Budapest: a sad history, some cool “ruin bars” and incredible architecture.

Budapest is famous for its ruin bars. Young entrepreneurs had the idea of using abandoned structures not intended as bars or restaurants, such as factories or apartments, and converting them into bars.


I believe this one, Szimpla Pub, was the first, installed in an abandoned stove factory.


It boomed and there are now at least 15 around the city. The places are decorated by artists and the owner’s buddies, often using recycled materials. While they still retain the bohemian style, judging by the volume of customers I saw, they could now afford to renovate the place in marble.


Some seating, made from a vintage East-German Trabant plastic car, sawed in half!


I explored the places as part of a guided pub tour. Here’s Orsi, the guide, who is enrolled in some graduate degree related to Judaism and also conducts tours of the Jewish heritage of Budapest. 


The people of Budapest like their drinks, both indoors and outdoors. It’s no secret alcohol helped keep people happy in the days of communism. When the first international investors arrived in 1989, some were a little shocked to find many factory workers a little tipsy… first thing in the morning. In reaction, the new Government passed a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol between 4 and 9 in the morning, hoping fewer workers would show up at work already drunk!


The city boasts tons of fantastic architecture, and you often have to remind yourself to look up, or you might certainly miss something.


The Opera House.


Fisherman’s Bastion, which is not really a bastion and from where you cannot fish, and the statue of the city’s founder, St-Stephen.


The Matthias Church, complete with its brand new tile roof.


Even the main train station is quite stunning.


Back in the days of the Cold War, the Hilton hotel chain decided to open its first hotel in the East in relatively liberal Hungary. Because of the high profile nature of this investment, apparently old man Hilton himself came to Budapest to select the location. He suggested purchasing “the building with the green roof”; unfortunately for him, the former Royal Palace was not for sale!


So the Hilton was built on the ruins of an old church, which are now embedded in the back of the building.


As is often the case in communist countries, the metro system was built very deep, to serve as a shelter for the population in case of nuclear war. The communist aristocracy had proper shelters for them and their families, of course.


This fountain has a large square of water jets, which are very much in the way when you want to cross the park. Conveniently, the tiles all around it are equipped with sensors, so that as you approach the wall of water, some jets turn off, opening a path for you. In case you ever wanted to know how Moses must have felt.


You will find these love locks on the bridges of many cities in Europe but in Budapest, it is not allowed and they cut them off. To go around this restriction, they installed a special padlock fence in the middle of a park!


Changing of the Guard at the Presidential Office.


The House of Terror, an important museum depicting the horrors of the German and Soviet occupations. It is located inside the former headquarters of the former secret police, the State Security Authority (ÁVO), but fore some reason photography is not permitted. At its peak, the ÁVO had 9,000 employees, 41,000 informants and a list of 1.3 million registered “enemies”. The most interesting part was the filmed testimonies of former victims. One man recalled how at the end a collective trial for him and his co-accused, the judges said they would retire and come back with the judgement. 10 minutes later, they returned with a typed 30 page document! Kind of obvious.


The outside walls themselves became a memorial. The museum deals a lot more with the period of Soviet occupation/dominance than the German one. One good reason for this is that the German occupation lasted months while the Soviet one lasted more than a decade. And the fact that between 1945 and 1956, persecutions, deportations and executions affected one out of every three Hungarian families.

A somewhat more touchy reason is that Hungary’s position as a victim of the Germans is a little weak. After all, they were part of the Axis, but when the Government, with the Red Army already in the country, capitulated, the Germans occupied the country and placed the Hungarian nazi party, the Arrow Cross, in power. While the Germans enabled their takeover, it was the Arrow Cross Government who killed tens of thousands of Hungarians and helped the SS deport even more Jews out of Budapest, many to their deaths.


The topic is very political even in today’s Hungary. A monument is planned in Budapest to commemorate the German occupation. This demonstration took place while I was there to denounce the project, describing it as revisionism.

The beautiful “post-communist” country is certainly not out of political hot waters. The far-right party Jobbik is solidly the third party of the country and the current Government has moved the country towards a bit more authoritarianism. For example, “being homeless” became a crime a few months ago, meaning that you cannot just lay on the street or live in a park if it is anywhere near downtown, a UNESCO site, a hospital, etc. Basically hiding what nobody wants to see.

Corruption is also rampant and the guide I had the previous day said she spent 20 hours on a hospital bed before delivering her first baby, with no help or communication whatsoever unless it was absolutely necessary. For the second kid, she paid the expected 200 Euros to the mid-wife and the expected 40 Euros to the doctor, per visit, and the service she received in the “free” Government hospital was remarkable. It has to be said, a doctor in Hungary earns 600 Euros a month. All this confirmed for me what I was saying in my previous story: going from communism to democracy may not be a one generation endeavour.

Happy Easter everyone!


One thought on “Budapest: a sad history, some cool “ruin bars” and incredible architecture.

  1. Thanks for this. The “victims of the Germans” revisionism reminds me of the Austrian “We are victims of the Nazis” storyline…450k Hungarian Jews deported in mere months, so bad was the Hungarians zeal, that the Nazis themselves told the Govt to tske it easy !
    Pleasure traveling with you, as always :)

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