Toy shops seem to becoming an endangered species these days, sure you can usually find a section in a store where a small selection of toys, games and maybe some local items are sold, but a dedicated shop in the central shopping are of a city is a rare beast indeed. So here we are on our last day in Budapest walking around the shops doing some last minute purchases for those back home, especially the grandchildren.
Walking around looking for inspiration we look in numerous gift shops all seemingly selling the same things and, purely as an observation you understand, notice that there are seemingly no end of Thai massage parlours for the soothing of weary travellers. Then, by chance, I notice a small square neon sign protruding from the wall above an alley way between two shops declaring LEGO Stockist. At this slice of luck, leaving the wife to delve through a nearby gift shop, I duck into the alley in search of the ‘holy grail’. Confusingly the alley did not seem to lead anywhere apart from an apartment block, and then I notice a doorway with an unassuming sign tempting the shopper in to the LEGO ‘wonderland’.
Step through the door and I encounter a series of 20 odd concrete steps of spiral stairs leading down. At the bottom I enter a tiny windowless room with bright fluorescent lighting and am met by a room crammed full, LEGO boxes line the walls and also fill 3 rows of steel racking stacked floor to ceiling leaving hardly any room to turn around, and also a rather disinterested young lady behind the counter who does not blink an eye at my arrival.
I scour the shelves but am not able to find anything suitable for my young grandson so I make to leave and walking through the door I happen to look to the left and spot something unusual. Stopping to have a closer look I can clearly see a large heavy grey steel door pushed back into the alcove. It is considerably sturdier than you would expect a normal door to be, even a standard security door, and closer inspection reveals it to be connected to a really heavy steel doorframe set into the opening leading to the stairs. Far heavier than anything you may find in your local builder’s merchant the mind starts to process all sorts of theories and suspicions. It is then that I remember what the door reminds me of; it looks remarkably like one of those blast doors you see in the movies, or in old wartime military buildings, or Sheldon Cooper’s front door.
What is a door of this calibre doing here, what have I stumbled into? Then recent history of Hungary comes into focus bringing echoes of World War 2 and Soviet control and the resulting paranoia back into view. Secret, and sometimes uncharted, locations dotted all over the city each housing various and disparate secret operations, storage and monitoring facilities now repurposed into everyday usage, but retaining the useful hardware of the past. Certainly not the kind of toy shop we are used to, but one with more than a slight nod to history.
As for our toy hunt we decided in the end to choose something both entertaining and cultural, a Rubik’s cube. Mainly because he had hinted that he would like one before we left home and also because its inventor was Hungarian sculptor, professor of architecture and president of the Hungarian Engineering Academy, Ernő Rubik. The cube was originally a teaching aid for the university architecture class where Rubik set out to create a structure which would allow the individual pieces to move without the whole structure falling apart. Useful when designing a building I think.