The Széchenyi Medicinal Bath is the largest in Budapest and one of the largest in Europe. It dates to 1913 and the outdoor pool is famous for its chess players, the best of whom are international level.
Budapest – Long Read

Hungary's capital has been quietly reinventing itself

Photo by Peter Adams

Budapest – Long Read Hungary's capital has been quietly reinventing itself

Hello Budapest, the formerly dour capital of Hungary that has been quietly reinventing itself with events such as an annual music festival voted Europe's best. Once known only for its magnificent thermal spas, new attractions range from modern spins on traditional coffee houses, to avant garde art galleries – and night clubs selling organic carrots.

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

The Franciscan monk is pacing through the shadows. The man beside him, wearing grimy camouflage gear, has a scowl nearly as broad as his shoulders. Together they glare at the parishioners until we – uniformly cowed – tiptoe away. They lock the church gates behind us.

A truck appears out front. Two men emerge from the back, straining to carry their load: a gargantuan marble plinth the size of a small ox. They make their way into the church, setting it down in one of the side chapels, then they hoist a lopsided Madonna into place. At last, the monk smiles.

The oppressive silence gives way to convivial, even gleeful, chatter. The men, monk, soldier and worker alike, begin to gossip, to tell jokes, to snort. The monk pats the soldier on the back; the workers applaud; the soldier begins to converse in jovial pantomime with the silent Madonna; he reaches the climax of his story and, spluttering with his own good humor, punches the Madonna on the arm before realizing he has gone too far. He turns bright red; now it is the monk’s turn to chuckle. Soon they are all bellowing together; their laughter echoes off the stone.

“That’s the paradoxical thing about Budapest,” says my Hungarian friend, Felix, when I tell him about it. “We’ve got this reputation for being really depressed, but really, we know better than anybody how to have fun.”

Budapest’s reputation for melancholy is hardly misplaced. Five years ago, I remember, it was a city of peeling paint and flaking plaster, reeking of decay. The streets were slick with gasoline and stale beer; the Astoria underpass doubled as a public convenience for every drunkard and bum in the former Eastern Bloc. A trip into the heart of the Jozsefvaros District in search of a famous jazz club yielded less salubrious results: the only music came from an intermittently functional stereo, accompanying the jerky gyrations of a stripper. From the ogling of the leather-jacket-clad men at the bar, I was evidently more promising entertainment.

My swift exit brought me into the trajectory of vomit erupting from the stoop of the Irish pub next door. My travel companion’s assessment was swift and sure. “I am from Minsk, and even I find this depressing.”

Crowds of well-heeled tourists taking photographs of the Parliament Building

Today, Budapest is hardly recognizable. The peeling art nouveau palaces of Pest, the city’s 19th-century heart, have been restored; the pink neon sex shop signs on Rakoczi Utca have been replaced by floodlit facades, newly re-painted. A 2012 survey named Budapest the best-value destination in the EU and from the crowds of well-heeled tourists taking photographs of the Parliament Building from across the river Danube, it is clear that the city’s rehabilitated reputation has caught on.

“I don’t know how it happened,” says Nando, a journalist with thick-rimmed glasses and suitably bohemian stubble, as we settle into a quiet corner of a faux-rustic vegan restaurant off Batthyany Ter. “Everywhere else in Europe is so affected by the banking crisis. But here... we’re the only ones who seem to have benefited from the recession.”

While the rest of Hungary has gotten poorer, Nando says, Budapest has boomed. New low-cost flights from London and Tel Aviv have brought hordes of tourists attracted by the promise of decadence on the cheap. “Now there are new bars, new restaurants, new places to hang out.” Indeed, the very existence of a restaurant like this one would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when the concept of vegetarianism was greeted with emotions ranging from blithe incomprehension to outright horror.

I ask Nando if he resents the tourists, the crowds, the change. He shakes his head. “There’s so much more to do now,” he says. Tourism has revitalized the city, allowed it to create itself anew. The former “Paris of the East” is casting itself as an elegant Central European rival to the overpriced boulevards of Vienna, Paris, and Rome. Nowhere is this renewal more evident than on Vorosmarty Ter, the quietly elegant piazza at the heart of Belvaros, Budapest’s historic center.

A phantasmagoric array of stone angels stare down

Painfully, almost anesthetically clean, its 19th-century facades washed whipped-cream white, Vorosmarty Ter is the postcard ideal of a European city. Food and souvenir stalls in the shape of country cottages sell the expected bounty: paprika; pashminas; bespoke chess sets. Vaci Utca, the city’s pedestrianized shopping street, wends its way towards Vamhaz Korut, its chain stores ever familiar. Even Café Gerbeaud, the grand and wood-paneled coffeehouse once favored by members of Pest’s haute bourgeoisie, now populated largely by tourists, feels less decadent than merely picturesque.

“When I went back to Budapest, I could see changes I didn’t like,” says Jennifer Deborah Walker, an Anglo-Hungarian writer who spent her childhood in the city, “Every scenic spot tried to capitalize on tourism – a café on the steps of the museum at Heroes’ Square, or between the arches at the Fisherman’s Bastion. I remember when such places were a natural part of the city – seeing them turned into ‘tourist spots’ jarred with me.”

Yet, just a few right turns and blind alleys off the central square, the city changes once again, revealing a rawer beauty. The back streets of Belvaros, less meticulously renovated than those just off Vorosmarty Ter, give up their secrets. On the corner of Parizsi Utca, just off Vaci Utca, a phantasmagoric array of stone angels stare down at passersby, their rough cheeks pockmarked with many centuries of rain.

Nearby, a hauntingly lifelike pair of stone heads, weathered and eyeless, crane their necks out from the facade of the Hermes Hungarian General Exchange Company. A glimmering mosaic of the Virgin Mary shines down from the art nouveau Turkish Banking House, a gleefully strange conglomeration of glass columns, wrought-iron curves, and penetrating stone eyes.

A kaleidoscope of Mughal-inspired towers and stained glass domes

Most striking of all is the Paris Arcade, designed as a Hungarian version of the covered shopping promenades so popular during the Parisian fin de siècle. (The Budapest of a century ago, it seems, was no less anxious to prove its cosmopolitan credentials than the city of today). But if the shopping arcades of Paris are clean, sleek, elegant, the Budapest iteration is something else entirely: a kaleidoscope of Mughal-inspired towers and stained glass domes, Moorish carvings and marble columns, resembling nothing so much as a Turkish bazaar grafted to the Musee D’Orsay.

It’s strangely – eerily – silent. The shops on Vaci Utca may be swarming with crowds, but the stalls here are all shuttered. A single light is on: demarcating the office of a bored-looking security guard. A few tourists tiptoe past him to get a photograph of the glass dome; he barks at them in bullet-swift Hungarian, and then they scurry away. The security guard begins to chuckle, shooting me a conspiratorial wink. This domain, he hints – this Budapest of stone griffins, wrought-iron angels, glass Madonnas – will remain our secret.

This Budapest, I think, is no “Paris of the East,” – a stilted and self-conscious imitation – but rather a city of its own creation. My friend Felix, born and raised in Budapest, agrees. “Until recently,” he says, “that’s what we were most proud of. Hungary was incredibly isolated – until we joined the EU, people didn’t even travel abroad for vacations. It’s part of who we are – we’re proud of being distinct. The things that happened here could only happen here.”

It is this sense of self-creation, I find, that gives Budapest its power. As I wander through the streets of Pest, finding my way into courtyards and down alleyways, I find myself drawn to those places where the modern and the mythic converge. At the Jewish bistro a five-minute walk from the synagogue, the chandeliers are made of repurposed teacups, stacked one on top of the other with precarious excess; a dilapidated-looking rocking horse sways back and forth from the ceiling.

An art gallery specializing in exquisitely wrought marionettes

Just next door, sharing a wood-paneled street-corner with a tantalizingly titled retroszex shop (the sex, disappointingly, turns out to be of a thoroughly contemporary mien), is the Manufaktor Muterem, an art gallery and studio specializing in exquisitely wrought marionettes run by artists Richard Garami and Otvos Eniko. Everything on sale is tantalizingly delicate, from the limited-edition paper shadow-theaters – one a reproduction of Budapest’s opulent opera house – to the one-of-a-kind marionette of a winged Nick Cave.

Across the river, the subtly signposted Calgary Antik Drinkbar – owned by former model and urban fixture Viky Szabo – continues this trend of joyful repurposing. Porcelain dolls slump over a piano with yellowing keys; chandeliers cast a flickering light over moth-eaten tablecloths; a parakeet chirps merrily in the corner. Here, away from the tourists of Cafe Gerbeaud, away from the souvenir stalls of Vorosmarty Ter, I cannot resist Budapest’s curious brand of bohemia. The melancholy of before and the frenetic prosperity of today have managed to fuse into something utterly new, something utterly compelling.

Nowhere encapsulates Budapest’s capacity for self-creation as powerfully as the Vajdahunyad Castle, a splendidly ostentatious folly lying just past the entrance to the City Park, off Heroes’ Square. Built at the turn of the 20th century for the Millennial Exhibition – honoring 1,000 years of Hungarian history – the castle blends Gothic, Romanesque, and Baroque wings, each one an imitation of a famous Hungarian landmark – to create a hodgepodge of architectural styles.

There is another kind of architecture in Budapest mixing the old and the fashionably new. Felix has tasked me with a mission: to visit the city’s most famous kerts, or “ruin pubs”: derelict buildings converted by a ragtag conglomeration of anarchists, artists’ collectives, squatters, and hipsters into the city’s most enticing nightlife hangouts.

The sheer enormity of the place overwhelms my doubts

My first stop is Szimpla Kert, in the heart of the Jewish quarter. One of the first – and certainly the best-known – of Budapest’s ruin pubs, Szimpla opened over a decade ago in another abandoned building close by, before moving to its current site on Kaczinsky Street in 2004. I’m tempted to be cynical about Szimpla’s underground credentials – the smokers lingering outside are mostly foreign, and a poster at the entrance advertising the “Szimpla Experience” at their on-site recording studio hardly bolsters Szimpla’s bohemian image.

Then I enter, and the sheer enormity of the place overwhelms my doubts. Hidden rooms lead into one another – overturned bathtubs double as loveseats; radios are transformed into coffee tables. Vines tangle around the second-floor balcony, trailing into the covered garden courtyard, overflowing with several hundred dancing 20somethings and one increasingly flustered Italian couple in their mid-60s. The drunken revelers I remember are still present, grinding up against uninterested Hungarian girls at the periphery of the bar, but the crowd seems far more interested in the open-air cinema than in counting Jell-O shots.

I order a glass of tart Hungarian wine and find a seat. A young woman approaches, asking if I would like to buy a carrot. Mindful of my previous experience with Budapest nightlife, I assume this is a euphemism for something far less salubrious and decline. Not so. She sets down an enormous basket of freshly peeled raw carrots before me. “It’s a tradition we have here at Szimpla,” she says. She considers me, then goes in for the kill. “They’re organic.” It’s an offer so gleefully, so utterly preposterous, that I cannot refuse.

Hundreds of carved rabbits hanging from the ceiling

Less vibrant, but more visually arresting, is Instant, Nando’s declared favorite. “I’ve been there many times,” he tells me, “but every time I go I discover a room I didn’t even know existed.” Just off Andrassy Avenue, near the Opera, Instant keeps its distance from the rest of the kerts, which are largely clustered around the Jewish Quarter.

This distance, as it turns out, is aesthetic as well as physical; Instant is less nightclub than art gallery: the central room on the ground floor is re-imagined as a Black Forest hunt scene, with hundreds of carved rabbits hanging from the ceiling (a winged cat watches over us, for good measure). An upstairs room glimmers with stained glass; nearby, a third room is entirely upside-down, with tables, chairs, and books glued to the ceiling.

It takes me half an hour to find Nando’s favorite spot – a non-functioning lavatory, separated from the main room by a glass wall, decorated with black-and-white photographs of famous musicians. I catch sight of a potential cheat – a blueprint with clearly demarcated fire exits (reports of dereliction, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated), but cannot bring myself to look. I’d rather be lost in the labyrinth.

It would be easy to conclude that today’s Budapest is only for the young, well versed in Expressionist cinema and organic food. But at the Kiraly Baths, all-but-hidden on a residential street on the Buda side of the Danube, Budapest remains as strange as I remember it. Less showy than the city’s more famous bathhouses, the neo-Classical Szechenyi and art nouveau Gellert, the Kiraly Baths are less frequented by tourists, and hold far more fascination for me.

Budapest remains as strange as I remember it

Beneath the 16th-century Turkish dome – one of the numerous reminders of the Ottoman occupation that dot this side of the river – the thermal pool plays host to a fascinating cross-section of Budapest life. There are a few young couples, engaged in a struggle to outdo one another in public displays of affection, but the majority of bathers are in their 50s or older.

The glass panels of the sauna, I discover, are a perfect vantage point for people watching. A skinny middle-aged woman in a floridly floral bathing cap stares shyly out of the corner of her eye at men as they arrive. A professorial old man with glasses and a pointed gray beard tells a story with increasing animation to two teenage girls (his daughters, I first assume), sending water cascading over the side of the pool as he gestures with gusto.

The stories play out in unison. A silver-haired gentleman with a puppyish grin paddles over to the woman in the bathing cap – bringing an apple-colored blush to her cheek as he flirts with equal parts charm and desperation. Middle-aged couples greet one another from across the room, unperturbed by their profusions of flesh: they kiss and whisper and their gossip echoes off the dome.

The professor repairs to another pool, and the two girls – evidently unrelated – begin to kiss one another with increasing ferocity – only to welcome the professor back into the midst of their embrace. Nobody seems to mind the ménage – or even to notice.

They continue to flirt, to gossip, to push past one another as groups configure and reconfigure like kaleidoscope glass. They, too, begin to laugh.

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