My first year in Florence, I remember sitting in one of my favourite grungy cafes with a friend, debating whether or not we could afford to go to Budapest for a weekend. We wanted to visit a Hungarian friend who we had met in Florence, but had since gone home. We absolutely could not afford it, but we went ahead and booked some cheap flights with a live-once attitude.
The first night, we checked into a hostel in an ancient marble building that cost 5euro per night, and the room was shared between ten people. Budapest was cheap, really cheap. Nora met us and took us out for dinner, and then she asked if we wanted to continue drinking and go out to dance.
She led us down the snowy streets, cheerfully lit in places with twinkle lights but not enough to lift the wet chill that clung to everything. We approached a crumbling doorway, closed off with thick, clear plastic sheets draped over it, a flickering red bulb lighting the entrance behind it. We pushed the plastic back and stepped inside: our first ruin bar.
In Budapest, many ruined buildings in the historical centre have been taken over and reclaimed as bars and clubs. Holes have been semi-covered, crumbling roofs have been secured, lighting and sound installed, and new life given.
We entered some sort of old mansion, with many winding stairways, and what seemed liked endless rooms and corridors. Each room had a different vibe: different music vibrating the walls, different styles of dance and dress, and different levels of intoxication, making my head spin as we stumbled up and down hallways, tripping up and down stairs and into and out of various rooms.
We couldn’t talk, it was too loud. We had to shout at each other, or use our hands to communicate which direction we wanted to go. It was like being inside a labyrinth, and I doubt I would have been able to find the same room twice, had I wanted to. We settled into a long, narrow space, packed shoulder to shoulder with people, a deejay spinning dance music at the front, elevated in his booth above the dancers below him like some sort of prince or deity. We danced for an indeterminable amount of time, maybe hours, maybe minutes, avoiding men who in the confusion tried to crush too close to us. When we were fully exhausted, we wound our way back down the tangle of corridors, rooms and stairs, eventually stumbling back out into the frigid winter air.
The next morning, we woke up early in our hostel, and Nora came to meet us by the door, wrapped up in a wool scarf and mittens. I want to show you something, she said. We trudged down the slushy sidewalks, shivering against the wet cold that felt much more severe than it had in Florence. We arrived at an expansive, crumbling building, the door simply an opening at the front. We stepped inside to a lively market, stalls clustered in various corners and hallways of a once mansion, locals bartering over cheese, jelly, coffee and meats. It was such a vibrant scene. We went up to a stone bar and ordered a cappuccino each from a man in an apron and mustache, finding a table with mismatched chairs in a corner up some stairs, overlooking the bustle below.
I let my gaze drift over repurposed items, now adorning the walls as décor; there was an antique bicycle hanging from the rafters, adorned with twinkle lights, a wagon used as a planter, different fabrics strung from the walls and ceilings, which were coated in graffiti that somehow created a beautiful chaos.
Nora looked up from her coffee. Do you girls recognize this space? Confused, I took another look around. Behind us was a narrow winding staircase, and my eyes roved over the tangle of corridors and doorways…Is this the ruin bar from last night? gasped Rebecca. Sure is, said Nora, her eyes smiling at our surprise. It’s so different in the daylight! I said, incredulous. It was amazing how last night’s confusion had quickly been replaced with a different type of confusion. The crowd had changed, the sounds, but it was still buzzing with energy and activity. This crumbling old building was bursting at the seams with life, from early morning until all hours of the night, never sleeping it seemed, but simply transforming in purpose and use.
We experienced many beautiful things that weekend in Budapest, climbing to the top of the snowy hill overlooking both sides of the river, seeing museums, caves, and soaking in elegant thermal baths, eating hot meals for next to nothing. But the ruins and their constantly evolving energy left a lasting impression on me. I loved the way they had made something new out of something old, giving new life to something dead, never surrendering to decay or age…