European Times Budapest: Cafe revival wakes sleeping city

BY THE standards of London, or Manchester, it was a bargain. A light spacious flat on Pannonia Street on the Pest side of the Danube, with plenty of windows, high ceilings, three rooms and a newly renovated bathroom.

The asking price, in Budapest's increasingly coveted riverside District XIII, was 9 million forints, just over pounds 25,000. What my friend Istvan really wanted was a flat with a patio and river view. But for that he would have to pay double, about pounds 50,000.

Now Hungary has joined Nato, and is set for European Union membership, many businessmen believe that buying a flat in Budapest is an excellent, low-risk investment.

The Pannonia Street flat was a pleasant place, perhaps the 10th that Istvan had visited in a hunt across the city. But it was not quite right. The kitchen was too small and the flat was on a corner on the raised ground floor between two busy thoroughfares. In the summer, when temperatures in central Europe can top 32C (90F), it would be impossible to open the windows without being overwhelmed by fumes.

But there was no need for him to worry. It is a buyers' market for Budapest flat- seekers. The classified daily newspaper Expressz is jammed with advertisements offering residencies, with some one-room studios at a starting price of 3 million forints.

Property prices in Budapest are far cheaper, not just than in similar Western cities, but also than in Warsaw or Prague. Most of Warsaw was systematically demolished by the retreating Nazis after the uprising in 1944, and has been rebuilt in a stark modern Socialist style, while Prague's historic centre is much smaller than Budapest's.

It is only since the collapse of Communism 10 years ago that flat buying, instead of renting, has become a practical option for many in Hungary. But the lack of mortgages and the difficulties for Hungarians of borrowing money at sensible interest rates mean that while prices are rising, they are cheap compared with the West.

The Pest side of the city is far more atmospheric than the swanky villas on the Buda hills - some of which can cost 90 million forints. Pest was mainly built up in the 19th century by architects following the Parisian model of densely packed apartment blocks.

Many were splendid multi-roomed edifices, where Hungarian barons and Hapsburg nobility would waltz the night away in fin de siecle balls and parties, the cigar smoke floating out over the Danube.

Sadly, most of these mini-palaces have long since been dismembered. Faced with a massive housing shortage, the Communists chopped up the former homes of the Hapsburg haute bourgeoisie. So most flat hunters are offered bizarrely shaped residences of two huge rooms, attached to a long, narrow corridor with a minuscule kitchen yards away.

Far-sighted buyers, entranced by the city's revival of cafe life and panoramic river views, buy up two neighbouring flats and knock the walls through.

"Budapest is once again a fin de siecle city, and turning into a European metropolis," said Andras Torok, author of Budapest: a critical guide. "One hundred years ago the city was young and aspiring to the glories of Vienna, a competitor with gusto and energy. Budapest still has a Sleeping Beauty quality from the last century, but at the same time all the sophistication of the world has arrived, with the revolution in the culinary scene, new cafes and art cinemas," he said.

Foreign investors are pouring in to snap up as many flats as possible. One in five buyers is foreign, with the Germans leading the race, closely followed by the Israelis and Chinese. The Germans prefer the clean air of the Buda hills, while Israelis go for apartments around the wartime ghetto, in District VII, near the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street - the biggest synagogue in Europe. Some advertisements in Expressz for flats in District VII even specify "a view of the synagogue".

The buildings in the downtown areas are often pockmarked with sprays of bullet-holes around windows, and it is easy to imagine the last moments of a lone sniper ducking behind the wall, as he fired his final rounds at the Nazis in 1944, or the Russians in 1945. And for the Israelis moving back to Dohany Street, it is a homecoming of sorts.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's pic YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

PHP Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: PHP Develope...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star