When you walk into Carpe Noctem the first thing you’ll be handed is a beer. Much like the hostel itself, it will probably be something with a vaguely local veneer and not a whole lot to offer without the alcohol—maybe Arany Ászok or Kőbányai Sör – though you’ll be assured that, not to worry, you kind of stop noticing the taste after you’ve had six or seven. As is custom, you’ll be given this first can of pilsner—or perhaps playfully thrown it across the comatose twenty-something sprawled in the beanbag at your feet—by a slightly more authoritative twenty-something who introduces himself as Cyclops. Or Scrumpy. Or Sexy Rob. Or whatever aptly nicknamed staff member has been given the unfortunate responsibility of waking up to greet you for 10 .a.m. check-in. In all likelihood, he will be male. He will be doing his best to seem upbeat and lucid. And his presence may well clarify for you what guests mean when they mention “waking up to the smell of hangovers.”
But why are you here?
Like many of the travelers you’ll soon encounter, you’ve probably come to Carpe Noctem to have the time of your young life. You have found that after several months of your European study abroad experience—be it in Utrecht, Madrid, or Lyon—you still haven’t quite indulged your thirst for adventure, finally resolving to look outside the borders of your chosen country to find the rip-roaring good time everyone seems to associate with spending a semester overseas.
You, too, have probably come in search of companionship. You were intrigued to see this hostel distinguish itself among all others in Budapest as “the destination for solo-travelers,” and couldn’t help but feel your heart grow a little warmer with each passing mention of its “friendly, backpacker family.” You will no doubt have wagered that, having spent the last few months wallowing in the lonely seclusion of your host family’s spare bedroom a few days of sustained human interaction within a “hookup friendly atmosphere” could be a real boon for your mental health.
And thanks to your research
You will hopefully have expected some of this. Carpe Noctem is, after all, a self-advertised “party hostel” (its name being a play on the aphorism “Carpe Diem” and Latin for “seize the night”). Throughout its illustrious six-year history it has consistently marketed itself both as one of the finest hostels in Budapest and among the best places to remain “proper wrecked” for the duration of your stay. To these ends the hostel staff provide a number of creative means, including but not limited to: Alcoholympics, All You Can Think All You Can Drink Trivia, All You Can Drink Vodka, a Pub Crawl, Drinking Bingo, a Booze Cruise, the “Original” Jager Train, a Bath House Rave, the Ultimate Drinking Challenge, and something described only as “Szigetfucked.” In one section of Carpe Noctem’s website alone, the word “drinking” appears eighteen times. Elsewhere, though slightly less explicit, it seems safe to assume that the creation of the website probably involved a fair amount of drinking too. (From the About Us section: a typical day at Carpe Noctem might begin with someone “siggesting [a] gin train” in the living or room or by leisurely “taking shit on the terrace with mates.”)
What else does 4,320 Forint ($17.70) five floors above Szobi Street get you? Depends who you ask. If you believe what’s been written online, basically a nirvana-nearing orgy of backpacker camaraderie. With just a few choice clicks you learn that beyond having acquired a sterling string of accolades over the past five years – Hostelworld’s Best Hostel Budapest, Best Hostel Hungary, Best Hostel Eastern Europe, Most Fun Hostel Worldwide – and outlandishly high approval ratings across the board – 96% on Hostelworld, 97.5% on Hostelbookers, 99% on TripAdvisor – Carpe Noctem boasts 2,000+ enthusiastic online reviews lauding it as the ideal destination to “party like a rockstar every night” and drink until you’ve been reduced to a “soulless shell of a human being.”
In the pursuit of soullessness
Bag over shoulder, beer in hand, you will most likely be led to a moth-eaten sofa in the middle of Carpe Noctem’s reception area where Cyclops (or Scrumpy or Sexy Rob) will lay out the rules. No drugs. No smoking indoors. No sex in any of the communal spaces. They will then physically adhere an electronic room key to your arm, explaining with rehearsed fluidity that this marvelous piece of technology is at once “water-proof, drunk-proof, and retard-proof.” Here, they may feel compelled to justify this remarkable claim with a few tales of what their own room-key has survived. Like full sustained immersion in a 200-person hot tub. Or its repeated unsuccessful use as a bottle-opener. They may chuckle nostalgically—even wistfully—at these memories. Then they will beckon you upstairs for the tour.
In quick succession you will absorb the key features of the hostel: its dual dining room/kitchen area, its heavily cushioned slanted-ceiling rec room, and a seemingly innocuous bathroom just outside your designated room where your guide will turn with a mischievous grin and ask if you know where you are.
Naively, even warily, you will probably shake your head no.
With great gusto he will declare your arrival at the “Disco Shower,” his favorite part of the hostel and definitely one of Carpe Noctem’s biggest claims to fame. Complete with one iPod player, one strobe light, and one shower, this is bathing as you’ve never experienced it before. Where, for perhaps the first time in human history, a shower has proven equally “hyphy and hygienic.” Where at long last you can “actually rock out with your cock out” like you’ve always dreamt you would.
Mesmerized, you’ll probably only muster a feeble nod.
Eventually—although it’s hard to say how much time will be needed to adequately espouse the merits of the Disco Shower—your guide will close the bathroom door, lead you through a couple more carpeted hallways, and present you at the eight-bedroom mixed dorm you’ve booked for your three-night stay. True to the advertising, you’ll see that it features all the basic accouterments of a middle-to-high end hostel. You’ll be assigned a metal locker for your valuables. A spot on one of four blue, metal bunk beds. And then, finally, handed a small paper brochure publicizing “towels for hire.”
At this point your guide will leave you to get settled in. The longer you can spend doing this better: nothing notable is going to happen until that night anyway.
Carpe toilet bowl
At a certain point in the evening the hostel guests will reconvene at the base of the stairs where you first checked in. You will find that they are a merry bunch. Most, if not all, will be “ready to fucking rage.” If there is an exception to this rule it’s the guests that have already been at Carpe Noctem for a week or more, who tend to congregate towards the outer edges of the room—white to the point of a ghostly pallor—with a sort of catatonic look in their eyes that ask do I have the strength to do this again?
Towards the middle of the room a number of games of the pre-gaming kind are soon underway. Ping pong balls ricocheting off walls and limbs, cards splayed in seemingly decorative arrangements, people shouting in unison with sporadic wails of anguish and triumph and primal energy. The whole shebang.
Of course, seasoned socialite that you are, you will probably manage to exclude yourself from basically all of this. Rather than carousing with your fellow study abroad students, you will instead befriend a group of 40-year old French bachelors so mature they have decided to spend spring break partying with what looks like their kids’ college roommates. They seem surprisingly comfortable with this. Over four to five games of foosball, you drink a sizeable pitcher of vodka. Your unlikely friendship suddenly feels much less bizarre.
Eventually, once a sort of baseline, communal point of inebriation has been achieved, one of the hostel leaders will unglue himself from the couch and stand pointedly at the top of the stairs until the noise has died down to a dull roar. He will explain that it is now time to head out for the main evening activity: a pub crawl through Budapest’s ruin bars. This declaration will be met with a sort of bleary, disjointed groan of approval, and then, before you know it, you’ll be stumbling down five flights of stairs onto the cobblestone streets of district VII (colloquially known as “Old Buda”).
Upon arrival—once every member of your positively bovine backpacker family has plodded through the doors—you may come to the startling realization that these ruin bars are actually more than just venues to continue imbibing alcohol; that they are, in fact, architectural treasures dating back hundreds of years. You may note how even the original wooden beams crisscrossing the bars’ ceilings have been subtly, delicately buttressed to preserve their structural and cultural integrity. Indeed, how their entire décor has been painstakingly reconstructed to reflect the intersection of entire eras and empires across the two-millennia history of this city.
Of course you will remember very little of this. By the end of the night you might have a deeper appreciation for the interior design of Budapest’s many public restrooms—and an even deeper appreciation for the interior design of the toilet bowls you will spend the majority of the evening staring into—but to say that this will be a historically enriching experience is more than a bit misleading.
Upon making the regrettable decision to regain consciousness
In retrospect you may kind of wonder if this day even happened at all. Sure, you definitely remember waking up—how could you forget such an intense and immediate wave of nausea—but the idea that you actually just layed there for five or six hours, totally silent and immobile, will seem like an absolutely breathtaking display of intertia. By the time you do manage to drag yourself out of bed and into the mercifully muted Disco Shower, you will realize that most people have already started mobilizing for the next night out. You look at the activity board. It’s time for your booze cruise down the Danube.
Cirrhosis of the river
Four-thousand Forint ($16.13) will get you on the boat, but it turns out that for just one-thousand Forint ($4.04) more you’ll be provided with your own bottle of Champagne when you board. Never mind that this turns out to be “Hungarian Champagne”—the kind that comes with a plastic cork and boasts the robust flavor of a Kristian Regale sparkling cider—this is a good deal, you will be told. A “classic Carpe Noctem experience.” One that everyone is exceedingly amped about.
What everyone forgets or fails to mention is that the boat staff has an established tradition of rigorously shaking each bottle of Champagne before handing it to you. One kind of wonders why they do this—since, you know, they’re the ones responsible for cleaning the boat up—but by the time person number three has taken a high-velocity stopper to the face it will be pretty evident that no one has been informed. Absolute bedlam ensues. Screams, pops, fizzing; corks whizzing through the confined interior cabin, glass breaking, someone bellowing the phrase “THERE IS A 10,000 FORINT FINE IF YOU THROW UP ON THE FLOOR” and, in an almost staged tableau, a rapid sequence of ecstasy, uncertainty, and panic that plays across the face of a smallish girl as she turns—bottle still in hand—and projectile vomits off the starlit starboard bow.
This will probably be less of a concern for your fellow hostel patrons. Many of them will indeed seem to be having the time of their young lives, including one of your French friends from the night before who you’ll spy making out with a girl that you really, desperately hope is past her teenage years. Admittedly, both will seem to be pretty into it, which is more than you can say for your sorry solitary self as you stand there stupidly gawking at them. In all likelihood you will probably end up drinking quite a bit again—occasionally unsure as to whether the tide is literally rocking the room back and forth or if it’s just the bottle of sort-of Champagne marinating in your cerebrum—though in a manner that feels considerably less euphoric, and carefree than everyone else.
The grand finale
This is it, you will be told. “You last fuckin night!” Time to leave everything on the table before returning to the dreary, sober realities of everyday life. You’ll recall the vacuous expressions of Carpe Noctem’s veterans back on your first night, overwhelmed with a renewed sense of sympathy and solidarity for these souls. But somehow you’ll persevere. You’ll tap internal reservoirs you weren’t even aware you had, and somehow, quite inexplicably, just lose yourself in a burst of wild, youthful abandon. You’ll remember that this is why you came here in the first place; that this wild, crazy experience could really end with one final, explosive bang.
Unless, of course, you fall asleep at 9:30pm, reading a book in your blue, metal bunk bed.