If there’s one thing that’ll put an almighty spring in your step, it’s a couple shots of Palinka.
NB: When you write any kind of trilogy – or quadrilogy as it looks like this will become since I’m crap at that thing called editing – you’re supposed to fill in those who came into the story late, so that when you make references to the shenanigans in previous parts, they know what the hell Palinka is. But really, I’m too lazy. So, if something’s not making sense, maybe go back and read Part 1 here and then Part 2 here and we’ll all be nice and caught up. I mean, think about it, if you started the Harry Potter books with The Chamber of Secrets, you’d never know what Polyjuice was, and that would be tragic.
If my energy was in any way starting to lag from this Budapest tour Julia was taking me on, one shot of Palinka was all the jump-start this old fart’s batteries needed. To Julia, having grown up with it, Palinka is probably akin to a fruity cordial. To me, it’s the stuff we all wish Sandra Bullock found in that Russian space ship’s fuel tank in Gravity so we’d have been saved from the corniest three minutes on film ever. So when we left the Toldi cinema to move on to the ruin pub Szimpla, I was pretty much strutting down Kazinczy street like I was John Travolta at the end of Saturday Night Fever.
Don’t worry, it wore off.
Maybe I’m criminally unhip when it comes to ‘what’s hot’, but I’d never heard of ruin pubs until about a couple of years ago. So I’ll pretend you haven’t either. Szimpla Kert (kert meaning garden), probably the most well known of Budapest’s ruin pubs, opened in 2004. Well it actually opened in 2001, but moved around a couple times until it found its present location in Kazinczy street in District VII a few years later. Ruin Pubs are an amazing example of enterprise, of young people making the most of their city’s dire economic situation. Put bluntly, the Real Estate situation in Budapest is f****d and yes, I did some research so I can back up that sweary statement with fact. Excuse me while I be all professional for a moment. In their “Emerging Real Estate Trends 2014” report, Price Waterhouse Coopers concluded that of the 28 European countries they surveyed, as well as having the highest office vacancy rates, “Budapest continues to be on par with Athens as investors continue to avoid the city on concerns about politics and the general economic outlook.” In my layman’s head that means nobody’s spending any money on real estate, nobody’s building new buildings and nobody has the money to renovate those that exist so they’re falling apart and nobody’s renting them. It’s been this way for years, to the point that certain areas of Budapest are awash with dilapidated, abandoned, need I say ruined buildings ready for demolition.
But the owners of Szimpla looked at it differently. They saw an opportunity; insanely cheap rents. Coupled with their very handy ‘shabby’ decorating theme, this meant no expensive refit needed and, from the looks of most ruin pubs, no massive cleaning bills either (not in an ‘oh my god this place is so dirty I’ll get through a few packs of sanitary wipes before the night’s out’ way, more of a ‘nobody’s ever going to get on a ladder and clean those cobwebs off the ceiling’ way). They simply (hah) installed bars and filled every inch of the place, even the ceilings, with trinkets from their youth, upcycled bits and bobs and one of just about every little nick-nack you’d find at garage sales across the country. And a phenomenon was born.
Actually, it’s easier if I just show you.
One of Julia’s friends, Tamas, met us there and we settled in the Shisha bar, not because I wanted to suck on a hose and inhale some scented smoke, but because it was empty and there was a bath cut in half lengthways and made into a couch. I’m easily amused. The table we sat at was heaped with all sorts of strange objects, and Julia and Tamas delighted in sifting through it. Tamas picked up a tiny, plastic, blue car and marvelled at how ‘socialist’ it was. I guess for us that means simple, because it indeed had nowhere near the detail you find on a Matchbox car. In fact there was no detail at all, just the shell of a car and two rods underneath it with a wheel on each end. Julia then saw what looked to me like a large, orange turkey baster. She went on an excited little trip down memory lane to tell me her grandfather had one of these and explained how it was made from pumpkin skin and used to siphon wine out of a barrel into bottles. Her smile was huge. I don’t know if that was from the happy childhood memory though or yet another Palinka that she’d ordered herself a few minutes earlier.
The rundown, grimy vibe of Ruin Pubs is very cool. I thought Hungarians wouldn’t like them though, that they”d think them kitch and too touristy, just like I do every time I see a bagpipe player in Edinburgh. But like Julia and Tamas’ reaction to the objects in the Shisha bar, it seems there’s a real sentimentality to Ruin Pubs among the twenty-somethings in Budapest, a generation who would have been just a few years old when the socialist era ended in 1989. The whole laid back, friendly ‘you can stay here all afternoon’ vibe is also appealing. And there seems to be absolutely no age limit to who frequents them. Today Budapest has so many you’d never get through them in a night and they all have their own point of difference. Some like Szimpla are garden pubs, some are attached to restaurants, some are rooftop bars and others have Escape Rooms (I’ll explain what they are in a future post).
Julia and I went exploring upstairs, where there are many dark, equally eclectic rooms to wander through, with endless nooks and crannies that must fill up as the night wears on. It all felt a bit like we were at a house party, until we passed a small group of 50-something tourists dressed like they were going for a hike in the Alps. I’m sure the evening makes way for tours of a different kind; less middle aged culture seekers, more twenty-something cheap alcohol seekers. But while westerners flock to Budapest to take advantage of the cheap beer (around a pound per glass) and bar crawl their way through a boozy stag night they won’t remember the next day, they’re missing the point of Ruin Pubs.
For locals, Ruin Pubs are predominantly centres for art, showcasing live music, art-house cinema, and local community events. Szimpla for example has its own film distribution label and runs a yearly animation festival called Anilogue. You’re just as likely to see a group of grannies there during the day having a coffee as you are young people enjoying a beer. They really have ingrained themselves into their local communities.
Suitably impressed, we stayed just long enough for me to take about 300 photos and Julia to have another two Palinkas. Then we wobbled out into the early evening and further along Kazinczy street to see what else we could find. Turns out that was gypsies, secret doors and lesbians in tank tops, but you’ll have to wait for part 4 for that.
Address: Budapest, Kazinczy utca 14, 1075