Don’t worry, with the next post we’ll be heading back out to the desert. Even in the searing heat I’ve managed to check out a few new locales. But these are so remote and mysterious that I’ve been able to find very little to say about them, historically speaking. So, while I consider how to present these lost gems, we’ll make a short stop in Budapest to visit an abandonment that is a decidedly un-lost gem, the Szimpla Kert "ruin pub."
Romkocsma, which translates literally as “ruin pubs,” seem to be a phenomenon somewhat unique to Budapest. Having emerged from Nazi occupation and subsequent Communist rule with numerous poorly-maintained buildings, Budapest found itself without the resources to restore them properly or tear them down. Many of these buildings were once apartments and are located in residential neighborhoods, sometimes sandwiched between occupied buildings, and, from the outside, all you usually see is a run-down façade. But inside it’s a different story. By negotiating cheap rent and enlisting the help of anyone that can help make these places structurally sound, vibrant, lively pubs have sprung up amidst the ruins. Acting not just as watering holes, but as community gathering-places presenting music, film, and alternative arts and culture, you can’t help but hope this trend continues.
Szimpla Kert is the first and most well-known of the Romkocsma, located in the Old Jewish Quarter, also known as District VII, a fascinating and disheveled area of the city that experienced untold suffering under the Nazis. A huge, labyrinthine, multi-level concrete beast, Szimpla Kert features internal ladders and spiral staircases, busted-up walls and enough dark corners to accommodate whatever you’re into. “Kert” refers to the courtyard or “garden,” which is an open-air portion of the complex located on the site of a building that's been demolished. It is, simply, the coolest bar I’ve ever been in. Even cooler than Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a favorite of Jack London’s with its five tables and woefully sloping floor (a result of the 1906 quake). Actually, let’s not slight Heinold’s. Let’s just say Szimpla Kert is AS COOL as Heinold’s.
Of course, as with any concept that works this well, there has been growing discontent and early patrons of Szimpla Kert lament the international hipster crowd, the more expensive drinks, and the general popularity of the place. Szimpla was voted 3rd best bar in the world by Lonely Planet last year, so the crowds aren’t exactly abating. But, you know, it’s hard for me to begrudge Szimpla’s success. The ambience is unbeatable; strange “art” hangs on the walls, mysterious Stalinist-looking electronics are scattered here and there, the place is furnished with everything from lawn chairs to claw foot bathtubs, and it seems genuinely weird--in an authentic way--to me. And I think I'm a pretty good judge of the authentically weird. On the other hand, with money comes gentrification, and, as often happens, the very thing that brought people to the Old Jewish Quarter in the first place might well become the agent of its cultural destruction. But that phenomenon is not unique to Budapest and its cure remains elusive. In the meantime, all you can do is join the crowd and have a look at the incredible Szimpla Kert ruin pub.
By the way, the graffiti in the photo above reads, "Borders are not relevant anymore," a lovely sentiment given the history of Hungary (and Eastern Europe, in general).