It’s been two years, but it feels like longer. After the prolonged social and economic devastation caused by the pandemic, Europe’s largest festivity congregation, the magnificently ambitious and groundbreaking Sziget, is finally back, running from 10-15 August. Partying, joy, escapism, and mostly positive chaos are all back with a vengeance – and somewhat changed infrastructure – this year. Nobody is surprised that the first day, headlined by Dua Lipa, sees a full house capacity of 95,000. The second day, headlined by the Kings of Leon, hosted a smaller crowd with no less enthusiasm. As the Óbudai Island (“Sziget” means “island” in Hungarian) enters the festival’s 28th year and prepares for its 10-millionth visitor, an assemblage of influencers and A-listers, among them one actor Timmy Chalamet, are about to storm the place as social media hype and anticipation reach a fervent high.
Imagine, before the festival. It’s mid-August, the traditional “if you want to travel now, you must suffer the consequences” period across Europe, and the morning of 10 August kicks off with a cool “we literally have no idea when your flight will take off” from RyanAir’s staff at the Berlin airport. After much anxiety and uncertainty, we land in Budapest with a delay of precisely 2 hours and 53 minutes. Were the flight more than 3 hours late, the passengers would have been eligible for a €250 compensation (€400 if traveling a distance of more than 950 miles). If traveling in high season, benchmark your transfers against a 170-minute delay.
What was supposed to be an early afternoon of strolling around sunny Budapest, enjoying spirited tourist crowds, great food, chimney cakes, and some sly day-drinking, instead turned into a race to the hotel, a humiliatingly short shower, and a scamper to get to the overground train that would take us to the Óbudai island. Praising Budapest for being one of the most beautiful and touristically compelling cities never gets old, but having an entire island right outside the city center to turn into a week- (well, six days this year) long celebration of music, camaraderie, and artistry, genuinely takes the entire experience to a whole new level.
“We’re here for the atmosphere,” a 30-something guest from the Netherlands tells me on our way from the center to the island. It’s a brief ten-minute ride, and the public transportation tickets cost less than $1 if you buy them in bundles. The crammed trains are always a good opportunity to exchange experiences and traditionally good vibes. We engage in a brief but intense conversation on the affordability of Sziget, which quickly slips into a diatribe on inflation, the war in Ukraine, issues with global supply chains, and the uncertainty of the corporate precariat. Hey, such are the times we live in; you take the good with the realistic.
As seemingly thousands disembark from the train, Sziget’s first big change of the year stares us right in the face – the favorite selfie spot is gone. That is, the many decorations of the K-bridge, counting dozens of welcome banners in various languages, are no longer there. Turns out that the organizers, having learned from the massive congestion following the Ed Sheeran concert in 2019, no longer want to risk such bottlenecks for the crowds and have thus moved the wristband exchange and entry points behind the bridge. It’s a sound decision, given that the 300-feet long construction dates back to 1955 and has since had millions of festival-goers stomp over it. While the city waits on a reconstruction plan from the Center for Budapest Transport (BKK), I am left wondering why the banners had to be moved to the metal rails on the right; somebody tells me that the bridge is no longer “allowed” to be covered up, but I miss out on the full context. I snap a quick picture anyway; take what you can get.
The organizers appear to have been right – despite a full house of 95,000 people, the lines this year were much smaller than before. (I did hear from a fellow journalist the lines were much longer before 5 pm, but cannot verify exactly how long.) We “check in” and pick up our Sziget passports, lovely booklets with schedules, overviews, and loads of other useful info, landing straight into the mayhem of the “Island of Freedom”. The sun is still high, but many teens and students are already inebriated, screaming to Germany’s Milky Chance. More than 20,000 people squeeze in front of the Main Stage as Clemens Rehbein, Philipp Dausch, Antonio Greger, and Sebastian Schmidt threaten to bring the house down with high spirits.
Long gone are the days of summer 2015, when the German duo (Rehbein and Dausch) mesmerized mostly ladies in the pouring rain under the covers of the A38 tent (from this year on known as Freedome); no, this concert is a show-stopper entirely appropriate for one of the biggest stages on the continent. Rehbein switches from one instrument to another as his band mixes house beats with rock, jazz, and pop with aplomb, as thousands scream throughout. This was an expected development: after all, the duo used to be part of a jazz quintet and draw roots from complex genres, which they seamlessly incorporate into their dominantly pop tunes. Songs from Sadnecessary, their much-lauded 2013 debut, dominate the 15-song set. By the end of the too brief, 70-minute stint, the crowd has almost doubled, and everyone’s singing “Stolen Dance”. The show ends with a wonderfully cooky folk hymn, “Sweet Symn”, with harmonica taking over and Rehbein running out into the audience. Couldn’t have asked for a better start to a crazy day.
Speaking of crazy, much of the friendly chaos of Sziget remains the same: hoards cue all over the place for food and beverages, hundreds storm the Aldi pop-up store to buy affordable chow and enjoy the break-dancers and mechanical bull riders, and youth eager to buy narcotics unwittingly draw attention to themselves. The many venues are full of people and life; pottery courses, body paint, and rides in child-sized motor vehicles (don’t ask) are all there, and so are the smiles, the screams, and throats sore and coughing from the clouds of dust kicked up by revelers.
There are plenty of changes to Sziget this year, not all of them necessarily great for the atmosphere. Festival director Tamás Kádár confirmed months ago that many venues would be moved and the site “reshaped” due to the Buda side of the island becoming a natural reserve. The general layout of the festival has thus been influenced somewhat negatively, as food courts and new, paid camping sites are now found almost exclusively along the most crowded arteries of Sziget, causing plenty of congestion.
Another big change is a scaling-down in the number of music venues from more than two dozen to about 14. Whether this is caused by inflation, lack of interest due to the festival’s genre profiling (more toward radio pop than anything else), or the general spatial shift because of the nature reserve, remains unknown. Finally, the so-called “VIP” area, formerly an invite-only space for celebrity guests, journalists, crews, and performers to relax and socialize, has grown from a modestly-sized flank along the left side of the main stage to a gargantuan space stretching to the Freedome and closing off one of the biggest passageways for visitors in former years. It is one of the biggest structural changes of the past 20 years, especially considering that now VIP tickets and upgrades are being sold left, right and center. I’m also rudely informed by security at the entrance that journalists are no longer welcome in that space to make more room for those who will pay a premium. Guess not even Sziget could avoid becoming a class-based event.
At 7:30 pm, the Australian alt-dance trio, Rüfüs Du Sol, take over the Main Stage, landing in a monstrous cloud of dust left behind by Milky Chance. The crowds are still very much there, just dissipated a bit for a quick dinner or a laydown in the back. While relatively little-known outside their native Australia, like Milky Chance, the trio is a splendid choice even for the biggest of stages. Their suave electro dance entertained both the more avid crew dancing in the front and the laid-back bunch frolicking up to the Sziget Eye, a Ferris wheel offering a spectacular view of the island and the city if you don’t mind waiting in line for an hour.
I make my way to the Freedome, eager to hear CMAT, Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson, likely the most exciting debutante on the Irish music scene so far this century. The 26-old rock-folk sensation released her debut, If My Wife New, I’d Be Dead, earlier this year and gave a glisteningly strong and humorous performance. A spectacular singer with a powerful stage presence, it’s certain she will keep growing for years to come. Nevertheless, I was one of the maybe 100-200 people there; I don’t remember ever seeing the tent so empty in a primetime slot in all the years I’ve spent on the island. Not only does Thompson deserve much better than this, the bizarre emptiness of one of the biggest spaces at Sziget left me wondering where the 95,000 people were. Despite best intentions, the Main Stage can only host about 60-70,000 people, as it’s encircled by tall trees, passageways, and stands, firmly defining the perimeter. Maybe many campers were resting before the star of the evening and TikTok’s favorite pop icon, Dua Lipa, stuns both with her hits and looks.
After a brief break for an overpriced and undernourishing burger, I try to make my way to the Main Stage, but the immense mass is already so homogenized throughout barely a needle can drop. “Dula Peep!” screams a young Briton racing to the rim of the crowd. The lights go out, and the utterly stunning Lipa runs onto the stage accompanied by a dance crew. “Sziget, what the fuck!!!” she screams as the band launches into an extended version of “Physical”. The atmosphere is electric, and nearly all in attendance sing, which wouldn’t be surprising if the crowd was not more diverse than one would stereotypically expect of a pop concert. Despite being primarily a star to young women, Lipa’s audience counts a huge number of over-30s, plenty of over-40s, and a healthy number of straight men embracing their fun side and dancing and vibing with the others. Speaking of straight men, a slouched Timothee Chalamet, wearing a cap to tame his curls, scooted past a hoard of screaming ladies to climb the ultra-VIP production stand opposite the stage. There were many more celebrities present, but mostly locals whose names or faces I don’t know.
Lipa is a less kinetic performer than most 21st-century pop sensations, nowhere near as boisterous as Ariana Grande or fierce like Beyonce, but this genuinely doesn’t matter. Playful, smiling, and empowering, the Albanian-English chart-topper fired one hit after another, keeping her feminist messages strong while tenderly talking to the audience. “Sziget, this is my last show as a 26-year-old; thank you for having me. This was the first festival that trusted me to be a headliner, and I am so happy to be back,” said Lipa, who first headlined back in 2018.
It would be foolish trying to estimate which hit got the biggest singalong, but “Be the One”, “New Rules”, “Levitating”, and “One Kiss” were surely at the very top. When we get to “One Kiss” in the second half of the show, several teenage girls snogging their companions are too inebriated to stand, waving their arms in all directions, so I retreat back even further. Lipa ends another triumphant concert with “Don’t Start Now”, but it’s time to rush back to the hotel before a sea of people floods the taxi and train station. Yes, there is so much more to see at the Party Arena and Samsung Colosseum, both of which will rave until the morning, but it’s been too long of a day.
Day 2 is more laid back; firstly, it’s not as full as Day 1, and while that might be bad news for the Sziget team, it’s good news for your average attendee, as there are fewer stands and benches this year, making it devilishly difficult to obtain nourishment or rest when needed. Before Alice Merton, Bastille, and Kings of Leon take to the Main Stage for a more rock-oriented evening, many parents with children as young as babies enjoy the workshops or the overall high festival spirits. I wanted to use the Sziget boat for an unforgettable arrival along the Danube, but overground always proves to be a much faster option in the summer heat. It’s a lazy afternoon, with humongous lines in front of Aldi and small crowds resting in the many chillout zones. Nevertheless, it’s still challenging to find a proper place to sit – be reminded that the majority of more than 40,000 campers seldom leave Sziget during the six days of the festival. Hence, the place is never really empty.
It’s also a great time to stop by Cirque du Sziget, where more than 30 acrobats and circus performers from Hungary and Palestine dazzle crowds throughout the day. I am with the concept of the circus at Sziget, as it’s a long-standing one, but many onlookers seem to be witnessing acrobatics for the first time, gasping and applauding incessantly. It is a lovely sight and one of the many contents that makes Sziget great and an event to endlessly talk about and post on social media.
Speaking of endless talk, it is also time to address the elephant in the dust, that is, the effect of the pandemic and inflation on the festival offerings and (painful) commercialization. In broad daylight, it becomes evident that the island is stripped of much decoration and content. As someone who grew up coming to Sziget, I’ve witnessed its growth year after year; it’s been a massive event since the early 2000s. Sziget has developed into a uniquely large and potent cultural event, one of the most prominent gatherings in all of Europe, if not in the world. Certainly, the pandemic took its massive toll on the events industry – many of the full-time staff were laid off, and the horrendous inflation meant that the Hungarian Forint was no longer as valuable as it used to be. (The currency is about 20% weaker this year than two years prior.) Festival executives admitted they could get (far) less for their budget, but even some of the simpler setups that make up much of Sziget’s magic are sadly missing.
There are no more decorations around the island, and the many colorful flags, lanterns, and installations hanging among the trees are far fewer this year. As mentioned, fewer benches and places to rest with the same number of people – 95,000 being the maximum the island can ecologically and reasonably support – means fewer options for us to eat, drink, and rest. There are also considerably fewer shops, food and beverage options, and fewer merchant stands, normally the event staple. The prices have also gone up. Whereas non-alcoholic beverages or beer can still be purchased for cca $2.5 or $3.5, most savory foods will cost you $10 or more. For Western-European and American standards, this is still decent pricing, especially when coupled with affordable accommodation options and a generally cheap yet spectacular Budapest. Local salaries, however, can hardly support such a price increase. To be fair, at Sziget, one can come in with non-commercial quantities of food and even drinks, but this complicates logistics for many campers.
Then there is the fencing off on the “island of freedom”, perhaps the direst of the changes. Often called “the Woodstock of Europe”, Sziget has always been known as a free-spirited event where all, or at least most, guests are provided with equal opportunity for fun. This year this is blatantly not the case; the place-your-tent-anywhere policy is fully revoked and replaced with a pay-for-any-convenience policy, where guests need to pay extra if they want to sleep in the quiet areas. The many camping upgrades make sense if there is enough demand, but the clear segregation between “premium” guests and the rest is sad to see at an event like this. Another issue is a lack of airborne sprinklers and appropriate floor padding at the Main Stage – the cloud of dust that rose on Day 1 only got bigger on Day 2, impacting many people’s ability to breathe. I assume this was one of the reasons so many left the Kings of Leon show mid-concert.
The same goes for the VIP area, which has been expanded so much it has clogged the island’s main passageway and is practically the only place on site where sufficient seating and dining options are provided, not to mention toilets that don’t overflow with excrement after Day 1. Don’t get me wrong, I work in corporate and fully understand the need to diversify the offer and monetize wherever possible, especially when there is healthy demand (VIP has been sold out for three of the festival’s six days). I am just saddened to see it happen at all costs, such as greatly reduced comfort for the average attendee, or the relegation of journalists from the “VIP” area, despite us needing access to seating and quick nourishment if we’re to move around and report effectively.
There is always so much to report on but so little time. I hear from a colleague that Ivan and the Parazol, a band best described as a crossover between The Hives and Vaccines, blasted a performance at the Freedome. I first watch Alice Merton, who commanded the Main Stage with her snappy pop-rock. The 28-year-old German-Canadian has much more to offer than just her hit single “No Roots”, and a huge audience of over 25,000 seems to be aware of this. Song after song, the attendance kept growing, and as the spirits rose, so did the dust. Today, however, many come somewhat prepared, with scarves and large water bottles.
At this point, Bastille are Sziget veterans. Dan Smith’s band has already performed here twice, in 2014 and 2018, with great success and much audience love, and tonight is no exception. While their music is mostly mellow pop, Smith’s energy is intoxicating. Throughout the show, he runs, engages the audience to sing, and addresses us repeatedly with a broad smile that thrills both lasses and lads. The setlist is heavy with Give Me the Future tunes, and Alice Merton joins Smith for a beautifully playful rendition of “Shut Off the Lights”. The sun sets, and a more male-dominated, rock-oriented crowd congregates, hotly anticipating Kinds of Leon.
The Tennessee quartet aren’t currently touring, having postponed their show here from last year, so this one-off show is lovingly laced with hits and more obscure tunes from most releases. “The Bucket” and “Taper Jean Girl” are appropriately spunky and frantic openers, and a huge, yet not capacity crowd, headbands, and murmurs to Caleb Followill’s unintelligible barking. It’s a standard Kings of Leon show – pitch perfect, flawlessly executed, laden with a healthy mix of southern bravado and emotional fragility; yet, as the show progressed, the crowd evaporated. Some say this is because the sound was off in the middle of the show; some complained about the dust, while others cited a “sterile” atmosphere. I’m worried that the latter might have been the most accurate since the Followills, typically, made no effort to “activate” the crowds, focusing solely on the music. This would have been plenty at a solo concert as Kings of Leon are one of our generation’s undisputed great rock bands; nevertheless, at a festival with a pop-leaning disposition, the crowds expect more of a party, whatever that means.
It was a very good and high-energy concert, but it’s indicative of Sziget’s new profile that radio pop is where the ticket sales are, at least this year. Friday will again see a full house as Justin Bieber comes to Hungary for the first time, while Saturday VIP is also sold out, with another eagerly awaited set by Calvin Harris. On the other hand, Sunday and Monday, with Tame Impala and Arctic Monkeys as headliners, are expected to draw in smaller crowds, despite the Sheffield quartet being the biggest young rock band in the world. Let’s see how things go.