Tag Archives: Hungary

The story of Szimpla Kert

Budapest is an odd little city, and part of what makes it odd also makes it cool. Budapest is home to ruin bars, and a visit to the capital of Hungary isn’t complete without a drink (or two) at one of these bars which are unique to the city and unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen [and for the non-drinkers among us, most of these places have offerings such as  fresh lemonade,coffee, or devine hot chocolate].  I visited my first ruin bar during my first visit to the city in January 2013. Back then, I did Budapest’s version of a ‘pub tour’ and got to visit quite a few of these establishments. My favourite by far is Szimpla Kert, a garden/pub/cafe/souvenir shop/farmer’s market/local hangout/shisha bar.  Whatever you can think of, it’s happening here.

Budapest Ruin Pubs

Known by locals as ‘romkocsma’ (ruin pub in Hungarian), these pubs have been a part of the drinking culture for over a dozen years. Every one is unique but, more often than not, a ruin pub in Budapest will have a rundown and slightly sketchy exterior that completely contradicts the vibrant colours and unique ambience you’ll find inside. Filled with second hand furniture and nearly anything funky picked off the curb, these formerly abandoned buildings are now pretty integral to Budapest. And it all seems to have started in the city’s 7th district.

 

The neighbourhood was largely damaged and neglected after World War II and it’s said that ruin pubs are what changed the district’s future for the better. Where many saw abandoned factories and deteriorating apartment complexes, the people behind Szimpla saw potential. Over the years, the transformation of these buildings (and now others across the city) led to an entirely new concept in Budapest that is pretty darn cool.


 

The Story of Szimpla Kert

Szimpla originally opened in 2002 as an indoor cafe in a location a few blocks away from its current location, but the ruin pub trend didn’t actually begin until 2004 when they relocated to their current address at 14 Kazinczy Street.  Before Szimpla moved in, the area was a relatively quiet spot in the VII District or Jewish Quarter, and the future ‘pub’ was a dilapidated building was a former stove factory. Through the magic of vision, it was transformed into one of the coolest, most eclectic bars I have ever seen.

It was first opened as Szimpla Kertmozi [kertmozi means garden cinema in Hungarian] and their large courtyard was the place to hangout and watch underground/indie films. While they’re still known to play the occasional outdoor movie, Szimpla Kert has come a long way in the last 13+ years.

Budapest Ruin Pubs - Szimpla Spiral Staircase

One of the criticisms of Szimpla Kert is that approximately 80% of the guests are non-Hungarian.  In fact, while the menu and signs were in Hungarian, the languages I heard most often were English [Australian version], German, and maybe Czech [I’m a little fuzzy on that one]. Nonetheless the place represents the rebirth of Budapest.  It represents entrepreneurship and making use of the architectural opportunities of the city – even if that means the city’s ruins. Szimpla Kert changed Budapest’s international image and unintentionally created the “ruin pub” genre, for which Budapest is now famous around the world.

It’s hard to put the atmosphere into words but I’ll try… Narrow hallways and spiral staircases take you through the indoor/outdoor are where you’ll encounter dozens of rooms varying in size and usually with their own theme. When it comes to the decor,  anything goes; don’t be surprised to see a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, a clawfoot tub being used as a loveseat, a robot dancing in a phone booth or a Trabant car smack in the middle of the garden. You’ll find graffiti, funky art and pretty much everything that doesn’t ‘belong’ in a pub. And yet, it all makes perfect sense. Everything fits. Even the row of seats taken straight out of a theatre. And the neon kangaroo that was probably once part of an amusement park.

Countless other ruin pubs have followed in the footsteps of Szimpla. So much so that there are now even specifically designed venues aiming to be romkocsma-esque. The idea of converting buildings that lay in ruin into lively venues seems so simple in its resourcefulness that the idea has taken off in other cities in Europe too.

 

 

 

 

The Sunday Farmer’s Market

I’m a sucker for a good market and the city of Budapest has many. But most are closed on Sunday and only one is inside a ruin pub. Each Sunday, from 9am till 2pm, Szimpla Kert transforms into a garden of charming farmers’ market stands. There are several local vendors selling everything from fresh bread to veggies, organic spreads and even truffles. There’s also a new all-you-can-eat brunch Sunday morning in their salon upstairs with local ingredients served buffet-style.

Szimpla farmers’ market breakfast meat spread

 

Szimpla for Coffee

They have great coffee. They have free wifi. Need I say more? Most wouldn’t think to take an afternoon coffee break at a ruin pub but I actually think Szimpla is a really great place to visit during the day. You get a chance to see how bizarre some of the decor is and you’ll be sure to discover a corner or an entire room you might have missed while visiting at night. You can even bring your pet in with you (except during the farmer’s market). Another reason Szimpla Kert is great for that coffee date is it’s nice and quiet. Because silence is something you can bet you won’t find here on a Friday night. Or any night actually…

 

 

 

 

 

I hope by now you’ve come to realize that Szimpla Kert is more than just a bar. It’s an iconic place in Budapest with an obvious presence in the community and you can be sure if I ever find myself in Budapest again, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what cool and amazing things they have added there.

Szimpla Kert is cash only and for more information, opening hours and all current events, you can visit their website.

Let’s get naked

Let me preface this was that I never intended to get naked. It was a frigid January day in Budapest, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from exploring.  Bundled up in all the clothing I had with me, I set out from my hostel in the historic part of Buda. The steam rising out of the drain cover caught my attention first. I paced along the walkway, limbs mechanical yet numb, face frozen, eyes rimmed with weather-induced tears. All the while thinking ” was not made for this kind of weather.”

budapest snow
Everyone was cold. I saw it in the hunched shoulders and stooped spines of the commuters who huddled past, bundled beneath thick fur coats, scarves and fur hats.  Which was why the drain surprised me.

Whimsical fingers of mist curled through the gaps, growing thinner as they spiraled up towards the sky. The sky which experience told me still loomed overhead, but which I avoided looking at in case I inadvertently exposed another sliver of my neck to Budapest’s biting air.

budapest-thermal-baths

Clouds of steam teased me from the outside–“Was it because the water was really that warm or because it was really that cold” I wondered.  I knew with absolute certainty that the concrete surface surrounding the thermal baths was freezing cold.  I had no idea whether the ‘thermal’ pool I had just paid money to use would be steaming hot or just slightly warmer than the below freezing winter air temperatures. Hoping that the steam was not a false promise, my toes tested the water below.  A split second passed before I internally began singing the Hallelujah chorus.

Warmth tickled my toes. And it was a small piece of  heaven. I stumbled down the remaining steps sliding deeper and deeper into the warm water.  I am sure people stared at me when I let out an audible sigh of relief. Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded at this bathing suit optional bath I had chosen to immerse myself in. Not knowing exactly what to do, I just sat there, naked, in my pool of hot water…watching snowflakes get eaten up by the steamy waters.

Budapest is well know for its thermal baths and Szechenyi didn’t disappoint.  It has held the title “City of Spas” since the year 1934, as it has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world. There are 118 springs in Budapest, providing over 70 million liters of thermal water a day. The temperature of the waters is between 21 and 78 Celsius.  Budapest’s thermal waters were enjoyed by the Romans as early as the 2nd century, but it was only during the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th century that the bath culture really started flourishing.  Today, there are 15 public thermal baths in Budapest, not counting the private thermal spas established in some luxury hotels, such as the Ramada Plaza, Thermal Hotel Margitsziget and the Corinthia Royal, which have their own spas that you can enjoy.

In some of them you can even keep your clothes on.

Adventures of DJ and M | Tourists (and refugees) in Budapest

Days 2-4 in Budapest… Let’s go adventuring, shall we, but first, a little history lesson. Budapest is a fascinating historical city seperated into Buda and Pest by the Danube River. This area represents the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which fell at the beginning of WWI.  After WW2 in 1949, Hungary was declared a people’s republic and was ruled by communism. The iron curtain fell in 1989 but when touring Budapest, you will see that there are reminders of the Communist regime scattered throughout the city today.

Today, Hungary is part of the European Union which is part of the reason it is facing its current refugee crisis.  DJ and I narrowly escaped Budapest ahead of Hungary closing its borders in an attempt to stem the influx of these invaders. Authorities in Budapest are trying to help the refugees [migrants, illegals, ect..] by providing shelter, water, and facilities at the train stations, but the migrants want more.  More handouts from not-exactly-wealthy governments. More demands from people not vetted by any type of security.  It’s quite the sticky situation… but I digress…


One of the few remaining Soviet Monuments is Liberty Statue on Gellert Hill. This statue was originally erected to honour the Soviets who sacrificed themselves to free Hungary from the Nazis occupation. As we all know, that liberation came with a price and the Soviets ended up locking out the Western world. The statue was damaged in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and in 1989 after the fall of communism, the statue was kept to honour all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for Hungary. An inscription in the statue states: To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.

Ruin Bars are a popular spot that came out of the fall of communism. These are trendy hipster pubs that are decorated with retro furniture and have a very cool vibe.  Known by locals as ‘romkocsma’ (ruin pub in Hungarian), these pubs have been a part of the drinking culture for over a dozen years. Each one is unique but, more often than not, a ruin pub in Budapest will have a rundown and slightly sketchy exterior that completely contradicts the vibrant colours and unique ambience you’ll find inside. Filled with second hand furniture and nearly anything funky picked off the curb, these formerly abandoned buildings are now pretty integral to Budapest. And it all seems to have started in the city’s 7th district.

 

The neighbourhood was largely damaged and neglected after World War II and it’s said that ruin pubs are what changed the district’s future for the better. Where many saw abandoned factories and deteriorating apartment complexes, the people behind Szimpla saw potential. Over the years, the transformation of these buildings (and now others across the city) led to an entirely new concept in Budapest that super cool.

Budapest is in a major transition right now and an interesting part of traveling there is that you can see a contrast between the communist era and the modern day society of today. Communism is very much a part of the conversation in Budapest. People that are the same age as I am remember growing up during the regime. It has been slower to develop than other communist cities due to lack of funding, but this has allowed it to stave off the dreaded gentrification that is affecting so many cities today. It won’t be long until the West invades though, even now you will find McDonald’s and Starbucks. As a matter a fact, Budapest was the first city in the Eastern bloc to open a McDonald’s. They had a more relaxed form of communism than other countries, giving it the nickname Goulash Communism. They enjoyed a certain freedom and amenities that weren’t available to other countries in the Eastern Bloc.

Not the fancy one

Our train to Prague was nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes late getting in last night. It originated in Budapest, then went to Prague. For the first time in 10+ years of traveling, the police boarded the train at the Czech border, and checked passports. It reminded me a little bit of when I was hanging out in Zapatista territory– at least these police didn’t have machetes attached to their hips.

The migrants are now, shall we say, pissed. They are now attempting to block trains from coming and going by standing on the tracks unless they are allowed on them… without a passport… Without a ticket… without any type of security checks. And they all want to go to Germany. Germany. Does. Not. Want. Them. and neither does anyone else after these antics. To riot against the very people who have literally given you shelter, water, and a place to pee because you did get want you “want”, is a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It makes no sense. They are acting like children who got their candy taken away.

What’s the answer? Idk, but Greece and Italy can’t patrol all the islands that these people are arriving to. Hungary put up a razor wire fence on its border with Serbia but it can’t cover the railway which is being used as a highway. Romania isn’t strong enough to police it’s borders. The Austria / Hungary border is ground zero. People are trying to get into Austria by any means necessary since they see it as the gateway to Germany.  And people are dying–hiding in truck shells. And sealed refrigerators.

Adventures of DJ and M | Shoes

My first visit to Budapest was a frosty sojourn where I tried to be either inside or in the toasty warm thermal baths at all times. I learned a lot about Budapest’s cafe culture, walked around the city with my head wrapped in hats and scarves, learned to use Europe’s second oldest subway efficiently, attended some grade A classical music concerts, and made a lot of mental notes to ‘look up’ the significance of what I saw, and explore more in detail should I ever return.

I have returned.

budapest snow
January 2013…Oh, what I would do for a little ice in the Danube today.

 

August 2015–Danube River–basking in the summer moonlight

Anyway…

One of the things that I saw on my January walk along the river, was several pairs of cast iron shoes pointing towards the river.  Interesting, yes, but what is it’s significance.

I only snapped the one photo because…cold, and frostbitten fingers were a very real possibility.

Interesting…curious….something I’d like to investigate further.

It’s hard to look at a monuments like this–sometimes called ‘dark tourism’–especially in areas where life has gone on, but I think it’s important to look at them, ponder the significance, and reflect on the meaning.  Budapest, in 1944 was not a place you wanted to be if you were Jewish. But then again, most of central Europe was not a place you wanted to be either.

shoes on the danube 5

Rusted cast iron looks like real, used leather, and these shoes in all shapes and styles represent some of the victims of the Holocaust.  In the winter of 1944, several Jews from Budapest were rounded up and stripped completely naked on the banks of the Danube River.  That would have be torture enough. January in Budapest is not balmy. Trust me, I was there in January and nearly froze to death despite my wool hat and coat. These Jews–men, women, and children– were told to face the river. A firing squad shot the prisoners-of-war at close enough range so that their bodies would fall into the icy Danube and be washed away from the city.  If the gunshot didn’t kill them, the river most certainly would.

shoes on the danube 8

Leather was such a precious commodity that even shoes were taken from the victims. After the victims fell into the river, the shoes were rounded up, either re-distributed or the leather re-worked into something else.  Today there are 60 pairs of cast iron shoes modeled after 1940’s footwear lined up on the Pest side of the Danube.  The memorial was commissioned in 2005.

The monument is located on the Pest side of Budapest, Id. Antall József rkp., 1054 Hungary.