It is an embarrassing certainty that when two human geography graduates go on holiday together they will, at some point, embark on a quest for 'extreme' urban spaces. This could mean anything from a wildly expensive redevelopment to a run-down inner city ghetto: morals and environmental quality surveys aside, we get a thrill out of exploring unusual locations.
This time my long-suffering companion and I found ourselves in Budapest, skimming south along the Pest bank of the Danube on two obnoxious yellow hire bikes. The colour of the frames was dull in comparison to the white glare of the sun, which was prolonging my hangover and rapidly frying the back of my neck. I pedalled harder, eager for a rush of cool air. Our target was based on a tip-off I had received from a Hungarian living in London: a mysterious semi-abandoned industrial estate in District XXI.
As much as I enjoy stretching out a travel yarn, I would be lying if I said it was difficult to find. The main reason for this was that our destination - the former Csepel Red Industrial Complex - is absolutely gigantic. In its heyday it sprawled over a colossal 200 hectares which equates to an area the size of some 280 football pitches, for those of you who prefer their measurements in Nelsonís Columns and other supposedly relatable quantities. Although it dates back to the late nineteenth century, the architecture and scale of the site means that for those in the know it has become synonymous with Soviet-era Budapest. When it was all up and running around 30,000 people worked there, mostly making metal-based items such as cars and bicycles. Back then it was apparently Hungaryís largest industrial site, and after getting lost among the remains I can well believe this.
The blockhouse toll booth at the main entrance was empty but a surprising amount of traffic was passing through the perimeter wall. Under Soviet rule the thousands of labourers entering the gates for their days work were watched over by an oversized statue of Lenin. This has understandably been removed (he now resides in the icon junkyard over at Memento Park) but it still looked like the sort of place where we would meet angry men who hadn’t got the message about the Berlin Wall coming down. We tentatively wheeled our bikes through, half expecting to be greeted by a reception of slavering guard dogs. Somewhat disappointingly nobody challenged us.
The environment inside brought back fond memories of sniping virtual Nazis on old Medal of Honor games. Lumpy cobbled streets separated factories made from crumbling red bricks, blackened by decades of exposure to dirty fumes. Eight-storey high chimney stacks were dotted throughout the complex, bringing to mind Communist propaganda videos and nightmarish paintings depicting the Victorian industrial revolution. The first cluster stood behind an incongruous petrol station a hundred or so metres away from the entrance. They were now dormant, serving as solemn monuments to a past of dubious glory.
The chimneys might have been decommissioned but the violent sounds of metal striking metal and the hum and crackle of large welding units coming from inside a few of the buildings signified the presence of small industry. Evidently this wasn’t quite the wasteland we had imagined, a point confirmed by the amount of lorries rumbling around, happily oblivious to two unsteady cyclists. In a fenced enclosure on one corner twenty or so car bumpers were piled up, waiting to be bolted back into service. I fantasised that this was Eastern Europe’s answer to a GTA chop-shop, but in reality it was all (probably) perfectly legitimate. The workers and inhabitants looked at us with curiosity. Apparently they were unused to visitors, which was hardly surprising given the contrast between Csepel and the well groomed squares and charming apartment blocks of central Budapest.
Tangles of rusty metal piping still connected many of the buildings and there were even a couple of massive gantry cranes stretched over forgotten production lines; astonishingly, nobody had turned up in a Transit tipper to angle grind their way to a scrap metal fortune. Most of this mangled infrastructure was clearly not in use – presumably it is cheaper to work around it rather than remove completely. But even standing amongst the weeds and railway lines – which led nowhere - it was not hard to imagine Csepel in full swing as a manufacturing juggernaut.
However, in the busier central section there were some very slight indications that change is afoot. Cheap pizza cafes could be found on a few of the corners and it looked like one or two of the larger blocks had been converted into flats of an uncertain quality. Down one street we saw a posse of musicians lugging their kit towards some practice rooms, off to craft some aural metal. Apparently the area is also popular with skateboarders, lured in by the abandoned buildings and leftover materials. As ever, even the most severe examples of urban degradation offer possibilities.
It might not be attractive, but Csepel is a fascinating, uncompromising record of mighty Soviet industry. The responsible thing to do would be to sanitise a section of it, to stick a museum next to the entrance and employ a bevy of bored tour guides to herd groups of chubby tourists about. No doubt there would be plenty to learn for those of us ignorant of Hungary’s language and history, but given the current economic situation the chances of this happening are slim. Selfishly, I was glad that I saw it in its present condition: a decaying semi-wasteland in a weird limbo, lacking the confidence and funds to return to its industrial past or reinvent itself for the future.