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Hungary's thriving 'kert' bar scene

If you're looking to pub-hob in Budapest, consider going to a kert - a hastily-put-together bar usually found in abandoned sites.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2007, 18:40 IST

In most cities the modus operandi when searching for a raucous night out in the latest trendy bar is to hit the main strip and look for the brightest lights. Not so in Budapest.

In Hungary's capital city, the best places are secreted up side streets in rundown districts, thrown together in the courtyards of abandoned buildings or even slapped onto the roof of crumbling communist-era shopping centres.

These bars form part of Budapest's ever-mutating kert (garden) bar scene, which survives the complaints of cantankerous old neighbours and the attentions of developers by throwing up new bars each spring to replace those that close down.

The recipe for a kert is simple: find an available space, hastily jam in a bar area serving cheap beer, choose all kinds of random junk to decorate the area and then wait for the punters to come in.

While the scene continuously morphs, the bar that more or less created the blueprint for the others that followed has somehow managed to remain in the same place.

Halfway up Kazinczy utca in the crumbling Jewish quarter, the only clue to Szimpla Kert's existence is a small, faded sign and a bouncer perched on a stool outside the kind of tattered building you would expect to be inhabited only by rats.

Through the battered double doors and the dank brick archway, a lively scene unfolds that is in complete contrast to the expectations created by the building exterior.

Tables and chairs of all shapes and sizes are jammed higgledy-piggledy into the interior courtyard and rooms that branch off it.

Plants hang down from the overhead walkway creating a slightly tropical effect when the heat of the Budapest summer is beating down and at the back of the bar is the garden, which is basically just a courtyard topped off with a huge industrial chimney that juts into the night sky.

Go in any night of the week and the bar is busy with a largely young crowd jammed into the outdoor area, their noisy chatter - in many different languages - bouncing off the enclosed walls.

One of Szimpla's most endearing features is its bouncers - a job title that is in fact something of a misnomer. "Shusher" would be more appropriate, as the burly men outside the bar spend most of their time with their fingers to their lips asking drunken revellers to keep the noise down as they leave.

The need for silence comes from worries about complaints from local residents about the noise being made by inebriated customers.

Szimpla itself was forced to close at midnight a few years ago, but this did not last long and the bar is once again open until the early hours of the morning.

Combined with the attentions of developers, who are keen to turn the ramshackle quarter in the centre of town into an upmarket residential area, the complaints caused many of Szimpla's peers, such as the short-lived Mumus, to close down.

While Szimpla Kert is the granddaddy of the bars with many summers under its belt, it still has to beat off ever changing competition.

The coolest new bar this year is Corvinteto, which opened up on the roof of the communist-era Skala shopping centre near the downtown Blaha Lujza square.

While it may seem an unlikely place for a bar, it proved extremely popular over the stiflingly hot summer, partly because the open rooftop provided more of a breeze than Szimpla's high-walled courtyard.

Most kerts tend to have their own idiosyncrasies, and Corvinteto's is the mini bar in the lift that carries customers up to the top floor of the building.

The view from Corvinteto also works in its favour feature, with the tip of the elaborate New York Palace and the strikingly-lit Freedom Monument at the top of the Gellert hill on the other side of the Danube both visible above the surrounding rooftops.

On the down side, getting a drink at the bar can often mean elbowing your way through a throng of thirsty punters and seating is at a premium.

The kerts aren't just confined to downtown Budapest, and the quieter Buda side of the Danube hosts a bar that boasts the most entertaining toilet experience in Hungary.

Fecske, located on the roof terrace of the Komjadi swimming pool, is a lot quieter than its downtown neighbours, but is well worth a visit to meet the guardian of the toilets, Agi Mama.

Agi Mama is a veteran of the lavatory business and has written a book about her experiences, entitled WC Requiem, to prove it.

Copies of the book - in Hungarian only - are available from Agi Mama for a paltry 6 euros ($8), and if you are polite enough you can even get her to sign it for you.

Even if you can't understand it, a book written by a toilet attendant is probably a very apt memento of a bar scene that thrives on being just that little bit different.

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