Creative flair combines art and pleasure
‘Look up, ” Peter, my Hungarian friend, says. I do as he says and my head begins to spin. A typewriter, a briefcase, a book, a vinyl record and other household items are glued to the ceiling. On the floor, a sofa has been turned upside down. I twist my head and start to feel even dizzier. “I’m glad I’m not on drugs, ” I say.
Set around a courtyard apartment in downtown Budapest, Instant is one of the city’s coolest “ruin pubs”. The concept is simple. Creative, arty entrepreneurs buy or rent dilapidated properties and transform them into trendy, quirky places to eat, drink and be merry.
Likened to the shabby-chic dive bars of east Berlin, many ruin pubs can be found in the back streets around the mighty, Moorish-style Great Synagogue, in one of Europe’s largest Jewish neighbourhoods.
Labyrinth-like and full of surprises, Instant is set over three storeys, with 23 rooms, six bars, three dance floors and two gardens. This self-proclaimed “enchanted forest” has some mind-bending decor.
As well as the upside-down room, there’s a parade of toy rabbits strung across the courtyard, where punters have parked bicycles vertically against the wall. While Instant has some of the ingredients of a student bar, the clientele is varied.
“It’s more for people like us; 30-somethings, and older. Professionals, writers, poets, artists, regular people, ” says Peter, a seasoned Budapestian pub crawler. “The students go to the cheap places.”
At 620 forints ($2.85) per half-litre of Dreher lager (and just a little more for mixers), Instant hardly breaks the bank. Sipping as we stroll, we find people playing chess in one dimly lit room. In other, more brightly lit ones, people are lounging on sofas, embroiled in beard-stroking conversation — or downing shots of absinthe.
We pass cosy little cubbyholes, where couples smooch and clink glasses of wine, and plunge into a gothic cellar bar where a DJ is spinning electronica tunes to young hipsters.
A ruin pub crawl makes for an entertaining and inexpensive night out in a city that isn’t short of twilight options. (In Budapest, you can enjoy top-notch theatre and opera, soak in thermal baths, linger in opulent coffee houses, relax in swanky cocktail joints and plush wine bars or party in the open-air clubs on the banks of the River Danube.)
Launched in the early 2000s, the don of ruin pubs, Szimpla Kert (Simple Garden), still attracts a lively crowd of bohemian locals and tourists with its cheap drinks, eclectic decor (think old Trabant cars) and live music (including Hungarian folk bands).
Szimpla Kert attracts a lively crowd of bohemian locals.
Another ruin pub blending alcohol and culture amid funky retro surrounds is Fogashaz. It is housed in a former dental practice and hosts revolving exhibitions of art, theatre, concerts and film screenings.
Above a department store, via a graffiti-daubed stairwell, Corvinteto is a popular “underground” club, which plays a variety of music, including jazz. From spring to autumn, its huge rooftop terrace offers the best ruin pub panoramas over Budapest.
Some newer establishments are determined to stand out from the crowd. Across the street from Szimpla Kert, Kek Lo (Blue Horse) has been dubbed a “cloth” or “fashion pub” — a place where you can drink and buy clothes and accessories from the collection of Hungarian designer Virag Toth. Priced from around 2500-6000 forints, the items are laid out in wardrobes, cupboards and on mannequins with horse heads (hence the name).
Some uber-cool types insist that ruin pubs are old hat, and are tipping “art bars” to be the next big thing. A pioneer is Csak, where the walls are matted with offbeat sculptures and the collages of Hungarian artist Babos Zsili Bertalan.
Peter tells me that as the downtown becomes more attractive to property developers, the long-term future of many ruin pubs are in doubt.
“You can imagine how much some of these places are worth, ” he says. “Downtown is getting more popular, prices are rising. They could be renovated into really nice apartments. There’s a lot of money to be made.”
Seeing the disappointment on my face — it would be a shame to lose these quirky drinking dens, I feel — Peter adds: “But there are many other ruined buildings around here, so they (the arty entrepreneurs) would just go somewhere else and do them up.
© The West Australian