His curiosity led our reporter into the mysteries of Budapest, the cradle of escape rooms. Did he solve the challenges or is he still there, wrestling with conundrums?
A complicated city at the best of times, Budapest is not a place visitors immediately grasp. It takes time to understand it. The old heart of Europe, it beats to the pulse of the history of an entire continent. The streets are grand avenues, the buildings linked by the ubiquitous omnibus power lines. No chessboard here, no urban development plan. Budapest grew organically, like a living thing with a memory, a creature that swallows up careless strangers who come without a map. This sense of new departures, of the dream of a peaceful 20th century still clings to the Art Nouveau facades of Andrássy út boulevard. And because the facades are crumbling, the plaster peeled away to reveal the bricks beneath, it is also suffused with disappointment and the sadness of the 20th century. Budapest is the essence of Europe.
The ambiguity of this city has inspired two of the most successful logic games of the past century. Ernö Rubik conceived of the famous colored cube that bears his name here, driving people to despair since 1977. Even more successful are the exit games that require players to solve problems. The games involve locking a team into a room and giving them an hour to escape by a process of deduction and combination. The team only escapes if it follows all the clues correctly.
“Maybe it’s because Budapest is so confusing that I got the idea,” says the man who believes his Parapark was the very first escape room. Attila Gyurkovics, stocky, close-cropped hair, businesslike attitude, is sitting in a café, ashtray, a substantial meal and a beer in front of him. “Budapest has lots of dilapidated buildings, old, rundown courtyards, and I knew I could do something with them.” Gyurkovics always loved puzzles, whodunnits and thrillers, and the dark, shabby side of his city was inspiring. Budapest is a place where dark thoughts can arise. “I solved the Rubik cube when I was a child,” says the now 41-year-old, “I always wanted to get to the bottom of every puzzle.”
Visiting Budapest requires a story, a reason to go there at all. There are places around the world that lend themselves to aimless wandering. New York is one such city, Paris another. But you need a real reason to pay Budapest a visit: Buda Castle on the Buda side of the Danube, the thermal baths on the Pest side, or a boat trip along the Danube, something like that. My pals and I are here because we want to try out the very first escape room.
Your brain is the only tool you need for this game
Our first impression is disappointment: A narrow staircase leads down to a musty basement, like a seedy underground club. There’s a smell of damp laundry, forgotten furniture and mothballs. The ceiling is low and claustrophobia soon sets in. “We changed nothing in the first room,” says Gyurkovics, outlining the rules. There are no tools and no manual. All you need for a good story is a good script, says the resourceful Parapark boss. Parapark has been around since 2011. “Your brain is the only tool you need for this game,” he explains. Just in case anyone really gets scared or frantic: “One of my staff will be watching you on camera and will step in.” We are relieved – a little.
Gyurkovics makes up the clues himself. These days, people in many countries play his stories. It’s a lucrative business and start-up costs are low, as the furnishings of the basement vault on Vajdahunyad utca 4 reveal: Furniture dating from the days of socialist planned production, an old computer screen, junk and half a car. Imagination is what turns this medley of old stuff into a story. We have to make our way through four rooms. The first looks like the break room of a small workshop. “An overall,” I say out loud, “there’s actually an overall in here,” still able to laugh. Then the door closes and we don’t know what to do. Bewildered, we look around. Christoph, the brains of our quartet, the mathematician, wants to roll out his theories about the probabilities of puzzles. “Christoph, please,” I say, reining him in, “people who don’t spend their free time calculating when the universe will implode are also supposed to be able to solve this!” We crack the first nut: In the overall pocket, there’s a key, which should open a lock we haven’t yet located. We split up: two search, two ponder. We have to work as a team as we only have an hour’s time.
You have to solve the puzzle in one room before you can enter the next one. We discover some numbers on a screen: a safe code. Inside the safe, there’s a jigsaw piece – reminding me of 1990s computer adventure games. Immediately we spot an old computer with four video files on it. Christoph and I analyze the videos, find more numbers and note them down. We’re feeling smart because we’re solving the puzzles. For us, a musty basement in Budapest with some junk apparently randomly strewn across the floor is turning into a story, an adventure. “I think that’s supposed to be an elevator,” I say as we enter the third room. Of course, it’s not a real elevator, just another room.
A Parapark visit costs roughly 30 euros per group. After half an hour, even seasoned players will have cracked two of the four rooms at most. Things get hectic: “Why don’t I get it? Why can’t I pull the key out of the car’s dashboard?” I yell. The four of us weigh down laminated maps with big lumps of wood. Another code pops up which opens the dashboard. Instantly, our brains reward us with endorphins. “That’s why people love Parapark puzzles,” Gyurkovics explains, “everyone can do them and when the team finds a solution, all the players get a rush of pleasure.”
Spirits of the past
DEMONSTRATE YOUR WIZARDRY
Pinball fans can play this museum’s vintage exhibits.
NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED
Tours of tunnel systems and caves beneath the city.
Römische Geschichte schnuppern im Ruinengarten von Aquincum.
The very popular Szimpla Kert bar is housed in a vast old oven factory.