Tabán or Rácváros is one of the most mystical and cultic parts of Budapest. It transformed many times while several tragedies shadowed its life. First the firestorm of 1810, which was caused by a clumsy cooper assistant, and which burnt up poor Benedek Virág’s library. Than the grape phylloxera epidemic came and destroyed the vineyards of the hillside, and the flood of Ördög-árok (Devil Ditch) in 1875 was dwarfed by the previous disasters. But let’s start at the beginning.
… and its inhabitants
The history of Tabán should be started with the explanation of the name, because it also brings up some questions. The most probable explanation is that tanners worked here due to the nearby water. The name comes from the Turkish word Débágháne/Tabakhane. There are other settlements in Hungary outside the capital that has the same place name Tabán, which strengthens this explanation. For example in Szolnok and Szeged, all of them are near water, and they worked as poor artisan settlements.
The other name ‘Rác’ comes from the old name of Serbs who settled there when they fled from the Turkish invasion. Rác Bath reminds us to their presence today. Their former church Saint Demetrios was the centre of Rácváros until the WW II, because the square opposite the church functioned as a marketplace. During the 19th century, the literary life was also vivid; Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic was a frequent visitor in the quarter, who was the renewer of the Serbian literary language and has a statue on Szarvas Square.
Beyond the ethnical separation, there were two kinds of people in Tabán stereotypically speaking the innkeeper and the guest. Many people wrote about the famous guests already in many places – about Gyula Krúdy, who would be popular even today with his gastro-adventures – but little was told about those who were made famous. About Poldi Krausz and Mélypince (Deep Cellar) or Mihály Avar and his Felső Avar (Upper Avar) or the Háromcsőrű Kacsa (Three-beaked Duck). Let me introduce them now.
Mélypince stood on the corner of Görög Street in Tabán, and 80 stairs led down to its cellar allegedly. The Turkish built its walls, which were probably also part of the cellar system that netted the whole Buda Castle Hill. Owner Lipót Krausz from Zsámbék was already a restaurant owner before in Zsámbék. And what was the charm of Mélypince? It was the cheapest restaurant in Tabán. Its business model was not difficult. Uncle Poldi did not have a staff, he served his guests and his wife worked in the kitchen.
Mélypince was a tavern of local people, writers and artists, where there was always a free table for Gyula Krúdy. People hoped for a long while that the municipality would not have money for its demolition, due to the economic crisis of the 1930s, but unfortunately, it was done. Uncle Poldi opened a new restaurant in Pest, but he went bankrupt soon. Even worse times came in 1944, about which you can read in Sándor Márai’s work Föld, Föld! Mélypince also had its guests’ book, and Uncle Poldi took it to Márai at the time of the German occupation to guard it in case he would be deported. Márai did not undertake it, because he was not sure about his own security. Later he thought that the book was destroyed, but it survived luckily, just like the family Krausz.
Kakuk, the old and the new
The old Kakuk (Cuckoo) Restaurant was opened at 6 Kereszt Street in 1926. Its first famous innkeeper was Ferenc Gerstl, and after his death, his son Ferenc Gerstl junior ran the place. According to rumours, Gerstl liked not only serving but also drinking wine. Naturally, guest went there not for that, but for the cosy atmosphere, Hungarian savours and Gyurka Budai’s music. After demolition, the restaurant moved to 22 Attila Boulevard and keeping its Hungarian style, it became really popular in 1934. In the new restaurant, guests could enjoy both gypsy and Schrammel music. Guests could choose between the Székely, the Hunter and the Hungarian rooms. It was definitely not an economical but homey tavern like that of Uncle Poldi, but a classic restaurant. It prospered until the WW II, when the house was plastered with bombs.
The Lower Avar, for lovers
The Lower Avar was situated in front of Rácz Restaurant in Hadnagy Street. Its owner was László Avar. The green tavern was suggested to loving couples mostly. They gave the following advice to the visiting gentlemen, in order to have a successful date. The invited lady should be seated in a way that she could see the clock of the Serbian Church, because the tower-clock always showed ‘twenty-five to eight’, thus time went by really slowly.
The Upper Avar, for fish soup lovers
Not to mix it up with the Lower, it was Mihály Avar’s restaurant. The frequent scene of family gatherings was situated in Kereszt Street and was famous for its excellent Hungarian fish soup. Its building was also the headquarters of Hadastyánok Egylete (Veterans’ Club), which belonged to Archduke Joseph’s patronage.
Finally, the plan of pulling down the quarter ripened by 1933. The constructions of Elisabeth Bridge and the boulevard of Buda also had a role in that. Conditions of houses and huts were far from satisfactory; epidemics and infections appeared. Of course, the population of the capital and the bohemians ranging in here objected to the news of demolitions. They did not understand why this romantic, provincial, cobbled quarter must be demolished. Painters and photographers came here and tried to eternalize the atmosphere of the district in the last moment. After the demolition, only some listed houses and two churches were left intact.
Life went on after demolition
For example, in the famous Háromcsőrű Kacsa (Three-beaked Duck) that was founded by Mr. and Mrs. Tivadar Lichtner in 1936. The circumstances of naming faded into the past, but it is sure that the restaurant was already mentioned in an operetta put on in 1872, and it could be familiar to the citizens of Buda from Budai Színkör (Buda Theatre). The restaurant of Döbrentei Street could owe its fame to its cuisine as well as to Lőrinc Szabó, who poeticized the place in his poem ‘Éjféli közjáték’ (Midnight Intermezzo).
It is hard to imagine that Tabán, which is a public park now, used to be loud from drinking people and Schrammel music. Besides the sadness that we feel over its disappearance, we should find solace in knowing that Tabán is there, alongside the shrinking greenery, so let’s appreciate it!
Translated by Zita Aknai
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