December in Budapest
There were many reasons I chose to visit Budapest in December. Firstly it was reputed to be very hot and crowded in summer and cold and quiet in winter and the latter sounded infinitely preferable to me. Secondly, they stared celebrating Christmas early with the children cleaning their boots on December 5th and leaving them out for St Nicholas to fill with sweets and nuts and a gold-sprayed switch of twigs as tradition dictates. Hungarians love festivals and holidays, often swapping around workdays, say a Monday for a Saturday, to give long weekends whenever possible. They also love music of all description and neither classical nor folk music are considered elitist or old-fashioned but a part of every celebration and impromptu concerts around the city are rife. Thirdly, I had heard about the magnificent Christmas market. A proper market where every region of Hungary was represented and brought to the stalls the things that their region was famous for; be that wine from the local vineyards or metalworking on the spot at a make-shift furnace or hand-knitted scarves, felt-applique and embroidered linens. Then there was the city itself – one of the most beautiful in Europe, full of churches that look like cathedrals and huge squares and particularly magnificent bridges. As cultured and grand as Paris on the one hand and as fun-lovingly mad as Disneyland on the other with a bit of Muscovite darkness and drama thrown in the mix.
The cold I had prepared for did not materialise and it was a regular winter chill that met me at the airport and gradually morphed into crisp sunshine over the coming week. The sky was bright white that first day and reflected the white of the grand old buildings and even the River Danube ran white. There was a strong smell of cloves and cinnamon in the air from the vats of mulled wine on every corner and meaty Goulash Soup was offered as a warmer everywhere for a couple of pounds a bowl. Stalls of fruit were piled high and the oranges were especially tangy and juicy and completely unlike the ones at home. The 5th of December had already passed and nativities vied to be the biggest or most ornate. With at least half the population being Roman Catholics, the meaning of Christmas in this city of beautiful churches is not forgotten.
After checking into my fin-de-siècle style hotel I headed for the splendidly lit St Stephen’s Cathedral, already decorated for Christmas Eve Mass with the case holding the mummified holy right hand of St Stephen duly polished, the mosaic-decorated dome glittering and glowing and the bell in the north tower – replaced by German Catholics after the Nazis looted the original – ready to ring out over Budapest. At the foot of the steps was the city’s largest nativity, sure to win all prizes, and beyond in the square, the market I was so excited about. Here I thought, as I passed a man carrying a Christmas tree accompanied by two dogs in thick jackets, is where I will find all my original and beautiful Christmas presents this year.
It didn’t take long for me to be loaded up with bags and boxes but I knew the provenance of each piece and had chatted with the stallholders who were often the artisans themselves about their creation. I had homemade cards and hand-painted and carefully sewn notebooks in leather and canvas, delicate glassware and pottery tinted berry-red or pine-green. I collected hand-made candles scented with rosemary and eucalyptus from the mountains and carved wooden bowls, traditional sweets, dried fruits, leather gloves, natural soaps, a wreath made of cinnamon sticks and dried lavender and even a scraped out pomegranate half-shell with a baby Jesus in it for my tree. I chatted with a young man who lived deep in one of the country’s forests and I bought several jars of his tree honey after he insisted I sample the different flavours to discover my favourite.
“This honey is made from bees who have feasted on the trees,” he told me, “so it has less pollen and so less chance of causing you an allergic reaction.” As a hay-fever sufferer that was good news to me.
Then requiring fortification, I stopped at the huge food-tent had a bowl of the thick goulash loaded with chunks of shredding beef, cubed potatoes and lashings of the national spice, paprika, which was dusted on everything from sandwiches to salads. It was accompanied, as is most food in Hungary, by a hunk of bread, because the Hungarians love their bread. It tastes delicious and is always white; the brown stuff is definitely inferior here. I washed it down with a mug of the mulled wine, then realised it was so potent I’d be better sticking to a glass of good Hungarian Riesling in the future. Anyway it was certainly warming and my Christmas shopping was done, leaving me the rest of the week to explore the city that had already surprised me.
I’m not sure what I’d been expecting but Budapest reminded me more than anywhere of Paris, or maybe it should have been Vienna when I remembered that for years it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire. The streets were wide boulevards, the buildings 19th century architectural gems and the River Danube wide and clean. The bridges that spanned it were works of art themselves, where pedestrians strolled lingeringly on either side, protected by tough barriers of curled metal or thick stone. I tried to take a different one each time I crossed, and I soon learned their names: - Freedom Bridge, Chain Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge and Margaret Bridge. I had based myself in Pest, the modern centre to be near the market so I had to cross the river to reach Buda, the old centre on a high hill, where the Royal Palace and castle overlooked the whole city. The castle originally dating from the 13th Century, has been renovated and added to ever since so is constantly evolving and a mix of various buildings and ages. An antique funicular sitting next to an ancient chapel that seems to emerge out of the rock-face saves you the steep walk up. The views are worth it, and higher up still is the amazing white turreted ‘Fishermen’s Bastion’, a fortress named for the fishermen who defended the city here. The fortresses arches gaze over the river to Pest at the Houses of Parliament glowing white on the other side. It looked just like a watercolour painting, especially at sunset. I was in time to see the changing of the guard at the palace gates before exploring the stunningly beautiful Gothic Matyas Church with its multi-coloured tiled roof and the quaint narrow streets around it, where I found tiny artisan shops and a butter-soft pale yellow bag I just couldn’t resist. My Christmas present to myself!
Back in Pest I walked in the other direction towards Heroes’ Square, passing a random statue of Ronald Regan walking down the street and a fabulous one of the Hungarian hero and revolutionary, Imre Nagy, standing on a small brass bridge looking very convivial and friendly as I posed for a photo with him. A grandmother and granddaughter were rubbing their feet on the bridge steps where the otherwise dark and dull metal had been rubbed golden, “For good luck.” She explained.
After wandering around the vast square, originally laid out in 1896 and later used for soviet demonstrations, now it is mostly visited for the Millennium Monument, where Angel Gabriel gazes down from a 110-foot column, or the Museum of Fine Arts which runs along one side. After my long walk I enjoyed a cup of the thick black coffee and then a lunch of the traditional Christmas dish of Fisherman’s Soup, a spicy dark red brew with at least four kinds of fish in it. I sat on the edge of the park overlooking yet another castle whose lake had been transformed into an ice-rink and was being enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
Walking back as darkness fell all the lights came on. Nearly every building seemed lit and of course the huge trees and stalls were festooned with fairy lights too. It seemed like a true winter wonderland and locals thronged the streets, shopping, laughing, eating and drinking all with good cheer and a welcome for a visitor. At the plush opera house, built to rival the one in Vienna the fur-wrapped women and black-tied men of the city were pouring through the ornate doors, the air behind them heavy with the scent of perfume.
I had discovered a place for breakfast overlooking the river and it was a wonderful start to the day to sit there watching the sun reflect off the water and gaze towards the wintery hills of Buda with the Liberty Statue crowning all at the highest point. A short walk along the riverside took me to the Houses of Parliament, impressive buildings, redolent with power, and dating from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were so many fine buildings in this city - even the post-office looked like a palace.
My last day found me back on the market for final gifts of gingerbread and packets of paprika. I resisted the ‘Rooster Testicles Stew’ and went instead for a plate of one of the many kinds of coloured and flavoured cabbage and a piece of the irresistibly creamy cheesecake with fresh fruits folded inside; heavy with both calories and guilt. I walked it off on the modern shopping street where boutiques recognisable from every city in the world shouldered small specialist shops selling porcelain, crystal, antiques or books. Then it was back to my hotel to try and pack within the airline’s weight limit. Not easy with all my purchases but even weighed down by extra hand-luggage I was happy knowing I’d bought everyone something rather different this year and discovered a fascinating city into the bargain.