(Changes sourcing in paragraph 15)
By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST, March 15 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
"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.
The local district mayor, Zsolt Vattamany, told Reuters a
new proposal was on the table requiring bar owners to pay a fee
for extra cleaning and policing. But this was still not enough
to placate some angry residents.
WHO SHOULD MOVE OUT?
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.
Mayor Vattamany acknowledged the authorities were only now
realising the extent of the problem and were working on a
But he ruled out closing the bars, instead suggesting
stricter limits could to introduced for the entertainment
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-urbanisation," 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."
(Reporting by Marton Dunai, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)