I love Budapest’s ruin bars and in particular, Szimpla Kert, the oldest and arguably finest example.
Converting a dilapidated old factory into a hip bar isn’t anything new. But the idea of renovation by making everything worse is.
Arguably, the apparent ruin is more of a trompe l’oeil. The buildings are structurally sound and filled with greenery, quirky art and every surface is available for you to leave your own mark.
And what’s particularly appealing is that the alternative approach isn’t just skin deep. With a farmers’ market and shop, sustainable urban living is being actively promoted. You can even buy yourself a Victor Orban candle to burn.
So what’s the problem?
It was my second time in the place that I noticed something not quite right.
On my first visit, I had been looking at the place. Now I was used to it, I started looking at the people in it. They all had something in common. I confirmed my suspicions when I spoken to a member of staff. Just about everyone was a tourist. Locals go to the more conventionally decorated Kisüzem.
Everyone, like me goes home with the impression that despite all the talk of Hungary being an illiberal state, it’s actually fine and you can be who you like – perhaps living around the corner in a secessionist apartment with flaky paint and high ceilings.
It’s a wider problem with Budapest’s Seventh District, the old Jewish quarter. The graffiti, buildings covered in stickers, vegan street food and an air of ‘anything goes’ might be a pull for some but shows a nervous local population that anything could happen without the guidance of the current regime.
So should ruin bars close?
Of course not. But visitors should not be allowed to come away with a feeling that all is OK when it isn’t. Perhaps first drinks should be free but only if you can give three examples of why the EU Parliament is seeking to apply sanctions.
However, there is an alternative. Go to Szimpla’s sister bar in Berlin.