- Lifestyle & Sports
- 23 Nov 17
From twiddling the joystick in a MiG fighter jet to getting his EDM on with The Chainsmokers, Stephen Keegan had an absurdly good time at this year's Sziget festival. As tickets for the 2018 event go on sale, he gives you his Budapest essentials...
Tribe after tribe, culture after culture, empire after empire. Rising sharply by the Danube, the hills of Buda have provided a safe, attractive fortress from the sprawling Hungarian plain for centuries. Celts, Romans, Huns, Ottomans, Habsburgs and Soviets have all left their mark here, but it was the collapse of communist rule in 1990 that laid the foundations of a new empire.
A multicultural carnival of debauchery that stakes its flag on what they call the Island of Freedom - îbudai Sziget, in the middle of the Danube - for one week in August.
This year the empire of the Sziget Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary since its founding as a student-organised event railing against the new capitalist era's lack of arts programmes.
At the first Sziget in 1993, 43,000 people took in an all-Hungarian lineup. This year the empire swelled to 450,000 - roughly half-Hungarian, half from over 100 other nations, but all casting aside differences to become 'Szitizens' of the weeklong party.
Though the word Sziget means island, they're trying to think outside of it. This year they quietly launched their Sziget City initiative, the start of a possible expansion of festival events into other areas of Budapest that encompass the Sziget ethos.
So that's why I'm clambering onto the back of a Soviet-era URAL troop transport truck alongside a number of other hungover journalists on a Sunday morning. We're at Budaors Airfield southwest of the city and we've been promised a sightseeing flight, but there's more than a hint of nerves in our laughter as the truck draws up to our plane.
This propeller-driven Lisunov Li-2 dates from 1949 and is the only airworthy model left. It's the pride of Budapest's Cold War Park, an interactive open-air depository and celebration of old Soviet military hardware.
We've got some hammy guides in camo regalia who wield Kalashnikovs - a hulking driver who looks like he could bodyslam Andre The Giant, and a bespectacled intelligentsia type who relishes telling us that they'd normally shoot journalists. "Remember, no plane in history stayed up forever - they all come down one way or another," he grins, smelling our fear.
The Lisunov, though rattly, turns out to seat 19 quite comfortably - for us reared in the era of Ryanair's rampant neoliberalism, there's a truly socialist amount of legroom - and we do a quick flyby of Sziget, where the main stage and big red A38 tent are clearly visible. I get to live a childhood dream and visit the cockpit, where I'm disappointed to realise that I can't read Cyrillic and don't know which button says "DO NOT TOUCH".
As if we're not shaken enough, upon touchdown we're picked up by an Armoured Personnel Carrier and taken for a lap around the airfield, after which we take turns to climb up a precarious, rickety ladder for a once-in a lifetime opportunity to twiddle some knobs and play with a joystick in the cockpit of a MiG fighter jet.
I'm not sure of the wisdom of handing guns to a pack of journalists experiencing the twin rush of adrenaline and cans, but in our final show-trial we're whisked to a shooting range in an underground bunker that's also fitted with a stripper pole.
Being secure in my masculinity and, er, fearful of the noise and a bruised shoulder from the kickback, I choose a pistol over an AK-47.
"Everyone thinks pistols are easier," my instructor chuckles, shaking his head, but I get a bullseye anyway. It could be the high point of my life.
Having survived, we're awarded with certificates that declare us 'Dictator of Absurdistan'. A little light-hearted autocracy has its charms, even if it does stand a little at odds with the idea of the Island of Freedom.
Sadly Sziget is having to deal with the uncomfortable, real-life juxtaposition of its setting within a Hungary ruled by increasingly authoritarian, far-right government. This is the Hungary where all refugees can be legally detained, where camerawoman Petra Laszlo infamously kicked refugees fleeing police. Things are different on the Sziget island - the festival makes much of its relationship with charities and NGOs and hosts a 'Tent Without Borders' that informs about the plight of those caught up in the crisis.
There's also the Magic Mirror spiegeltent which celebrates the LGBT community. During the day it hosts talks on a wide range of issues, while at night it comes alive as a club with topless dancers on podiums.
Headliners this year included Major Lazer, Dmitri Vegas & Like Mike, Macklemore and The Chainsmokers. Macklemore delivered a particularly big-hearted performance, throwing out 'Thrift Shop' early and starting a "Fuck Donald Trump" chant. Kasabian put in a decent headlining shift too - Tom Meighan and Serge PizzornoÕs cocky laddishness can be hard to stomach, the band isn't the tightest, and the tunes aren't clever, but they for sure are big.
Elsewhere, PJ Harvey and DJ Shadow both confirmed their legendary status. Rising stars can be found throughout the lineup - Vince Staples performed with just a glowing red backdrop, but the precision of his delivery kept us hanging onto every bar. Mac DeMarco was another hit, providing Alt-J with a lesson in how to keep chilled-out weirdness engaging.
The Irish were well represented - both on and off-stage. Many a tent are adorned with a tricolour and county jerseys are a common spot. The Strypes had them eating out of their hands in the A38 tent, requesting a perfectly observed crouch-and-jump during 'Scumbag City Blues'. Two Door Cinema Club did a fine job of warming the main stage crowd up for Major Lazer, and Matador shone in a late-night slot in the Colosseum, a stage constructed entirely of wooden pallets.
The true strength of Sziget can be found in the non-musical attractions that can be stumbled upon all over the island. You can give yourself a mental workout by challenging people from all over the world at the Chess Tent; learn Hungarian folk dances in a traditional barn; or stumble upon gay wedding ceremonies at the French campsite. The wider Sziget City of Budapest is within easy reach thanks to excellent public transport links - recover at the the Szechenyi thermal baths, take in a breathtaking view of the Danube from Budaos old town, and discover bars like Szimpla Kert, the finest example of the city's infamous ruin bars.
After 25 years in which it climbed to the pinnacle of the pantheon of European festivals, Sziget is about to undergo a raft of changes. There's talk of growing the Sziget name by partnering with other events worldwide - one has been mooted for Tel Aviv next year, and they plan to focus on strengthening the non-musical programme instead of throwing money at headliners. One thing's for certain though - the empire will hold and all the nationalities will return to become Szitizens once more.
Sziget 2018 takes place from August 8-15. Buy tickets now from their official website.