The shouts were coming from downstairs: three voices, heated up by irritation and slurred by alcohol despite it being 10 AM. My piss-poor Hungarian wouldn’t allow me to grasp anything, but it didn’t matter for this was Blaha Lujza tér’s underpass and, as I reasoned while climbing down its steps, it never failed to deliver the finest levels of drunkenness in town.
Had I confessed you, as I’m about to do now, that Erzsébetváros – the district immediately to the north of Blaha Lujza – is my favourite part of the city I’m sure you’d felt incline to call me a weirdo, especially after such an uplifting introduction to the place itself. But the thing is that Erzsébetváros is a like a charming old home with a strange and perhaps off-putting entrance, enough to keep the least adventurous visitors at bay.
Literally meaning “Elisabeth town”, Erzsébetváros was a new town, named after Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife and built on the outskirts of the more palatable districts of Pest huddled around the Danube. Erzsébetváros soon became the city’s most populous borough, housing 150,000 souls in the early XX century. Back in those days Hungary was part of a large multinational empire, and the borough was a worthwhile example of this cosmopolitanism: Slavs from Central Europe and from the Balkans, Germans, Hungarians all lived together, mixed with one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. In a city where church bell towers were as ubiquitous as watering holes, Erzsébetváros became famous for hosting the largest synagogue in the continent, the oddly Moroccan-looking building in Dohány utca, its onion-shaped domes towering above an environment made of tenements with elegantly decadent inner courtyards, where communal lifestyle was something more than a fancy modern nonsense.
Stairs, Rózsa utca.
Entrance, Erzsébet körút.
The neighbourhood survived pretty much unscathed the end of the Habsburg Empire and the imposition of the Trianon treaty that broke up the Hungarian nation and, even though it lost most of its international flair, it retained his diverse religious breakdown. Then this happened.
It’s easy, walking around the neighbourhood, to stumble upon brass cobbles like the one above. Lying inconspicuously near nondescript doors, they are the silent reminders of what happened during WWII to those Hungarians who, like László Schmidek, happened to be Jews. László lived here, at number 30/b in Dohány utca, before being deported to a labour camp in Blohino, where he died in September 1942, aged 35.
1944 was the beginning of the end for Hungary’s Jews, and for those of Erzsébetváros in particular. Tired of Miklos Horthy’s noncommittal attitude, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Hungary by the Wehrmacht. At that moment the Soviets weren’t far away, already the easternmost fringes of the countries had been liberated by them, but this didn’t bring any solace to Budapest. Erzsébetváros became the ghetto for the city’s Jews, piled up to 14 per room, which they weren’t allowed to leave unless it was for the railway stations, where they would be shipped off to Auschwitz, or to the banks of the river, where they’d be dispatched with a shot. It was, without a doubt, Erzsébetváros’ darkest moment. When the Russian tanks finally rolled in, 600,000 Hungarian Jews had perished.
The post-war period wasn’t easy on the neighbourhood. The Socialist authorities moved large swathes of the populace from Erzsébetváros to new districts such as Újbuda or Kőbánya–Kispest. The old Elisabeth town was left half empty, apparently to rot.
Then, finally, things started to change. The Wall fell, Hungary joined the EU and rapidly returned the refined, charming Central European that it always was. Erzsébetváros joined in the revival, becoming the city’s hub for independent culture. It was here, in abandoned buildings destined to demolition, that clubs like Szimpla sprung up, going strong still today.
A murale celebrating Ernő Rubik, Hungarian like László Bíró who, instead, is still waiting for his piece of wall art.
I witnessed Erzsébetváros’ rebirth over the past seven years, ever since I first came in the country and fell in love with it. When I first visited half of the buildings could fit the “potentially wonderful” euphemism that London estate agents employ to describe a shack, but things have changed a lot since then.
Culture, one of the prime products of the borough
More tenements have been refurbished; some, nothing more than gutted out walls, now are shiny and new. Colourful murales adorn many walls that were once left naked and derelict; new clubs, restaurants and shops are mushrooming out despite the crisis.
Celebrating a 1960s Hungarian victory over England, or the proof that there are countries whose national team is in a more sorry state than Roy Hodgson’s.
But the best thing about today’s Erzsébetváros is that it’s still a long way off being completely gentrified, and possibly won’t ever get to that stage. There aren’t hipsters riding fixes to be seen and neither there are coffee shops selling free-range, fair-trade coffee divided according to each blend, while regulars will be typing away on their MacBook Airs.
What is Erzsébetváros then? It’s a borough that’s been re-discovered by the city after many years of neglect. A place unmistakably Hungarian, beautiful and peculiar as this country is.