Two girls nestle inside a rusting bathtub, each languidly puffing on a hookah like the louche, heavy-lidded caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. A six-foot tall green rabbit squats at the entrance of their ramshackle den, a figment of a fever dream conjured into concrete form, while a child’s rocking horse dangles upside down from the ceiling, impassively surveying the scene through black button eyes.
Deeper in the heart of this graffiti-splattered cavern, half-a-dozen hipsters crowd into a defunct car retrofitted with wooden benches, Beverly Hillbillies-style, and a young woman dances with an inflatable doll beneath the rainbow glow of Christmas lights. Gradually, the tangle of tattooed limbs blurs into a mind-bending illusion—that of a multitentacled, beer-clutching Kraken grooving to a persuasive techno beat.
Whatever I might have expected from Budapest, I couldn’t have imagined the dystopian utopia of Szimpla Kert. It’s a surreal standout among a warren of “ruin pubs” that transform the Hungarian capital’s Jewish Quarter into a party-hearty hub after dark.
These lively bars—some little more than open-air courtyards strung with hammocks and furnished with old barrels, park benches and even a “shipwrecked” boat—line the roads and fill the courtyards of buildings that lay neglected long after World War II.
Now, the neighborhood is a haven for street artists, students and backpackers basking in the hedonistic vibe that pervades former Eastern Bloc cities like Budapest and Prague, which are still reveling in their freedom after casting off the Communist yoke towards the end of the 20th century.
Some visitors come to Budapest seeking a better understanding of its turbulent history, including its World War II Axis alliance and post-war Soviet rule, which ended in 1989. (more…)