The ruin pubs of Budapest

The ruin pubs of Budapest

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By John Malathronas
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John Malathronas goes on a “tipsy tour” of the ruin pubs of Budapest

One of the crazes in Budapest over the past few years has been ruin pubs. At £1.50 a pint they won’t ruin you financially, although by the end of a long evening they may well have ruined your plans for an early start the next day.

A ruin pub is actually a bar situated inside a ruin: a crumbling old building, whose walls are covered with bizarre doodles and where the decor features a mishmash of objects seemingly from the local skip: sawn-off Trabant cars, torn 1970s LP covers, evil Chucky dolls – even a grandmother’s chest of drawers (with a mock-up of the grandmother’s corpse on top). As for the disparate collection of tables and chairs, they all look like failed experiments in self-assembled IKEA furniture or cast-offs from a communist-era plastic moulding plant.

I’m in town for some Rough Guides research, so my friend Bogata from Budapest Underguides, takes me on a “tipsy tour” (pub crawl). As most ruin pubs are conveniently clustered in the Seventh District, the old Jewish quarter, we start with a drink at Klub Vittula on Kertész street. Now this is a place you truly need a local to drag you inside, because its basement entrance is hidden behind graffiti of the density you encounter only in angry squats. Maybe it’s an omen: inside I bump my head on the piping which snakes aimlessly through the bar itself. It used to be the boiler room for the (now deserted) building above.

After my first Soprani beer, we move to Sufni G’ART’N – odd names being an integral ingredient of ruin pubs. The sky-high ceilings are a welcome change from the claustrophobic cosiness of Vittula, as is the sound of strumming acoustic guitars on stage instead of the usual electronica. Sufni is famed for its Hungarian folk evenings as well as for its baracpálinka (apricot brandy), so Bogata and I stick to shots.

Next comes Fogaskert (the Dentist’s Garden), an 1850s building with an inner courtyard divided by a heavyweight, transparent polypropylene sheet to separate smokers from non-smokers. We switch to Dreher beer and retire to a Japanese-themed neon-lit room where I attempt to play table hockey.

Before I have time to master it, it’s time to stagger on to Kazinczy street, the home of the granddaddy of them all: Szimpla Kert. No pub crawl is complete without a visit to this chaotic, labyrinthine space, so big that it holds a vegetable market every Sunday. Tonight it’s crammed with British stag parties, I am summoned to drink along with newly found mates from Liverpool and Bolton.

Bogata wisely pulls me over the road to Kek Lo (the Blue Horse). It’s a trendy alternative to Szimpla Kert that also sells designer clothes. It’s also a place where I can hear my own voice at last. Not that I want to speak much: I relax and slump into an armchair sampling microbrewery beers by the bar, while Bogata chats in the next room with the DJ, who’s apparently the drummer of Anselmo Crew, a Hungarian urban/hip hop band.

I don’t know how much time has passed before Bogata and I enter Lokal, just off Dob street, in a turn-of-the century derelict house with a wonderful spiral staircase. Lokal is unicoloured: painted in carmine red and cast in a pinkish glow, it’s furnished like someone’s living room – if you ignore the Tree of Jesse mural over the sofa. Bogata reminds me it actually was someone’s living room; this is a fin de siècle flat. Less easy to find and consequently quieter, this is where Bogata and I talk and share secrets with drunken camaraderie.

By now it’s well past midnight and Bogata wants to boogie in Club Doboz on Klauzál street. There’s a long queue, but we manage to blag our way in for free. Doboz is a youthful ruin club with four rooms set around a beer garden, where a sculpture of King Kong incongruously surveys us from atop a plane tree. There is dancing, a chillout area, Dreher beer and pálinka aplenty.

Which is where my notes stop, together with my memories.