Budapest it seems is just full of surprises.
As we wobbled around Budapest’s Jewish district, I realised that this was the first time in I don’t know how long that I hadn’t researched a trip. As discussed with some fellow bloggers recently, many travellers are of the ‘I’ll just walk around and discover things‘ persuasion. I am more the ‘I must devour blogs and travel websites for weeks to discover unique things’ type. In Budapest I had Julia, a born and bred local, so I had no issues leaving the itinerary in her hands. But when we walked away from a ruin pub because of the rather large crown hanging out the front and she steered me toward another with a defeated ‘oh, let’s just go here’, I didn’t have high expectations.
Like Szimpla, Fogas Haz also hides itself pretty well. But the two burly security guys standing out the front were a pretty good clue that something interesting was behind them. One of the security guys checked our bags before letting us in. Julia told me this is something she’s never come across in Budapest, which perhaps explains why she looked at him like he’d asked her to bear him five children.
Fogas Haz has the same run down vibe as Szimpla, it’s layout also having a large open-air space in the middle and a second floor rimmed with balconies and rooms to explore. While it has none of the socialist kitsch of Szimpla, it does however have an Escape Room. We stayed only for one drink, but that was long enough for Julia to run into a friend, who coincidentally was one of the organisers of the bicycle exhibition we had seen earlier at the Ethnographic Museum. Apparently Captain Customer Service’s apathy had not gone unnoticed and he was soon to be fired. Maybe there were comment cards there after all (for this sentence to make sense, you’ll need to have read Part 1).
As they spoke, I watched a gypsy folk band who were playing at the back of the building. They had a strange instrument which Google later told me was a Cimbalom. From afar it looks like a piano, or perhaps a harpsichord since it’s small. It’s really more of a xylophone, with the top open so the musician can play the strings with two beaters. Cimbaloms are a traditional Hungarian instrument but can be found in other Eastern European countries like Romania, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. Yes, Google told me that too.
As I watched the band, Julia saw two hulking security guards wandering through the crowd. “Who do they think they are, walking around trying to be all imposing like that?” she asked incredulously. When I replied that that’s what security are supposed to do – walk around and act all imposing so nobody misbehaves – she insisted “That doesn’t happen in Budapest”. But Julia’s been in the UK for a few years, so perhaps this is not so unheard of anymore. Nevertheless, her horror amused me. As we left, the doorman confiscate a half full bottle of vodka from an unlucky girl on her way in. Julia groaned.
Perhaps a little bit late to do much good now, we decided dinner was needed, so Julia took us to Jelen. I’ve seen Jelen described as a ruin bar, but I’d say it’s just a restaurant/bar that happens to be in a run down building. To find Jelen, you need to get to Blaha Lujza Square. Technically this is District V, but if you’re checking out ruin pubs in District VII, it’s just a short walk down the main road, Racokzi. Once in the square you’ll see a large, multi story building with a trashy looking department store down the bottom. This is Corvin. Opened in 1926, the Corvin department store was built to look like a palace, but its glory days are well and truly over. Drawing the crowds today is what’s behind and above it. As well as Jelen at the back of the building, there’s Corvinteto (teto meaning roof), which has a popular nightclub on the fourth floor and a rooftop bar during summer with views to the Danube. But we’d be visiting the ‘secret’ third floor.
Jelen was packed. With a menu that’s a mish mash of Hungarian, Western and Thai, it’s not fine dining, but it’s decent food at a good price with huge portions, probably why there’s so many university students there. You also get live music sometimes. Julia insisted I have some Sztrapacska, a traditional Hungarian dish which is sort of like gnocchi with bacon, sour cream and cheese (and I’m sure there’s paprika in there somewhere). In other words, it’s heaven.
After eating, we walked around the corner from Jelen and after some confusion, stood in front of a nondescript green door. The only clue it was the right door was a small ‘Muszi’ sticker just above eye level. Julia pushed the bell again and we waited. Nothing. She pushed it again and someone answered ‘Hello’. Neither of us were well versed in secret party codes of conduct, so Julia just said “Can we come in?” and voila, we were buzzed through.
Muszi is an art centre and community space. The place looks like removalists turned up in the 80’s to clear out the joint and gave up half way through. I loved it. Nothing was in any order, there was mismatched furniture everywhere and for some reason there were also a couple of fish tanks that hadn’t been cleaned for so long they were black with algae. Tonight it was being used for an after party, organised by another of Julia’s friends, to celebrate the end of a weekend-long queer feminist festival called Punkurica. Again it had the friendly, relaxed vibe I’d seen everywhere we’d been in Budapest that day.
And again, there was live music. First was a very talented and very tiny Turkish girl called Ah Kosmos. I thought she was just a DJ, but she was actually building all the layers of a song live on stage to make brilliant, moody, instrumental electro. I thought she was amazing, but by then there was probably more alcohol coursing through my veins than blood, so my enthusiasm might have been tainted by whatever the aural version of ‘beer goggles’ is. Beer muffs? Hmm, no that doesn’t sound right.
Following tiny Turkish girl was a curvy woman dressed in a green leotard, corset, long curly purple wig and a drawn on moustache. She wasn’t really singing, more like talk-singing to electro beats. She could have been the disco love child of Miss Piggy and Poirot. Coincidentally I had seen her a few weeks earlier at another female queer punk festival, in Edinburgh (who knew there were so many of them),and thought she had a really bad attitude. Hence why I’m not naming her and giving her some free publicity. Hmmpph. I’m pretty sure I made a face when she came on. I might even have made a noise too. And, just like in Edinburgh, the whole crowd squealed and talk-sang along to her talk-singing. Who on earth are you Piggy Poirot? And why do they all love you? Julia said it’s because she’s Polish and so were half the crowd. Could also be because she’s queer and so were more than half of the crowd.
I really liked what I’d seen of the Budapest crowds and their night scene. It’s just so unpretentious and effortlessly cool. I’m no expert, but I can imagine how young people like Julia would have had their childhoods very much informed by their parents’ ingrained socialist ideals of frugality and making the most of what you have, without expecting something more, something better. They grew up amongst the relics of a once rich city, amazing architecture, glamourous cafes, but as the buildings have decayed over the decades since, the now poor city cannot afford to fix them. As Julia said, it doesn’t help that Budapest is a city where ‘the government is just interested in building football stadiums (they have 19) for a team that is not even on the world rankings’. I get the sense Julia is prouder of these ruin pubs, these buildings that are falling apart and the enterprising young people turning them into successful businesses. They are infinitely cooler than the fancy cafes, where many would balk at paying 7 euro for a slice of cake anyway.
In one day, Julia had shown me a side of Budapest that had impressed the hell out of me. It was a lesson that I’d been traveling to too many ‘western’ countries where everything is familiar. I love that they have pride in the rundown, that they make use of the old, that they don’t know what a JD and Coke is (seriously), that there’s no sickly, fake customer service. I just hope that, as with the security guards at Fogas Haz, if the west is coming, Budapest nightlife is able to keep some of its identity too.
By then it was about 2am. Well and truly ruined myself, I toddled off back to the Jewish district and my rental apartment, an old fart ready for bed. But before I left, I looked back and saw Julia on the dance floor, one hand in the air and another balancing yet another shot of Palinka.
Fogas Haz: Akacfa utca 51, 1073, Budapest
Jelen Bistro: Blaha Lujza ter 1, 1085 Budapest
Muszi (Muvelodesi Szint): Blaha Lujza ter 1, 1085 Budapest