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An Afternoon in the Land of Angels

David Holzer finds himself pondering the pros and cons of hipsterization while in search of coffee (and somewhere open) in District XIII.

The women’s fashion shop on Polsonyi utca in District XIII was so small it didn’t have a changing room. After I was shooed outside, I sat in front of the freshly-painted Pagony children’s bookshop and waited for my partner.

Polsonyi utca seems to be changing from satisfyingly down at heel to a somewhat hipsterized neighborhood.

I’m ambivalent about hipsterization. I don’t like seeing what were once real signifiers of outsiderness – tattoos, especially – become so commonplace they lose any kind of potency. Biblical beard culture baffles me. I find it sad that “vibrant, edgy” up-and-coming parts of every city in the world all look exactly the same.

Still, when a neighborhood is hipsterized, you can at least get a good cup of coffee.

The Calgary bar at Frankel Leó utca 24, just across the Margit híd, was closed even though it was 4:30 p.m. and the place was supposed to open at 4.

This was the third time I’d tried to get inside what I’d been told was an extraordinary bar. As we peered through the door, under the security gate, a large dog inside barked at us. A sharp-featured lady of a certain age appeared out of the gloom. She told us to come back in half an hour.

With time to kill, I led my partner to the Bem Mozi at Margit körút 5, a funky-looking bar which may or may not be attached to a working cinema. It had intrigued me ever since I first saw it. A rock and roll band of skinny children had just finished sound checking and a red-haired girl in a silver leather jacket was lecturing them. But the bar was closed.

Volcanic coffee at the Barako

In need of coffee by now, we wandered down Török utca and took a chance on the Barako. If you’re a coffee aficionado, or just want a good brew, head for Barako. Owned by Ryan Andres, a Filipino raised in the USA – including Seattle, home of grunge – Barako is a tiny café much-loved by locals.

Andres opened Barako three years ago after some time spent working in finance in the United States and the Philippines. Born into a family that’s been growing coffee beans since 1948, Ryan decided that his mission in life, at least for now, is to introduce the rest of the world to the delights of Filipino coffee.

Knowing that he needed to be in Europe, Ryan researched Prague, Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest. “Budapest had an emerging coffee scene I could fit into without people thinking I was copying anyone,” Andres told us.

Barako took off when it was reviewed by social media influencer László Szili. “He came into the shop, loved the coffee, and said I’ll do an article about Barako. This appeared that afternoon and people started coming in an hour later. Next morning at 6:45 a.m. there was a queue waiting for me to open.”

Today, almost all of Barako’s business comes from Hungarians. Although when our friends dropped in on our recommendation they sat next to an English family who make a point of coming for the delicious hot chocolate.

There’s nothing quite like Andres’ coffee in Budapest. This is not hype. Barako, the variety he serves, is extremely rare but native to the Philippines.

Barako has also come to be used to describe a macho male. We got the impression people went to the Barako partly because Andres is such a warm, welcoming guy. He told us he likes Hungarian people very much and feels comfortable in Budapest.

He made my partner a Brain Freeze – double shot of Barako, milk and caramel over ice – and me a Black Eye –18 grams of brewed coffee and two shots of espresso. As we sipped them he told us his story and showed us photos of the family coffee plantation. This overlooks Taal, the world’s smallest active volcano.

After we said our goodbyes, we almost ran around the corner to the Calgary. Andresʼ delicious coffee is the most purely energizing I’ve ever tasted.

Inside the Calgary

The Calgary is like no bar I’ve been in my life. It’s about as Bohemian as you can get and then some and absolutely wonderful. So, it’s not surprising the Calgary’s been a favorite haunt of Budapest’s artists and intellectuals since it opened around 25 years ago.

Viki Szabó, who founded the Calgary, was a glamorous model, dancer and actress. Today, she still has cheekbones you could slice lemons with, piercing eyes and a magnetic presence. Her mode of dressing, which on this day included a canary yellow shirt, is eccentric but stylish.

The bar is crammed with an insane jumble of bric-a-brac including photos from Viki’s modelling career, furniture and heaps of musty clothes. Apparently, the Danube had leaked into the basement not long before, which added to the aroma of damp.

I asked how the Calgary got its name. With my partner translating, Viki explained that a friend had moved to Calgary in Canada. He fell in love with the place, especially its trees and sent photos of the place to her. When Viki first had the idea for the bar she noticed the trees on Frankel Leó utca and thought of Calgary. She decided to name the bar after the city.

All the lights in the Calgary went out when I was in the tiny basement bathroom. I was chuckling as I groped my way up the stairs, my hands touching damp sheets.

When the lights came back on we discovered we’d been joined by a strange young Transylvanian guy whose few remaining teeth were rotting and brown. He claimed to know the Whisky Robber, Attila Ambrus, who once robbed a bank not far from the Calgary.

If you don’t already know, the Whisky Robber was a professional Hungarian ice hockey player who carried out a series of “gentleman robberies” in the 1990s. His story was made into the excellent book, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber (2004) by Julian Rubinstein, which gives a rare insight into Budapest back then. Johnny Depp owns the movie rights.

Elvis and the Land of Angels

As we left the Calgary, I noticed a faded photo of Elvis. Apparently, Viki adores him. It was fitting, then, that we strolled back to Margit híd via Elvis Presley Park, just up from the Danube.

In 1957, Elvis performed the gospel song Peace in the Valley on the Ed Sullivan show as a tribute to the Hungarian people after the October 1956 revolution against the Soviets had been crushed. At Elvis’s request, Sullivan asked his TV audience to donate and help Hungary. This raised around CHF 25 million.

A day or so after we strolled from Polsonyi utca across the bridge to the other side I was told that this area is known as Angyalföld, which literally means Land of Angels. Elvis was certainly an unlikely angel for the people of Hungary.

Maybe it’s the time we spent in the Calgary, also known as the Fairy Bar. Perhaps it was the effects of the Barako coffee. Whatever the reason, as we strolled back over Margit híd as the sun was setting, we knew we’d had a most enchanted afternoon.