The Old Kid On The Bloc

The best-known and most prestigious of the festivals in the old Eastern Bloc also hung on to the title of being the biggest, when this year’s Sziget in Hungary attracted just more than Poland’s rapidly growing Heineken Open’er.

Sziget’s average daily crowd, including the two “warm-up” days, was 62,000, about 1,000 per day more than the Polish event attracted.

Ignoring what Sziget calls “the minus one day” (when Hungarian heavy rockers Tankcsapda played the main stage) and “zero day” (when only four stages were open), the average daily crowd for the five full festival days was 68,000.

In common with many camping festivals in former Iron Curtain countries – particularly the Polish event and Serbia’s Exit Festival – a huge slice of the crowd are fans from other parts of Europe.

Budget airlines now fly to most major eastern European cities, allowing a gang of friends to have a relatively inexpensive holiday under canvas in some of the mainland continent’s cheapest places.

The downside is that booking the acts that draw big crowds means the full festival ticket price of between euro 120 and euro 150, although reasonable for western Europeans, is moving beyond what many Hungarians can afford.

Festival managing director Gábor Takács is aware of the problem, although solving it is another matter. This year, Sziget cut the number of stages to 13 because last year’s production costs were far too high. In previous years, the event had more than 20 stages.

The cuts haven’t lessened the value aspect of the festival or cut the range of entertainment offered, as many have come through tinkering, such as merging the rock and heavy metal stages into one.

Sziget press and PR coordinator Gergo Salamon reckons the 266-acre Danube island site at Budapest hosted more than 45,000 foreign visitors over the course of the festival.

Of the 35,000 tickets sold in advance, about 70 percent were sold outside Hungary. Early estimates suggest more than 6,000 were sold in The Netherlands, 4,000 in France, and 2,000 in Italy and Germany. A further 1,000 were sold in Britain as well as Australia.

Many of the foreign visitors will likely help promote the event around the globe, judging by the fact people were three-deep at the main Sziget merchandise stall throughout the event.

The biggest crowd of the week was the 70,000 who turned up for an Aug. 14 main stage bill headed by The Prodigy and Pendulum. The following two days – with Placebo and Faith No More topping the bills – were only about 1,000 short of that.

With so many people coming from all over the globe, Sziget was also mindful of the swine flu pandemic spreading around Europe and set up a 60-bed clinic and a round-the-clock pharmacy for those not feeling well. About 400 health professionals worked this year’s festival.

The acts helping this year’s Sziget, the 19th time it’s been held, stay on top of the old Eastern Bloc pile Aug. 12-17 also included Lily Allen, Snow Patrol, White Lies, Calexico, Fatboy Slim, Bloc Party, Klaxons and The Offspring.