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©2019 Shawn Basey | Tbilisi | Prague | Travel blog and tips

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A Syrian soul singer in Budapest

March 26, 2018

 

 

When we got back from Naples, I learned that a friend of mine was coming to Europe. “I’ll be in Berlin at this time and Budapest at this time,” he said.

 

“So why not stop at Prague? It’s in the middle,” I said.

 

“I’m going by plane.”

 

Damnit Wizzair and your ridiculously cheap flights! So then, it was up to me to choose one. I was in Berlin most recently, and I was closer to the folk that he was seeing in Budapest, so Budapest it would be.

Budapest is about an 8-hour train ride from Prague. It’s a comfortable train, easy to book online, has wifi and all that jazz. The only thing it doesn’t have is a food car.

 

In typical Czech fashion, there’s just some dude that roams up and down with random bits of food. Sometimes sandwiches, sometimes five-year-old Bickers Bars. Seriously weird off-brand stuff that probably haven’t been made since Communist times. Buying water from those guys is also a wonder, as when you get the bottle of water, you get the slight feeling that it was filled up at the toilet of the last station. Just a vague feeling though. I’m sure its fine.

Always best to go with the beer.

 

The beer is likely to have been sold quickly and cycled through, so it should be safe.

 

I met my friend Andy at the Budapest station, and since my other friends didn’t have a spot left for me to stay, I got an apartment across the street with AirBnB. So far so good, except that I forgot my phone and tablet charger… there’s always something! It’s okay, it’s just a couple of days and I’ve got an extra phone battery. At least this time I remembered my camera chip and charger, not like when I was in Naples.

 

 a statue outside my airbnb

 

The first time I had been to Budapest was for a two-week stint waiting for my Russian visa that never came. It was half-crumbling ruin and half-construction site with only the very center of the city being a presentable place for tourism and life. The coolest part of town was the old Jewish ghetto, which was a giant morass of old buildings that were once bankers’ palaces (by Jewish ghetto here I don’t mean it in the World War II sense, but rather in the historical sense of concentrated Jewish neighborhood, as the ghettos in World War II weren’t usually in such nice places).

 

 some shots around the ghetto

 

Holocaust memorial outside a synagogue 

 

random building in the ghetto district  

 

 and just a cool building somewhere

 

The bankers’ palaces though were old remnants of their former glory, long empty, and the interiors had been gutted and turned into gigantic dive bars. The bars, called ruin bars, would often have a couple of kitschy items, like a giant Cupid or some neon lights, to give it atmosphere, but that was otherwise it. And as this was back before the tourism wave came to Budapest, they were all kind of empty, a little bit seedy, and very cool feeling. I wanted to revisit that, obviously.

 

 a street uptown

 

The first night though, we had other plans. Obviously, when you’re in Budapest, you’ve got to go to some weird concert of a Syrian wedding singer. We went to that, held at Durer Kert, which definitely maintains the feel of a ruin bar, and maybe it is one, I’m not actually that sure of the technical definition. It’s a live music venue in an old university building, where the old lecture halls have all been turned into their individual clubs. Each hall hosts their own band, where you’ll have to pay an individual entry most nights. You’ll get both local acts here and international acts, and the other interior bars and garden are free for the roaming. There’s also no single type of music played here. We were at a Syrian wedding singer concert, but that same night there was also a hardcore punk and a death metal concert, along with who knows what else.

 

 a romantic scene in one of the bars

 

 yalla yalla in the house!

 

I’ll be honest, though the Syrian wedding singer guy, Omar Souleyman, was kind of awesome. A weird Arab techno something vibe going on. Even his name is pretty hilarious, as it’s usually Anglicized as “Suleiman” but here he’s purposefully put some soul into it, man.

 

 

The next day, Andy and I just wandered around the town aimlessly, hitting a few bars along the way. We started off along one of the main squares, the Oktagon, and then zig-zagging around Kiraly street.

 

 

 

We finally ended up at the riverside, then at Kalvin Ter, and had some ethnic Hungarian Vietnamese food. We then met up with our friends again after their daily routine was finished, and made our way for a few drinking sites.

 

 outside Painter's Palace

 

The first was a little art hole, called the Painter’s Palace, where there was a little artist’s market. I met an artist there doing some amazing calligraphy. I’ll talk more on that next week.

 

Then we hit the Jewish ghetto again, aiming specifically for some ruin bars.

 

 near Kalvin Tor

 

We went to Szimpla Kert, whose tradition is the one really that started the ruin bar thing back in 2001 in its first iteration. It’s now on Kazinczy street, and forms a fantastically bizarre complex of different rooms from different eras, a jungle-esque upper corridor, and a large courtyard garden that features outdoor films and a table from an old Trabant car. The place was absolutely packed, but we were able to find a place in the courtyard. Not ideal for the winter, but it stayed surprisingly warm, filled with outdoor heaters as it was.  

 

 in the courtyard of Szimpla

 

 also in the courtyard, not watching movies

 

another bar in Szimpla 

 

We decided to change scenes and went to Fogas haz, which is also Instant. They were once separate places, but later merged, or something. I’m not sure. But here I was able to pronounce the death of ruin pubs. There was a security line with a face control, then an enforced coat check place, and so on. And we were finally inside. They had some live music going on, which was good, but nothing we were interested in (it was progressive rock, which I’m not too keen on these days now that I’m an older gentleman and such). We finally found a neat little back room filled with weird art that looked like a coffee shop to an art gallery, or at least somewhere proper to plan a revolution.

 

 the main room at Fogas haz

 

However, what really killed the mood, was some lady charging for the restroom. It wasn’t the typical old lady in the bathroom who kind of guilts you into throwing a coin at her, but rather the old lady had set up a barricade on the outside, complete with a big burly guy to shake you down for an investment in her sanitation business.

 

 plotting revolution in a backroom

 

I ask her how much, “500 forints!” she yells back. That seems a bit much, that’s like 4 beers or something--at some point these wacked out inflated currencies are like Monopoly funny money--but I really have to pee, so I throw the coin into her tray. Later, when walking out, I looked around and noticed a sign that said something like 100 forints. Real mafia thing happening with the toilets, I tell you. But then I noticed another group of people coming in, a dude wearing a giant penis, and his mates chanting out British football songs. A stag party. Ah, I see now. The Brits haven’t just ruined Prague, but Budapest too. Here’s to a hard Brexit!

 

 one of the bars at Fogas had some weird pics

 

including a Put in 

 

After all of us got gypped at the loo, we decided to move on to where there might be a free place to pee. A more low key spot with superior beers, Uncle Ogre. A much quieter spot, completely lacking in the British football chants, and serving much better than the regular swill at the ruin bars. It was a good way to end the night/trip. 

 

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