Lost in Budapest

Ferment’s Phil Hall strays far from the festival bubble


It’s Budapest Beer Week. The Professional Day Conference. Everybody’s here. The whole gang. Craft beer’s extended family reunion. Brewers, importers, supporters, maltsters, and hipsters gather at the bar and around tables sampling international and domestic beers from the 32 taps of Neked Csak Dezsö (The Slaughtered Pig).

Industry second cousins awkwardly greet one another. Brewing aunts and uncles warmly welcome in the new members. Brothers and sisters in craft embrace, excited for the weekend ahead.

I love the family. I love to see them, catch up with them, and get to know them better while sharing a beer and a story. But, like so many family gatherings, at some point you need to get out, smell the air, take in the surroundings, roll and tumble through the streets. Knowing you’ll see the family again tomorrow, with your brave face on at breakfast back at the hotel.

Out there, sat either side of the blue Danube, is Budapest. Hungary’s grand capital in spring, swinging with life and adventure.

Budapest, along with a few notable rivals – Bucharest, Saint Petersburg, Riga, Prague, Lahore, Saigon, and Shanghai – has a strong claim to being the ‘Paris of the East.’ A title that promotes the credentials of the city’s civility, enlightened thought, and the grandeur of its architecture.

There has been continual settlement on these riverbanks since the Palaeolithic period. The three main areas of the city each express its constant development: Obuda (Old Buda) to the north of the west bank, runs from the ruins of the Roman settlement of Aquincum, through Islam’s most northern holy site, all the way down to Elvis Presley Park, dedicated to the King in his support of the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956.

To the south, Buda. Perched upon forested hills, with its castle and citadel casting their gaze over the narrow streets and leafy squares, carved out amongst a veritable clamjamfry of architecture – Medieval, Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque – telling the story of the city’s incredible lineage.

Pest, on the East bank, sprawls out over the plains. Marching along boulevards that would have impressed Baron Haussmann, stand the muscular, urban facades of Neo-Renaissance and Romantic buildings, replete with flourishes and embellishments, boasting of a refined, metropolitan culture. In-between, peppered here and there, taking their place by force are Soviet buildings, shabby and austere. All sheltering the blocks, mazes and warrens of the Budapest nightlife.

Celts, Romans, Huns, Ottomans, Hapsburgs and Magyas, have all at one time claimed dominion, asylum, and residence in this global city. The world still flocks here in modern times; with 4.4 million visitors a year, Budapest to this day remains one of Europe’s most attractive cities. 

So, out from the beer festival and on to the streets to join this urban panoply. Staggering footsteps take me through Pest, flanked either side by Daniel, a local bar owner and Cleber, Head of Cool at the Finish Cool Head brewery. We slope through the Czech craft beer bar Hetedik lépcső (The Seventh Step). In Czech tradition, the best temperature to drink beer is between 7-10 degrees. To maintain this temperature, it’s stored on the seventh step of the cellar. On the way, Daniel tells us ‘It will either be crazy as all hell, or completely dead. Nothing in-between.’ He is right, two men sit in the corner in muttered conversation, as bar staff loiter around the beer taps.

A round of Zichovec brewery’s finest, Baby Revolution, Sour 12 Mango + Raspberry, and Juicy Lucy, are joined by dishes of Goats cheese, pickled Saveloy, peppers and head cheese. As we tuck into this feast, Daniel’s national pride kicks in: “We could have gotten good Hungarian head cheese elsewhere. This stuff is from a can, shipped in from the Czech Republic.” But it’s no good, as we’ve already hoovered up the dishes before the froth was blown off the top of our Stange glasses. Daniel tells of his camping expeditions to the Hungarian woods, where he and his friends butchered and prepared a Haggis from scratch; ‘scratch’ being a main ingredient in Haggis.

Off we go again, briefly into a Brewdog pub, built in eerie McDonald’s uniformity; it is the same in Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen… Milton Keynes. I’ve been here before, this ain’t the place, but maybe we’ll stop for one or two.

Outside having a cigarette, Daniel tells me about the politics in Hungary. In a profane and vulgar address to the party conference in 2006, the serving Hungarian Socialist Party Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted to the gathered faithful that they had lied to the electorate and achieved nothing in their four years of power. This led to mass protests across Hungary and the collapse of the Hungarian left, leading to the 2010 supermajority of Viktor Orbán’s national conservative Fidesz party. With more domestic power than any other European leader, Orbán has shaped the constitution to favour his party, seized control of the major News outlets, and taken a tough stance against immigrants and the European Union. Cronyism and corruption abound. Daniel tells me that mainstream media can’t be trusted, propaganda pours out of it daily, muddying the waters for the Hungarian population.

“There’s no one at the border, they aren’t still trying to get into the country,” he says. “It’s all to gain more power. The only news I trust is from what I pick up from the internet. We feel bad for you in Britain, with Brexit, but things are worse here.” I ask him what he thinks of the shiny British pub we’re sat outside of. “Hungarians can’t afford to drink here. People have seen what’s going on in the craft beer world and they’ve brought it here, the price as well.”

We pick up Gleber, flitting from table to table making friends, but we have to leave, as Daniel’s place, Bölcső Bar & Food, will be shutting soon.

Bölcső is like stepping into the captain’s quarters of a pirate ship. Olive green walls and dark wooden furniture, with an Amazonian masthead leaning out from the horseshoe bar. Framed in the centre is a portrait of Hrabal Bohumil, a Czech writer who wrote tales of wise fools, benevolently casts his eyes over us all. Our motley crew is joined by barman Bendegúz, (“you know, like bending a goose!”) and chef Marcin.

Once again, the beers begin to flow and the bar grows warmer and more convivial by the minute. It’s not long before the Hungarian herbal liquor, Unicum makes its first appearance. Blended by the Zwack family in Budapest, to a ‘secret recipe’ of over forty different herbs and spices, Unicum is Hungary’s national drink. Somewhere between Jägermeister and Fernet-Branca it is perfectly disgusting. With a round of shot glasses and hearty cheers of ‘Egészségedre,’ a toast that gets easier to pronounce the drunker you are, the aromatic tonic provides further warmth to the body and its surroundings. I catch sight of a portrait of Kenny Dalglish in the back of the bar. Kenny too gazes down kindly upon us in his red shirt.

Conversation leads to the assertion, from Marcin, that there are only four kinds of places for a dedicated beer drinker in this town; good bars, shitty bars, ruin bars or illegal bars.

We’ve been in good bars all night, so it’s time to find the other three. With staggering footsteps, I say goodbye to Daniel and Gleber, and am now flanked either side by Bendegúz and Marcin, as we spill out of Bölcső, heading for a shitty bar. Steep steps like an Escher drawing to the bar. The barman, sat adjacent to the bar, his wiry frame floating in oversized sportswear, pinned down by the weight of his thick silver chain, looks disgruntled to be serving us. More Unicum and beers. The rounds are cheap and university students are eager to talk and challenge for a game of table football. Bars stay open late here. Really late. We stay in this bar until the sun rises.

I meet Marcin the next day back at the beer fest to see local heavy metal bands. Marcin explains that metal is big in Hungary. These kind of gigs give people a way to expel their frustrations in the mosh pit. Violence in an undiscriminating, safe environment. “Life in Hungry is tough, this is the country that George Orwell wrote about,” confides Marcin.

As things wind down, it is time to get out and explore. Ruin bars sprung up out of squatter bars in the early 2000s in the interior of the crumbling VII district. Once home to the Jewish quarter, the area hadn’t really recovered from the deportations of World War II, leaving empty, dilapidated buildings and space. One of the first, Szimpla, was an abandoned building that offered affordable drinks for the young and creative of Budapest. Szimpla, and other ruin bars that sprang up behind them, became bohemian centres. Crumbling buildings renovated with local design and vintage, mismatched furniture.

Nowadays, the ruin bar is a victim of its own success; gone are the creative and bohemian locals of Budapest, in favour of the world’s stag dos, inter-railers and backpackers. Advertised in EasyJet’s inflight magazine. Marcin has no desire to go to one, but instead wants to take me to an Illegal bar. After a slight objection from Gabor, our photographer, who wants to go to a bar to meet his girlfriend in another part of town, we start out to find one. We walk through the streets of the seventh district, beers in hand, taking about the city.

We finally arrive outside a non-descript domestic doorway. Ajar, one eye peering out at us, in hesitation, the door opens to welcome us in. We walk into a small space with a few tables and benches brushed up against the walls. Marcin takes the lead, and we follow through and up into a small, dimly lit turquoise room. Arty, intellectual types share drinks around candle-lit tables. A girl in a turban, smoking with a long, thin cigarette holder sits in the corner while silver haired men talk enthusiastically to youths gathered round them. Corduroy jackets and elbow patches drain their beer mugs together. Every one with long hair, every one smoking cigarettes. The creatives and bohemians of the city haven’t vanished, they’ve moved behind closed doors.

Frilled standard lamps, kidney-shape mirrors, E.T with a cigarette in his mouth, skulls, old radios, wicker baskets full to the brim with bits and bobbins, jumble up the space, while hundreds of brightly coloured origami cranes hang from the ceiling, swaying in the cigarette smoke. At the back of the room, Marcin pares back a thick velvet curtain, revealing a red-lit kitchen and a girl sitting on a stool beside an old American-style fridge. Marcin tries to talk to her. With little reaction from her, Marcin explains “she’s pretending she doesn’t know my name”.

The unicum finally reaches my legs and kicks them forward into the dusk-red kitchen, where I introduce my host: “Have you met Marcin?”

“Yes, I have,” she explains, smiling. “I know him. What would you like to drink?”

I order some beers, which she pulls out of the huge, fully-stocked fridge. Marcin insists on Hungary’s other national drink, Palinka, a fruit-flavoured moonshine. In a populist move, in 2010 Orbán championed a law that would allow citizens to distil up to 50 litres of homebrew Palinka, which had long been the illicit pastime of thousands of Hungarians. Legal, just as long as no one sells it or gives it away. Every bar has its own version.

Marcin passes round the unusually large shot glasses. Already, a foot and a half away from them, the alcohol makes my eyes water. With the starting gun of ‘Egészségedre’ tripping out of my mouth, we all drink together. It is a slap to the face, a punch in the tonsils and a Chinese burn to the oesophagus, with an elbow drop to liver. Getting drunk and into a fight in the same glass. My legs shake and buckle like new-born deer as the shock dissipates. I haven’t fallen over, passed out, or thrown up, all three of which I expected to do.

As is with all such near-death experiences involving high strength alcohol, euphoria, camaraderie and the desire to talk overtook us. With the Palinka never too far away, the night drives on with songs and clatter, everyone switching tables, kicking up heels.

Once home to the likes of Ernő Rubik, Franz Lizst, László Moholy-Nagy, and Harry Houdini. Budapest needs no comparison to Paris. An ever shifting, virtuosic city of, art, magic, showmanship and international appeal.

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