Garden Party: Budapest’s Kerts

Originally semi-legal bars set up in abandoned courtyards, Budapest’s kerts have been the city’s staple summer hang outs for over a decade. However, growing in both scope and numbers, these so called ‘ruin pubs’ have evolved into much more than beer gardens, as Duncan Rhodes discovers.

“This place was a hill of shit,” explains Balázs Horváth, as he sweeps an arm across the courtyard of the fashionable Fogashaz bar, which he helped open in 2010. “There is still more work which needs doing and probably – for a foreigner like you – it’s just a ruin pub. But for us it’s a castle.”

ET models invisible cloak

Sipping a Sprite under a bright October sky in the very same courtyard – a ramshackle space decorated with potted plants and notably a bicycle suspended from a wooden balcony – it’s hard not share Balasz’ enthusiasm for his project; one that is ambitious even by the creative standards set by Budapest‘s other so-called ‘kerts’ or ‘ruin pubs’. As is typical with such bars, the courtyard forms the central nexus of Fogashaz, whilst the rooms that surround it fulfill a diverse range of purposes: lounges double as art galleries, there’s a Lomography store for analogue shutterbugs, a bike repair and rental shop, a ping pong hall, a mini cinema and even a theatre space. Above the bar, on the first floor, apartments have been converted into a series of artistic workshops, and indeed much of what is fashioned up here is later exhibited on the ground floor.

Fogashaz means ‘Tooth House’ and Balazs explains to me a bit more about the history of the building and the conversion into its current incarnation. “Around the early ’50s there was a dental laboratory here and this was the house where different kinds of families lived. All of these places, on the ground floor, were different-sized flats, so we had to destroy the inbetween walls, and of course build the bars. This roof we built, with the help of some technical minded friends (Balazs gestures towards the convertible cover that keeps the courtyard dry and warm during winter, but rolls back the moment the sun puts his hat on). And because, when the last owners abandoned the building all the good stonework was stolen, we had to rebuild the balconies and fences.”

Goulash at the Grandio

The work was well worth it, at least if Budapest’s young and trendy nightowls are any barometer to measure success by. Whilst at midday no more than a trickle of artsy students are loafing around drinking coffee, when I return by night I can barely get into the courtyard, for the hordes of hip 20-somethings shimmying to the DJ at one end of the patio and queuing up for a gin and tonic at the other.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m on a self-appointed mission to explore the best of Budapest’s kerts – aka ruin pubs, aka rubble bars – but literally meaning no more than ‘gardens’. Naturally I’ve checked myself into the only digs in town that also boast a kert on the very premises, the Grandio Party Hostel, whose leafy courtyard in a charming but run-down building harks back to the humble origins of the scene – when people would simply set up a bar in a disused space and invited the good folks of Budapest to while away the summer drinking beers in the sun. Sadly I’ve arrived in Hungary just as the weather turns nasty, but Grandio’s enterprising owners have come up with the perfect remedy: Sunday sessions of goulash cooked over an open fire and washed down with vodka. Well worth braving the cold for.

In the shadows of Szimpla

Just around the corner from Grandio is the bar that started it all, the grandaddy of the kerts, and one of the most famous venues in the whole of Budapest: Szimpla. Like so many before me, I fall in love with the place the minute I walk in. A huge warren of chambers, surreally decorated, opens up before me as I push through the industrial PVC strip curtains. Amongst the hotch-potch of modern art I find rooms lit by the kaleidoscopic glow of rainbow-coloured lightbulbs and walls adorned by Communist-era TVs playing psychedlic patterns on repeat, whilst the ‘kert’ itself is being used as an open air cinema to screen a black and white movie to two young lovers sitting in a converted car. The minute we settle down in the bar area which serves food (including hamburgers the size of your head), an attractive girl appears with a bowl of giant carrots which she attempts to foist on us for 150 forints a piece. I politely decline, but my friend and guide for the evening Dora, hands over her change and takes a bite out of the oversized veg., so I guess it’s not a tourist gimmick. When I go to the counter to order a round of Hungarian wines, walking past a bathtub re-fashioned as a sofa in the process, I find the bar’s mission statement displayed in the form of a dictionary definition:

Yes, it's possible!

szimpla / Szimpla / has been running since October 2001. We keep trying to find out whether it’s possible to support an alternative culture on a profit orientated basis, to survive seemingly endless construction, to have one of the best cuisines in town, to screen self distributed movies in our own open-air cinema, to organise animation festivals, and other such things. The answer so far seems to be: YES, IT IS POSSIBLE.

Modern bar owners like Balasz acknowledge their debt to Szimpla, which they themselves grew up frequenting, but if this place provided the blueprint, Budapest is full of bars which follow the same pattern – that of a complex of bars based around a courtyard – but which give their own twist or emphasis to proceedings. The following night I head out on a kert crawl with the kids from Grandio Hostel, during which I’m introduced to the swanky Doboz. There’s nothing ramshackle about this place: it’s central courtyard is dominated by a vast tree trunk being climbed by some kind of monster made from wooden-planks, behind which a glass-fronted dancefloor plays hip hop tunes and to either side of which lounge areas bustle with good-looking locals. I’m pleased to find Zubrowka behind the bar and order myself a tatanka before getting talking to a film crew who have just clocked off work. The vibe is part swanky nightclub, part rich stranger’s house party. And whilst I don’t want to appear fickle, it’s fair to say I’ve just discovered my new favourite Budapest boozer.

The Tooth House after dark

After calling back in on Fogashaz our kert crawl is running out of time so we make straight to the final destination, a nightclub called Instant. With 26 different rooms this place is the biggest of the lot so far, even if it doesn’t really feel like a kert as the courtyard is covered. No matter, there’s three different dancefloors, one playing techno (boring!), one playing indie and electro (too crowded) and a third one playing some kind of dance music I don’t recognise… “It’s called GLITCH-HOP,” shouts the DJ, before elaborating with a technical definition that goes straight over my non-musical head. Whatever it is, it’s nothing that my Justin Timberlake impression can’t be adapted too… and so the lucky people of Budapest experience a rare treat for the night. It’s the least I could do after they created some of the world’s best bars.

More Budapest Kerts

Holdudvar
Holdudvar was the first kert I ever visited, during my inaugural visit to Budapest in 2007… and I was instantly smitten. An open air venue on Margrit Island, the place is both glamorous and laidback, with a smooth-looking bar area and dancefloor, German-beer-festival-style benches and, further back, ping pong tables (for friends) and swinging sofas (for couples). www.holdudvar.net

Smoked brassoi

Potkulc
It doesn’t get much more homely than the ‘Spare Key’. There’s a garden outside, but during my autumnal visit I had to content myself with the interior, which resembles the living room of an eccentric aunt, whose husband abandoned her 20 years ago. Think purple striped sofas and tawdry floral patterned table clothes. After press ganging a local into translating the Hungarian menu for me, I took his recommendation of brassoi (potato chunks and strips of meat in spicy tomato sauce) and ate it, only mildly bothered by the chain-smoking 30-something in a time-trapped paisley shirt. Authentic. Like any self-respecting kert, there’s a foosball table. www.potkulcs.hu

Durer
Durer is the one that got away. A large venue up by the City Park, it has all the ingredients of a classic kert, and I’m assured you can play table football, table tennis, petanque and even darts in its courtyard/garden, whilst there’s live music and/or DJs most nights. My nightlife senses are tingling on this one, and it’s top of my list for next time… maybe you’ll get there first!? www.durerkert.com

Even more kerts…

For even more ruin pub recommendations check out the excellent www.ruinpubs.com.

Duncan stayed in Budapest as a guest of the Grandio Party Hostel, to whom he extends his thanks for both their generous hospitality and invaluable kert-related tips. He recommends only those with a complete disregard of their liver reserve a room there.

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