In early daylight, the old beautiful city appears like a never-ending patchwork of oil paintings.
As if canvas edges have been stitched together and wrapped around street corners, stretched down the banks of the Danube, and unrolled across a misty horizon of bridges and spires. Budapest is so flush with picturesque scenes, I can’t help imagining that a secret caucus of artists must have existed once to orchestrate its construction. Their keen eyes collectively gauging the possibilities of light and color and form, versus location; ‘…and we’ll put the Parliament building right here, next to the river — but angle it just so — we want the sun’s rays to glance off its pillars at precisely 11 o’clock sharp for the most exquisite lighting…’
In the weeks I’ve now spent in this absurdly pleasant and welcoming city, I’ve come to simply expect that nearly every corner, cafe-lined street, or lush park will reveal some sort of visual surprise.
It may be a towering ferris wheel peeking over the surrounding buildings.
Or a random gate tucked to the side of a patch of green — a site where lovers arrive with pad locks to symbolically interlock their hearts together forever. They then walk hand-in-hand to the Danube and toss in the unneeded key, to be carried off through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine before eventually, someday, finally coming to a rest in the rich silt of the Black Sea. Sometimes you’ll come across a reminder of the past; of the city’s succession of rulers, from the Romans to the Mongols to the Austro-Hungarians and then some. It’s a place where one military or another has, and likely always will, endeavor to keep its thumbprint visible, if only in designated areas. For now. Occasionally, the reminders of the city’s long history are quite sad. You may spy iron shoes lined up at the water’s edge, perfect replicas of those abandoned by their Jewish wearers, who were shot and left to float away in the river during the second World War. Inevitably, you’ll stumble across scenes from fairy tales. Magnificent walls that once defied and threatened invading armies have forgotten their former life, and now appear to exist for no other reason than to infuse yet more charm into the skyline — or possibly host a princess or two, if called upon. Then, slowly, night descends and a full moon begins to rise. It’s nearly eclipsed by the light from scattered and ever-brightening neon halos. The old city of Budapest is besieged by new armies of the radiant and young. A different kind of fairy tale unfolds in dark streets and ruins…
A perfect line of shot glasses faces us from atop the wooden bar; a firing squad ready to perform its duty of taking us down, one by one. Inside each clear glass, drops of blood-red liquor await.
Our pub crawl tour guide for the evening is Attila. And yes. That does in fact make him Attila the Hun(garian). He’s 21 and a student at the University of Budapest.
As one might imagine, he rather enjoys this sweet gig of getting paid to drink and take tourists around to the city’s famous ruin pubs three or four nights per week.
“It’s not a bad job,” he tells me later, with the grin of a kid who feels that, due to some strange stroke of luck, he’s completely gotten away with something. Right now, in this nondescript bar, he’s getting away with the first shot of the night — only to show us how it’s done, of course.
He nods at the bartender who tilts the first glass, fills it with a blast of soda water, which converts the contents into a foamy pink concoction. With a flick of his wrist, the pink froth disappears down the hatch.
One after another, each 20- or 30-something member of our group steps up to receive their communion from the bartender: tilt, blast, swig…tilt, blast, swig... It feels like a rite of passage into our own secret society, valid for this night only. I hold back sheepishly, feeling oh, about 86 years of age.
I don’t do shots anymore, I’ve said on countless occasions back in San Francisco, I’m too old for that crap.
But the group waits expectantly for me to join the club, so I approach hesitantly and throw back the last remaining shot. The foamy drink is surprisingly good, if a little medicine-tasting; a sweet-yet-tangy cherry flavor. I order a cherry wheat ale beer (to start things off on a true fruit theme), and join the others who’ve gathered around wood tables at the opposite end of the bar.
I pull up a chair between a tall, handsome bio-chemist from southern California and my new British friend Becky. She’s the reason I’m here in the first place.
Earlier in the day, we’d been in the same group for a city walking tour, and as the only ones not traveling as part of a couple or small group, we naturally started chatting with each other about our travels. Becky was slowly making her way west to England after a two-year stint living as an expat in Chang Mai, Thailand. At the conclusion of the walking tour (in 92-degree heat) we’d decided to grab some cold glasses of wine, which turned into more sightseeing on our own, which turned into us both joining this pub crawl that I hadn’t previously planned on, but it sounded like fun.
To my relief, our booze group happens to be a supremely balanced blend of friendly personalities. It’s like the reverse of The Breakfast Club; there are no obvious jocks, princesses or criminals among us.
We’ve got a couple (two Texans who have recently moved to Budapest, and have attended this tour several times before; the wife is a sweet and very pregnant girl who sips lemonades all night), a soft-spoken Irish chap, a trifecta of California boys, two Aussie girls and the Kiwi boyfriend of one, an ex-U.S. Army guy called Ryan, and two brothers from Turkey. They wear nearly matching blue plaid shirts with jeans, and throughout the evening, I can never quite be sure which one I’m talking to, or what I’ve previously said to which.
Attila calls out that we’ve got three minutes to finish our beers before it’s on the the next place, a true ruin pub.
Three minutes later, we’re herded out the door into the narrow streets, chattering happily.
The pink foam shots and beer have put us all in terrific moods, and we’re speedily becoming old friends despite none of us knowing most of the names in the group. The next place is close by and not very busy. It’s only a little after 9pm, so I’m not too surprised. Uneven cement floors, flimsy walls and partial roofs give the place a feeling of temporariness. And that’s part of the draw; part of the history of Budapest’s long beleaguered seventh district.
The area, which surrounds The Great Synagogue, was once the bustling Jewish quarter. It was forcefully abandoned during WWII, and fell into disrepair, then fell further when gypsies claimed the derelict slum decades later. Now, however, these back streets are experiencing a thrilling awakening; a hipster-fuelled Renaissance.
Crumbling walls have been slathered with eye-popping pop art graffiti. A thrift-shop-meets-craft-shop explosion of Christmas lights, hand-painted signs, snaking tubes of neon, and surreal paper-mâché statues. The insides and outsides of decrepit buildings have been lovingly reinvigorated, and are now the guiding lights of Budapest’s nightlife.
At this pub, we sing happy birthday to one of the plaid-wearing brothers from Turkey while gathered beneath a hanging open-sky forrest of glowing neon pipes. It’s the slightly shorter brother. We all mumble awkwardly when we get to the name part of the song, but finish our singing with a beer-sloshing raising of our glasses in a toast. None of us can quite pronounce the Hungarian word for “cheers” so we all repeat what Attila told us is “close enough in English,” and yell “a-shakes-a-tree!”
The third pub we descend upon is very busy, and very popular. It’s more like two or three buildings loosely linked together by paths carved through a central field of metal chairs and tables. A choir of angels sounds in my head when I realize that This. Place. Serves. Mexican food!!! I have been craving Mexican food for months. I practically dream in quesadillas.
Hardly able to contain my drooling, I order a chicken burrito and beer. Ten minutes later, they are delivered to me on a heavenly cloud puff. It’s not quite as good as the burritos you get in San Francisco, but it’s the closest thing I’ve gotten to it in nearly five months, and I relish every bite. Even the Texans are fairly impressed by the grub.
We promptly launch into discussions of food from home we’ve missed while traveling. For me, it’s been Mexican food, Thai, Indian, sushi and pizza. I haven’t had a single slice of decent pizza on my entire trip, not even at the Pizza Hut at a mall in Porto, Portugal that I shamefully slinked into on a rainy day, rendered helpless by a vicious pizza craving. The Texans, not surprisingly, miss good barbecue.
“But Budapest does lemonade RIGHT.” says the pregnant half of the Texas couple, taking a huge sip of her fourth or fifth lemonade of the evening. I have to agree with her — they are epic. Always freshly squeezed, they include some orange slices, just the right amount of sugar, and are topped off with a shot of ice-cold soda water; a beautiful thing when it’s 80+ degrees even in the nighttime.
We arrive at the final ruin pub sometime after midnight. It’s a three-story ant farm of a place called Instant, situated on a lively street that has a good rap for being “the Broadway of Budapest.”
Our troops have fallen into disarray. Certain members have caved to the effects of large quantities of delicious Hungarian beer. The Texans are the first to bail, or the Irishman — I’m not sure if he was with us during the long trek over. The California boys don’t last long, the handsome bio-chemist is looking rag doll-ish and half asleep. Practically holding him upright, his buddies snicker as they show Becky and I an iPhone video they took of Mr. Science nodding off into mini drunken snoozes at the opera in Vienna, where they’d been a few days ago. The Turkey brothers have vanished. Even Attila the Hun bids us adieu.
The final players are the three Aussies, Ryan the Army guy, Becky and myself. We wander into the central area, which was once the garden patio of what was once a beautiful house. We grab beers and gather around a table, taking in the strange, dreamlike surroundings. It’s like falling into a Salvador Dali painted landscape come to life. A parade of paper-mâché rabbits are threaded across the room, frozen in mid-leap. Trees with green leaves brush against painted skulls and demonic dragons. On one wall, a humanoid owl is making a point of some kind. Becky, Ryan and I want to go explore the ant farm.
A peek downstairs reveals a dense, sweaty, thumping dance party. We’re driven backwards by the force of the music and body heat. Instead we climb upward. Each room we pass or enter sponsors its own theme. Some rooms have their own color; we discover blue rooms and yellow rooms and red rooms. One room resembles a 1950’s era kitchen with a black and white checkered floor. One is reminiscent of a library where I wouldn’t be surprised to find Colonel Mustard with the candlestick. Another is a second disco, where silver specks of light swirl across ornate gold wallpaper and throngs of thrashing hands and hair.
It becomes disorienting and dizzying. I lose Becky and Ryan among the crowds pushing through narrow hallways, rooms that lead to more rooms that lead to more rooms that lead to stairs, some of which lead to nowhere. Finally, I look down into the patio below and see they have returned to our table, and are now chatting tiredly with the Aussies.
I feel the end is nigh, and I’m totally ok with that.
“What time is it?” I ask, pulling up a chair. Ryan tells me it’s 2:30am, and I’m shocked that we’ve been in this madhouse for more than two hours. There are murmurs of sleep and early train rides in a few hours. Facebook connections are made, and hugs and exclamations of “it was so great to meet you, enjoy the rest of your travels!” are exchanged. Even now, none of us knows all of our names. But we know that each of us is ok in our books.
My ears ring with quiet when I step out of Instant and head away from the bright lights and still-energized 20-somethings standing by the door in tight clothes, smoking. As I walk, I can make out traces of the Budapest skyline, and catch slivers of the Danube shimmering beneath the full moon. Even in the dimness, this city is as beautiful as an oil painting; as perfect as a fairy tale. Everywhere I look, visual delights appear, simply waiting for the opportunity to blow my mind. They succeed.
Stay tuned for more stories from Budapest, Hungary!