BUDAPEST (Reuters) - When Abel Zsendovits rented an empty house in the decaying inner city of Budapest 12 years ago, cleaned it up, installed some beer taps and opened a summer bar, he had no idea it would spark a new wave of nightlife in the Hungarian capital.
“Five hundred to 600 people found it within an hour after we opened,” he told Reuters in his bar Szimpla that is now open year-round and boasts decorations like a gutted Soviet-era car and uses half a bath tub as a seat.
“From then on we had a full house every night.”
Szimpla, which translates as simple, was the first of Budapest’s “ruin pubs”, set up in formerly abandoned buildings, which have helped attract a flood of tourists and made the Hungarian capital the top destination in eastern Europe, ahead of Prague and Berlin, according to a Euromonitor ranking.
But the emergence and popularity of these pubs has its drawbacks and has pitted local residents against bar owners and local politicians enjoying the tourism boost.
Local residents complain about the noise and litter as authorities cannot afford adequate cleaning or more than two or three police patrols.
About half of the four million annual visitors to Budapest are estimated to head to Kazinczy Street, the alley where Szimpla stands alongside dozens of other similar venues.
“On a crowded summer night 10,000-20,000 people use the nearby city block or two,” Zsendovits said. “The downtown area as a whole might get 50,000 people going out per evening.”
He acknowledged some people did get carried away and misbehave.
“Authorities should handle that, or a quartier management, but we have seen nothing like that,” he added.
For years the municipal government tried to limit opening times and tighten other rules but this led to complaints from the bars, all major taxpayers, and the rules were relaxed again.
Last year a new law allowed police to shut any bar based on security concerns. Nearly every bar in Kazinczy Street was told to shut from midnight to 6 a.m..
But the orders were ignored and not enforced as closing after midnight would have effectively kill off the nightlife — and even the mastermind of the new law, mayor of a downtown Budapest district, Antal Rogan, admits it misfired.
“Bars open past midnight are breaking the law right now, but there is an unwritten agreement not to fine them,” said Andras Rona, the president of a local restaurateurs’ association.
Rona said the association expected a new proposal from Rogan requiring bar owners to pay for extra cleaning and policing but this was still not enough to placate some angry residents.
Bea Schmuczer, who grew up close to Szimpla, moved a few blocks to a quiet side street when a bar opened in her house a few years ago but to no avail. In the past year 11 new bars and clubs have opened on her block.
“Let’s not take it for granted that this is a nightlife area where everyone can open a business, or go out, scream, urinate and vomit,” she told Reuters as large, noisy groups passed by.
“It’s us who have a right to a restful night of sleep. And it’s us who vote.”
Schmuczer and some other locals have banded together to get their voices heard at the local city council, determined that they won’t be forced to sell and move to a quieter part of town.
District mayor Zsolt Vattamany acknowledged the authorities were only now realizing the extent of the problem and were working on a solution.
But he ruled out closing the bars, instead suggesting stricter limits could to introduced for the entertainment quarter.
Bar owners, many of whom are residents themselves, said the influx of people did create some problems but the benefits outweighed these issues with the bars attracting money and boosting property prices in the area despite the economic slump.
“It’s a kind of re-urbanization,” said Istvan Szaraz, who lives in the district and operates several of its bars. “This was a quiet area for 45 years. The change came so quickly some people can’t get used to it.
“But thousands make their living here, plus property gets more valuable, so locals should oblige even if a few English tourists smash some beer bottles under their window.”
(This version of the story corrects the name in paragraph 20.)
Reporting by Marton Dunai, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith