Like Vienna, Budapest is a city of cafés. Its famed historic cafés can still evoke a reflection of the lustre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's past. It's said that there were more than 500 cafés in the city in the late 19th century. Under Socialism, the regime looked askance at the good life, and many were closed. Nowadays they're back with a vengeance, giving Budapest a kind of carefree air that makes Hungary's capital a centre of old world joie de vivre. The current century, however, has added an entirely new phenomenon to the café scene - romkoscma, or "ruin pubs", as they are known.
In a decade, this inimitable phenomenon, with no real equal in any other European city, has become a kind of movement - the creation of cafés in abandoned buildings destined for demolition. You can find ruin pubs in derelict apartment buildings, shuttered cinemas and closed factories. These dilapidated structures get a fresh breath of life that allows them an alternative existence. There's no facelift. The cobwebs might get swept out (with an emphasis on might), but otherwise - the space is utilized as is, making do with whatever is left of it. The tossed aside bouquet that is the site's unique dereliction is merely supplemented with similarly discarded objects - the furnishings of former cinemas, cafeterias or shops, or whatever trove might be unearthed in a forgotten cellar or in a grandmother's attic. At first these places were popular mostly among younger people - by now, almost everybody in Budapest has a favourite ruin pub. Over the years, the romkoscma have changed, too - they're no longer just places to drink, since many of them host art exhibits, concerts, theatrical performances and diverse happenings.
There are more than a dozen ruin pubs in Budapest at the moment. Most are in the 7th District, the old Jewish Quarter - the Bohemian atmosphere gets the area compared to Kreuzberg in Berlin. Geographically, this is the heart of the city - it's only a few minutes from the elegant boulevards. If you wander in unawares, however, you might get the feeling that you've fallen into a time warp. Buildings that preserve an aura of Habsburg ostentation stand cheek by jowl with the concrete monsters of imposed Socialism. Here and there a "for sale" sign beckons, next to a sealed window. The pulse of life and something outside time come together. Some of the older buildings look like nothing has touched them since the war. Some structures seem like they've seen no one since. This was indeed the site of the Jewish ghetto during the war. Crooked, cracked facades remind of aristocratic faces fallen upon despair and doom, still giving glimpses of a forgotten glory. Wandering through this rather surreal landscape, you come upon a door with no visible sign. You feel that the gateway leads somewhere. You go in. You enter a courtyard. The courtyard likely leads to another courtyard. Then to yet another courtyard. These labyrinthine wanderings are without end - ruin pubs have no laws, no identifiable structure, and no real association. They offer a space, and action takes place spontaneously within. All of them are similar in that they are kind of chaotic, and always eclectic. The atmosphere of each, however, is wholly unique.
The most legendary ruin pub is doubtless Szimpla Kert (Kazinczy u. 14; www.szimpla.hu). It means "simple garden." Opened in 2001, it has shifted locations many a time. It's been where it is now since 2004. This is hardly an unknown place - as it's featured in Lonely Planet, it's a café where you're as likely to hear loudly spoken American English as you are to hear Hungarian. Even so, the Szimpla is one of the most colourful ruin pubs, and the location is unforgettable - it's in what was once an ornate building, on the verge of collapse. The facade is already disappearing - only crumbling brick remains.
Potted flowers on the practically non-existent balconies lend the place a ghostly but vibrant ambience. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp could have a surreal lunch here, and this could be a stage set. As in any ruin pub, the courtyard is centre stage. On the margins, there are various niches and diverse bars. A Trabant, the classic automotive relic of East Germany, considered one of the worst cars ever produced, has been turned into a table. In the courtyard's chaos, it looks as though it has accidentally been stranded here. Nothing, no matter how weird, seems out of place - a telephone handset is the knob to the door of the women's room, but whether this is intentional design or whether the real knob was simply somehow lost is unknown.
As in most ruin pubs, you can not only drink but also eat here. There are exhibits, movie festivals, and unpredictable, spontaneous performances. Once there, wander over to nearby Akacfa utza and check out Fogaz ház (at No. 51) un Sufni g'art'n (at No. 47). The first address has gone beyond a ruin pub to become a real cultural centre, with important exhibits of local contemporary art. There's cinema in the evenings. The second address is fresh. The interior is an odd work of art all by itself - one bar is composed of old picture frames, whilst another sports what appear to be retro meat grinders. It's an experience, like the wall covered with Soviet-era TV sets and tennis rackets. Reading materials abound. A recently graduated conservatory student offers piano lessons to anyone of any ability. A little further in and you'll come upon a weird room decorated with oriental carpets, miniature hockey paraphernalia, and a gigantic fish competing with an overturned bicycle hanging from the ceiling. Nothing here makes any sense at all, but you may finally realize that the ruin pub phenomenon doesn't have to make sense.
One thing you must know, though - the primary characteristic of a ruin pub is that it is ephemeral. They're situated in places that can disappear, be sold, or suddenly restored. Or it could be that neighbours complain about their existence and the noise they generate. They could get shut down without notice. Then they go underground and perhaps pop up elsewhere. Some are only open in summer. Some all year. Before you try to seek out a ruin pub, check www.ruinpubs.com for the latest news.
Keywords: Ruin Pubs, cafe, cafes, Budapest