Budapest: Beneath the Facade

Published March 2016

Located on the historic Danube River, Budapest stands worlds away from the rest of Europe. The once-Yugoslavian state rebels against its tattered past with gorgeous architecture, wild nightclubs, and warm residents. While the city rarely makes it to travelers’ top ten lists, I’d like to keep it that way. An influx of tourists would spoil its charm: an affordable oasis fueled by raucous parties, dirt-cheap drinks, and friendly people.

I never really had any interest in seeing Budapest. All I knew about it was that it was a former Yugoslavian state, had a history of communism, and that the people wouldn’t be as beautiful or well dressed as their Italian counterparts. While I was correct in my final speculation – Hungarians reminded me of homely, hardworking Midwesterners – the city had a few tricks up its sleeve.

I traveled with six girls: my girlfriend Eva, her two friends, and their three friends. While I usually embrace the opportunity to surround myself with beautiful American girls, the pettiness and drama that such a group creates quickly wore me down. So, after a long day of travel and a particularly peculiar experience on Hungary’s finest airline, WizzAir, Eva sensed my growing irritation and suggested we explore on our own.

It was almost midnight when we left our apartment and headed towards downtown Budapest. The buildings that flanked either side of the street were regal cream-colored structures, intricately carved and contoured, decked out in stone gargoyles and lions’ heads. The sidewalks were wide, a surprising symbol of modernity. We found a seemingly quiet bar off a side street. The bouncer spoke only Hungarian, and after a confused few moments of looking at our foreign drivers’ licenses, he let us in.

The bar was unimposing from the front, a red velvet rope with an empty queue. It didn’t strike me as too large a building. The only sign read, “Instant: Art Garden.” As soon as we entered, we realized this was no ordinary dance club.

Rather, Instant is Budapest’s largest ruin bar. The club is made from two houses that were partially destroyed during the Second World War. With twenty-six rooms, four dance floors, and seven bars, Instant is far different from any bar I’ve ever seen before.

The main dance floor is a massive three-story room with a balcony and catwalk that wrap around the top. In the center stands a tremendous oak tree; toy rabbits race from the branches on one side. A disco ball and a string of funky Christmas lights hang from the other. The walls are covered in trippy murals: a crocodile with human arms and a cat head, a polar bear driving a Jeep through a snowstorm – nothing made sense but, somehow, everything fit in perfectly.

We had only 8000 HUF between the two of us – the equivalent of $30 – or about two drinks in Manhattan. In Budapest, however, we were rich. Beers cost a mere fifty cents; mixed drinks were a dollar. We tried the specialties at all seven bars, wandering from room to room. To the right of the main room was a smaller one with a pool table, couches and a loft.

We lounged for a moment on the couch, observing the room’s other inhabitants. Two girls in their late twenties, seated on the couch across from us, were speaking in rapid French. The taller of the two, a dark-haired girl with blotchy skin and thick eyebrows, pulled out a pack of Marlboro Golds. As they began to smoke – indoors, mind you – I motioned for us to go.

Eva followed me through a tight corridor into another room, this one even smaller than the first. It was stacked floor to ceiling with TVs, each eerily frozen between channels, playing on a loop of fuzz.

It was there that we saw him. He was seated in a corner table, sipping club soda through a long, striped straw. From his bald head, grey scarf, and long black trench coat, he looked exactly like Gru, the main character of Despicable Me. Even his build was the same as Gru’s: a barrel chest tenuously supported by toothpick legs. Perhaps a bit “inspired” by the abundance of cheap drinks, we decided to follow Gru around the club.

He led us up a narrow staircase to the second floor, through a hallway painted with red and black arrows, through a smaller dance floor packed with jumping and gyrating German tourists, to another corner table. We found a table across from him, trying our best to hide our quick, stolen glances. His actions were peculiar. He’d slowly sip from his club soda, look around the room, lean back in his chair, and repeat the process. It was then that a German tourist approached us.

“You are vatching him too, yah?” He ran a hand through his slicked-back hair, unbuttoned his denim jacket, and pointed to Gru.

“Don’t point at him!” I pushed down the German’s hand. “He’ll see you point.”

“You Americans are so easily scared. Vatch! I vill go talk to him.” With that, our German friend walked over to Gru’s table, pulled up a chair and sat down. Gru shook the German’s hand, put down his can of club soda, and led him out of the room.

We went the opposite direction, into a room with stucco walls and four metal chairs around a corroded, wire table. On one wall was a doorway blocked off by a sheet of glass; inside was a toilet, sink and bathtub. The walls of the strange bathroom-exhibit were lined with photos of Hungarian politicians with crudely drawn mustaches and unibrows sketched over their faces.

After hours of wandering around the club, interacting with tourists and pub-crawlers, we were defeated. It must have been at least 4 or 5 in the morning by the time we got back to the apartment because we could see the sun peeking over the Danube.

We were headed to the thermal baths the next day. Because Budapest sits on a patchwork of almost 125 thermal springs, a midday plunge has long been a part of Hungarian daily life.

We walked for about a half hour to the Széchenyi Baths at the northern end of City Park. Sźechenyi is the largest of Budapest’s thermal baths with fifteen indoor pools and three outdoor ones. Bundled in winter parkas, hats and scarves, passing the snow-dusted treetops of City Park, we were worried about the temperature of an outdoor pool in a particularly brutal Hungarian February. However, as the ticket clerk reminded us, the baths are heated all year round to a steamy 38°C, 100°F.

Sźechenyi is a palace; the baths are located in the courtyard of the massive castle. Its mustard walls run three stories high, decked with regal semicircle windows and topped by verdant copper domes. Its visitors are an eclectic mix of ancient Hungarians, for whom the baths are a daily ritual, wild, raucous European backpackers, and us – timid, sheltered Americans. The only remotely similar attraction I’ve ever been to is the wave pool at Six Flags. I had no idea how to act at these baths, whether we were allowed to play Marco Polo in the waters or we could only calmly float between pockets of questionably warm water.

At least in the water, I had my travel companions to watch my back. In the locker room, however, I was alone. Before bathing, I paid 400 HUF for a locker and was given a waterproof, electronic bracelet to open it. The locker room was a zoo; old Hungarian men walked around freely in the nude, German soccer players were chanting and whipping each other with towels, and the few sane tourists – like myself – were hurrying through the chaos.

While the baths were a departure from the usual “safe” tourist attractions, they served as a fascinating introduction to the spectrum of foreign cultures, customs and attitudes I’d experience in Europe. Budapest was the first city I visited on my European adventure. In that sense, it was a fitting introduction to the rest of my journey. I didn’t know what to expect upon entering the country. I arrived without preconceptions and expectations, and thus, I was forced to be open to the unexpected, to the unique, to the spontaneous.

Just as Instant hides its wonders behind an unassuming façade, so too does Budapest cloak its intrigue behind the veil of former Cold War communism. Unknown to most tourists and only recently rediscovered, the city rebels against its stereotype, proving itself a hidden gem among the clichéd European wonders.

Gabe Schindler