The city Paris could Katy Hemming 7th October 2013
There’s a run down apartment block in Budapest’s 7th district that looks ripe for bulldozing. There’s graffiti on the wall and chunks are missing from the cracking facade. It’s sandwiched between 2 respectable looking buildings in a prime area, and yet people are wandering in to this neglected block. You only have to saunter through the sturdy, steel door yourself to understand what is luring everyone in. Inside there is a courtyard and one of the city’s many kerts. ‘Kert’ basically translates to ‘garden’, but here in the bar called Szimpla, there’s more concrete than chrysanthemums. From the front, you’d think the building was only a step away from being a car park, but when you’re inside you realize these kerts – temporary bars set up in vacant buildings - are a local favourite. Some of the walls are covered in spray paint, the seating’s a mix of benches and cinema seats, and lighting comes from the bulbs hanging in upside-down bins. It may sound like an experiment in tramp chic, but it works. These hidden kerts encapsulate all which is good and exciting about Budapest. There might be a lot of crumbly concrete and graffiti, but underneath it all there’s something unique simmering away. Visit Hungary’s capital and on the surface, things look pretty standard. All the ingredients to a popular European metropolis are present and correct: there’s the
chunky architecture with flower filled balconies and windows with shutters, historic monuments and museums, narrow streets lined with cafes and a city-slicing river in the shape of the Danube. On closer inspection however, there are reminders of Budapest’s history that gives its current incarnation a crackle of defiant energy: the architecture is often pock marked by bullet holes and the monuments honour past revolutions. Even though Communism collapsed in 1989, a significant chunk of the population knows the hardship of its regime. Yet, Budapest is the city Paris could be if it cut prices and cheered up - a pint of beer is around 400 forints while a bowl of ghoulash in downtown Pest costs about 600 forints. A trip into the Buda hills is a must, as long as you don’t mind dangling above a forest. A chair lift takes you to the Erzsébet lookout tower, which means you can reach the summit without breaking a sweat. Effortless tourism is always a winner. From the tower you can take in the green vistas that roll off the Buda side – you can even see towns occupying some of the valleys. On your way out from the tower, read the notice boards at the exit. It’s here you discover that Erzsébet was stamped with a Communist mark: a massive red star fixed so haphazardly to the
roof it ultimately weakened the entire structure. Any tribute to Communism has now been swept firmly aside. Most of the public statues depicting leaders or ‘triumphs’ were destroyed in the late Eighties when the regime finally broke down. However, a small number were retained and are now collected together in Statue Park. The park sits in the 22nd district, on the outskirts of the city. The collection here includes three statues of Lenin, one of which is carved from granite quarried by concentration camp prisoners. It remains under resourced and despite opening in 1993, it’s still incomplete. However, Statue Park is worth the bus journey if just to appreciate how sickly the propaganda was that sugar coated the regime. Reminders of other aspects of Hungary’s history can be found back in Pest. This area is Buda’s livelier, noisier sibling, and it’s often still going at five in the morning. During the day, it’s buzzing with tourists ploughing through the shops and bars of the pedestrianised Váci Utca, buying souvenirs of postcards and potent pálinka – a local liqueur. The appropriately named House Of Terror opens the door on another chapter of Hungarian history. This nondescript house in the heart of Pest was used as the head quarters of the secret police, which tortured anyone deemed
‘unsympathetic’ to the regime. Immersing yourself in Hungarian culture is as essential as learning its history. There are numerous galleries and theatres, while the streets of Pest in particular are an antique dealer’s gold mine – there are vintage shops and second hand bookshops everywhere. And despite being a landlocked country, there’s a beach-life mentality if you know where to look – right there, on Margaret Island, there are men and women tanning themselves on the river banks. Water plays a big part in the local culture, with the city built upon eight thermal springs. The springs’ waters are revered for their health benefits - they’re said to alleviate everything from mild skin ailments to Parkinson’s disease. Throughout the inner city, you’ll
find chic baths plumbing into these restorative waters, with the most extravagant of facilities being Gellért. A day of history, hills and healing waters can be pretty tiring stuff, but both Buda and Pest have plenty of Hungarian restaurants. If you can’t decide which side of the river to go to, head to one of the many boat restaurants, such as A38 – a sleek eatery on an old Ukrainian stone-carrier ship. The average menu’s hearty and meat-heavy, and bread’s served with everything - onion soup is often served in a hollowed-out loaf. And then for a nightcap, and what better way to end the day than where you began? Find another kert and try a pint of diesel.
Diesel is one of the many mixtures more adventurous Hungarians love, consisting of equal measures of beer and Coke. But that’s not all: other combinations to be seen here include beer and ginger ale, wine and Coke and beer and Campari. This is a city of extremes; after all, so perhaps a pint of polar opposites isn’t that surprising.
Published on Dec 8, 2013