Thursday, October 9, 2008

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter, or: Budapest’s Real Underground Culture

The underpasses that lay under Budapest’s main boulevard intersections, and spill out from the main train stations, are the toxin-collecting lymph nodes of the city. Or, more generously, autonomous break-away zones of punks, prostitutes, and free-ranging men not adverse to a tipple. They are the malls of the downtrodden, each one offering its own particular brand of service and its own individual grimy culture, or, sub-culture, if you will. If you are lucky you can find a few of the city’s more colorful street artists performing, some descent grub, or get a good buzz on, all underground. But which has the most dynamic range of services and entertainments? We rated select city underpasses based on the street-food available, the entertainment value, the cleanliness, and the avoidablitiy, (meaning, how easy it is to bypass aboveground), to determine a winner. Which one came out on top? Read on.

Spoiler: it’s Nyugati Underpass.

Blaha Lujza: Resembling a social club for retired circus carnies, or casting call for Sid and Nancy Go to Budapest, Blaha has turned into a run-off ditch for miscreants, homeless, and worse, missionaries. We send our missionaries to Africa, Africa sends theirs to Blaha. It also serves as the main canteen for the Krishna soup kitchen, a gathering place for refugees, and a supporting wall to more than a few drunks. Punks claimed the center pillars for a while, and Roma have ad hoc vegetable stands, selling whatever is in season. That the Scientologists haven’t set up an outpost from their nearby headquarters seems short-sighted. After all, if you believe in aliens, Blaha would be a good place to start looking for them.

Eats: 2/5 There is but one bakery, and a decent looking gelato stand inside, though the Krishna soup line that forms outside it is open to all.
Entertainment: 2/5 Plenty of missionaries and nationalist organizations set up camp here, but few of the classic Hungarian street musicians deign to play this seedy venue.
Cleanliness: 2/5 That it is cleaned nightly does not matter. It just feels dirty down there, even with no dirt in sight.
Avoidablilty: 3/5 nearby crosswalks at three of four streets of the intersection make it easily avoidable.

Keleti: The extensive Keleti underpass recently underwent a huge renovation, leaving it with significantly fewer kiosks. An international and commuter travel hub, Keleti has always attracted its share of loiterers. Former home of Budapest’s speed chess players, Keleti suffers for their loss. That said, if you are willing to dine with the hoi polloi, food possibilities abound, as do book stalls.

Eats: 3/5 Very good, with the Baross Étterem in Keleti and several Hungarian büfés, a stand to get sausages and beer, as well as a Pizza Hut outlet. Gone with the renovation, however, are the excellent potato lángos and fried chicken stand.
Entertaiment: 1/5 Surprisingly under-utilized by buskers, considering all the tourist traffic. No pubs or gaming.
Cleanliness: 4/5 Doesn’t feel that bad, probably due to the really dim lighting.
Avoidablility: 1/5 Want to cross Rákóczi by the station? It is a must, though Keleti station itself is accessible without going underground. If you want a local train ticket, however, it’s down you go.

Boráros Tér
: Also with an open air courtyard, it serves as a connection point for commuters coming in from the burbs, or crossing over into Buda. One of the more palatable underpasses, mostly because there is so little to offend. Homeless gravitate towards the matronly babushka sculpture/drinking fountain, and her bronze patina bosom and oblong wine casks.

Eats: 4/5 Burgers, gyros, bakeries, pizza, plus lángos and sweet kürtos kalács – there is a lot of fast food here, some of it not terrible.
Entertainment: 2/5 Not even Zámbó Jimmy could entertain the grim commuters that speed through Boráros. Have yet to see anybody try. There is a pub, though.
Cleanliness: 3/5 Nothing too stinky going on, though the darker the corner, the more likely it doubles a minimalist pisseur.
Avoidability: 2/5 almost unavoidable if you need to pass this way.

Déli: Buda has so few underpasses, but Déli pu. makes the most for its Buda residents. Déli is the gentlmen’s underpass. With a jewelers and a bank, it is the Switzerland of underpasses. An open air courtyard offers a few creature comforts, including seats and a curious geometrical sculpture. There is much to love here, including varied cuisine, and lots of shops.

Eats: 3/5 A sit-down restaurant, a Chinese büfé, pizza, and traditional Hungarian can all be found on the environs, plus a late-night green grocers, and a really good bakery and donut stand in the corridor that runs under Alkotás.
Entertainment: 2/5 Most of the best street entertainers can be found in Buda, but not at Déli. They favor the outdoor venue of Moszkva Tér. There are a few pubs, however, and a gaming room.
Cleanliness: 4/5 Pretty good considering the foot traffic.
Avoidability: 4/5 Doesn’t connect major thoroughfares, therefore easy to avoid.

Nyugati: The crumb de la crumb of underpasses, it is a scary, strange, fascinating world unto itself. The catacombs that run towards the train station are filled with kiosks selling knock-off designer wear, perfumes, and a few book stalls. And, for the record, they don’t take kindly to having their picture taken.
Eats: 5/5 Fank me? Fank you! They have it all here, from Subway and Burger King franchises, to American hotdogs, gyros, an all-night green grocers, and a really good donut stand. Venture further in to find Hungarian büfés and pizza by the slice.
Entertainment: 5/5 The venue of choice for Korean missionary choruses and the dudes who play on half-filled glasses, some of the most interesting street performers can be found here, just keep your hand on your wallet. The speed chess players have taken up residence towards the Westend mall entrance, and take on all comers. Also, a casino, and a really cool American-diner looking bar, plus a pub that sells Ft 70 wine spritzers. The wayward Roma girls and attendant managers have made it the new Rákóczi Tér.
Cleanliness: 3/5 Food smells tend to overpower the stink.
Avoidablity: 1/5 There are days when I shudder knowing I will have to pass this intersection, and I have seen friends take their lives into their own hands by trying to frogger their way across the street rather than brave the journey under Nyugati. But like a black hole, you are ultimately powerless against its pull. Might as well make the most of it, and have a fank on the run.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.


Monika said...

I've always loved these underpasses, it's great to see a post about them. I used to ride my bicycle around the Nyugati underworld - much the the chagrin of everyone around me I'm sure - and then stop to browse the nylons or hair ties and practice my Hungarian. But I disagree that Deli is the Switzerland of underpasses - it's nasty down there and there's no way around it. Deli might be in Buda but there is no way that it is above the rest.

Mokus said...

It was hyperbole, but still, it is pretty nice when compared...