“What period do you think we are speaking about when we talk of ‘Retro Budapest’,” my guide, Bálint Horváth from Unique Budapest asks me. “Um, the 1950s and ’60s…?” I suggest. “No. Not really… not for us. It’s the 1970s and ’80s,” he says.
Oh dear, I think to myself, I am getting old. Born in 1967, I remember the Seventies and Eighties vividly – the music, the fashion, the décor. ‘Retro’ in my mind is the style and fashion, imagery and iconography of the period that came ‘before’.
For me, ‘retro’ described the visual culture and style of the era of my parents, of the babyboomers. The period depicted in Fonzie‘s Happy Days, in Laverne and Shirley. James Dean, Elvis, Johnny O’Keefe. Milk bars and diners. Back-combing and pompadours, poodle skirts and bobby socks. And later in the 1960s, mini-skirts, go-go boots, bell-bottom jeans. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones. That sort of thing. Not big hair, shoulder pads, plastic jewellery, Day-Glo, and Duran Duran.
It will turn out, as Bálint and I stroll the streets of Budapest for the next few hours on Unique Budapest’s Retro Period walking tour, that what comes under the umbrella of ‘retro’ for Bálint in Budapest are the trends and styles of – and inspired by – all of those periods.
For Bálint’s generation, born in the late 1980s, the decade of his birth and the decade before, are ‘retro’, but from where I’m looking, I can see influences right from the 1950s and 1960s through the 1970s and 1980s, in the architecture and typography he points out, in the interior design and music of the bars and pubs we visit, and in the fashion, shoes and accessories at the shops we drop into.
And this can partly be explained by history. As we stroll, Bálint talks about the Soviet-Communist era, from the late 1940s through to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the influence of Soviet culture throughout that period and on Hungarian communism, and the post-Soviet era from 1956 to 1989, when Hungary made the transition in 1990 to democracy and a market economy. He talks about how life was in Hungary for his parents, and how it was when he was growing up, and the growing nostalgia that younger people today have for the style of those periods.
Our retro-themed wander around Budapest is very different to the other walks we’ve done on our grand tour this year. It’s a relaxed and laidback wander at a pace that I like to go when we’re exploring neighbourhoods. I write fewer notes than usual and look around more, digesting the styles and trends I’m taking in.
We even do a bit of shopping – at hipster-heaven Eclectick, where our tour begins, where retro fashion rules (and where I buy some plastic 1980s-style earrings); at Tisza, the shop of the famous Communist-era sneaker brand (where I wish I would have bought some shoes!); and at Orange, which sells retro eyeglasses (Elton John apparently shops here).
And we also stop for a drink – at funky Szimpla Kert, Budapest’s first ‘ruin pub’. We try a Traubi szóda, a fizzy softdrink in a cool green bottle that was Hungary’s Coca Cola during the Communist-era, with a shot of grape-flavoured palinka, Budapest’s brandy. All in the name of research of course.
It’s a fun ‘tour’ that doesn’t really feel like a tour at all, but more like a few hours spent kicking back (in retro style) with a new friend.