In a small restaurant in Budapest, a lady in a flowery, plastic apron is excitedly serving us goulash and dumplings into a pair of squat bowls. Everything, she says, including the excellently unlikely cherry soup, is to be eaten with salty paprika paste, and there is more crusty bread should we finish the large basket in front of us. Sandwiched between two tenements in the Jewish district, the interior walls heavily laden with photographs of Hungarian film stars, football scarves and tasseled, brass bric-à-brac, our lunchtime locale might well be mistaken for a rather gaudy sitting room if not for the till and its maniacally smiling, elderly cashier near the door.
After dividing by 370 or so, everything turns out to be very reasonable, and we emerge into a sunny street in Pest. On either side, dusty blocks fraternise with sleek, glass buildings emblazoned with promises of Eastern spirits and Western cuisine. Stylishly furnished and pretentiously advertised hipster barbershops deter all but the most confident in their grooming from entering, whilst the lady in a ground floor flat nearby supervises two men attempting to extricate a sofa from her front window. Now and then an entire plot disappears, connected to the surrounding structures only by the graffiti that spills across perpendicularly. Stencilled logos betray the presence of galleries and graphic design firms beyond wooden doors, activity and dereliction largely indistinguishable under a decade’s worth of faded posters. Even across the Danube in Buda, the old and the new come together in the shiny lifts and meticulously tended flowerbeds that now surround the National Gallery.
As night falls, even the most unlikely façades begin to reveal hidden gardens, burger joints and a myriad of drinking establishments. Amongst these are the labyrinthine ruin bars – sprawling mazes of crumbling courtyards and corridors, seemingly held together by fairy lights and filled with what I can only assume are the furnishings from the demolished blocks: diner chairs, Louis XVI sideboards and wrought iron tables merge under the green, brown and blue of their respective bottles as The Strokes play from a turntable and revellers lounge on sofas like Romans transposed onto a neon scene.
A group of Frenchmen has come dressed as soldiers, there are more Finns than I’ve ever encountered in one place and an American called Spencer is loudly discussing existentialism and the upcoming elections with unwavering levels of disdain. Shots of pálinka, a strong brandy far removed from the fruit it’s distilled from, are chased with beer or forsaken completely in favour of large pitchers of mojito. The lanterns and lightbulbs render the various drinks indiscernible and technicolour, in any case.
Eventually, after more pálinka and more Finns, the colours fade and the sky above the courtyard begins to make its presence known to a dwindling audience. The DJ puts on his sunglasses as the music transitions to a particularly unrelenting subgenre of house, and we exit into the early morning sun.