawer for some time, then eventually thrown away.
Sure, there are a lot of big lines at Sziget as well. But they will get you to a 10-metre jump. Or you can enter in a structure with architecture that resembles a Muslim building with labyrinthine tunnels and amazing light games. And that is something that doesn’t fit in a bag but will help you get an unforgettable memory. If you leave Sziget just remembering the concert, you did something wrong. In other words, you have done nothing.
The headliners may be similar to other festivals, so how does Sziget get about 70 per cent of its visitors from 87 countries of the world? Károly Gerendai, founder and managing director, answers this by confirming that Sziget “is more about having a message and presenting performances that distinguish themselves from others with their artistic creativity”.
Walking around Sziget you will get lost at the many venues that will make you travel in time, like the Eastern European Funfair, where “everything is allowed, if it’s not forbidden”, and that will make you experience – with humour and thought – the communist era that Hungarians lived through. You will get interrogated by some policemen and you will be asked to present your passport and give information about yourself and what you are doing there, making you feel extremely uncomfortable.
Surrounding the place: a structure that represents the Berlin Wall, brought down 25 years ago. All a slight reminder that the festival is a result of three friends trying to bring something to Budapest that would shake up the summer, after the end of the communist dictatorship.
From the dictatorship to the freedom you can fly to the Magic Mirror, the festival’s spot for queer culture, where award movies are exhibited, and shows and performances last all night long.
But just by walking and getting lost around the festival your eyes will always find something exciting. Like a giant street theatre, some art sculpture and trees dressed like they were taken from a Dr. Seuss book. Or you can familiarise yourself with museums, NGOs or Hungarian universities and their scholarship programmes.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Hungarian festival without some opera. For me it wasn’t the first time but it was nothing less spectacular than the performance I saw in the real opera building. My body was in a tent with mud everywhere but my soul had travelled to the fancy Andrassy Avenue. It is a perfect addition to the festival’s other programmes, but for visitors in August it is the only chance to get a glimpse at the spectacular performances of the State Opera House, because this is closed during the summer months.
But if you want more than a Hungarian experience, the World Village is the place for you. The “village” features groups from all over the world, representing all kinds of traditional music and dance performances that you can even learn yourself.
According to the director of the festival, the aim is always to add something new to keep surprising the “Szitizens”. And I will be waiting for that. Not because I am not satisfied with the festival but because I can’t imagine what more can be done there, and there is no more exciting idea than that!
I’m going back to Portugal with the feeling that, after Sziget, no festival will be good enough. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one among this year’s more than 400,000 visitors sharing this same feeling.
Sziget a record buster this year
The week-long annual Sziget Festival on Óbuda Island this month attracted 410-420,000 visitors, a record, main organiser Károly Gerendai has announced. The previous weekly record was 390,000, in 2009, he added. A daily record of 85,000 people was set on the third day this year when the event was sold out, Gerendai said. He expected this year’s festival to be in the black despite a HUF 300 million rise in expenses. More than 80% of the weekly passes were sold in Western Europe but the number of Hungarians was nearly 50% among day-ticket holders this year. The highest number of foreign visitors came from Holland, with significant increases from Britain, France, Germany and Italy.