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  • Writer's pictureBil

Christmas Market Mania

If you know us, you know we don’t do cold! So, when Skylar fist suggested we all meet in Budapest for Christmas our reply wasn’t no – it has hell no! But after thinking on it for a while we decided we might be able to survive if we could rustle up enough warm clothes, electric socks, and hand warmer packs.

Skylar had already planned a trip to Europe to meet and ski with friends in London, Amsterdam & Austria, and she thought a snowy Christmas in Budapest, with the colorful Christmas markets and decorations would be a nice change for the family.

So, plans were made and flights were booked. After arriving back in the US at the end of November, we spent a whirlwind 3 weeks visiting dear friends and family in Florida, Virginia, and Connecticut, and crammed 12 months of doctor’s visits into 1 week in Oviedo! (Thank You to Connie, AJ, Anne, Jeane & Paul, Diane & Dan, Lynn, Angela & Derek, Mary & Ricky, Kelsey & Jazz!) We packed a “disposable” 3rd suitcase with second hand winter clothes (thank you Mary!) and headed off to JFK airport (thank you Kelsey!).

Shortly after taking off, we started hearing stories of a severe winter storm that was wreaking havoc on plane flights all across the US! We had already been forced to rebook the 2nd leg of our flight, but all worked out for us, with our plane arriving 4 hours after Jazz’s flight, and Skylar later that day. No snow, but it was cold - normal for late December. Everyone was exhausted from the long ride and messing around from airport to Airbnb, etc., so we all slept straight-through for the next 3 days! Ha-ha. Not.

Our nice 2-bedroom flat was on the 4th floor of an apartment complex with a partially repaired, ruined courtyard, typical of buildings in the Jewish Quarter. We added some tiny Christmas lights and turned the radiators up to 10 – much to our children’s chagrin!

Memorial for Russian soldiers in WWII

First up was a free walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, focusing on the Communist era. This central area of District 7 in Pest became home to most of the Jewish population when various wars drove them out of the Buda side during the 18th century. They assimilated into the Hungarian culture and brought prosperity to themselves and the city, until WWII brought the horrors of war and genocide. The Soviet army saved the remaining residents from deportation in 1945, but life under Communism was also difficult.

Rationing was a part of daily life, requiring folks to stand in line for hours to get a ticket for goods, and then stand in another to receive – if there was anything left when it came to your turn. Censorship was rigidly enforced. Neighbors were required to spy on each other and report anyone not being a good comrade. The Communist secret police would quickly imprison or execute anyone suspected of being an enemy of the state.

However, if some citizens ostensibly “toed the party line” they enjoyed the benefits of “Goulash Communism”, which allowed a bit of private enterprise, easier travel and less censorship, in exchange for – whatever was demanded. Other states in the Warsaw Pact envied Hungary with some Budapest shops displaying Nike shoes and fine capitalistic cuisine.

Large, unused bomb shelter

When Mikhail Gorbachev began changing foreign policy in USSR in 1985, Hungarian activists exerted more influence to move the government towards democracy. Four years later Parliament completely rewrote the constitution, renaming the country the Republic of Hungary, and ending one-party Marxist-Leninist rule. In May of 2004 Hungary joined the European Union.

Some of the last war’s destruction has been capitalized on by the creation of “ruin bars” – drinking establishments that run the gamut from true dives to sophisticated clubs built around ruined buildings and courtyards. Other signs that Hungary has not completely recovered are gigantic government buildings standing empty near the active Parliament.

Nutcracker Ballet at the Hungarian Opera House

We had nominated Skylar as the de facto Social Director for this trip, and the first event was box seats at the Hungarian State Opera House for the Nutcracker. This Christmas staple was choreography by Wayne Eagling and Tamás Solymosi and magnificently performed. Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music was in its glory within this hall, renowned for its superb acoustics and neo-classical architecture.

Another holiday indulgence was a table at the Michelin-starred Borkonyha Winekitchen. Excellent service in a casually elegant setting, but we were underwhelmed by the sturgeon and venison main courses. Jerusalem artichoke and dessert chocolates were scrumptious.

Our Christmas dinner was a fantastic buffet at the Corinthian Grand Hotel Royal with many tables loaded with hot and cold dishes, salads, pastas, and cheeses, as well as a cook-to-order station. Music was provided by a string quartet, augmented with a beautiful dulcimer playing classical and Christmas tunes. Never-ending champagne and a fabulous dessert bar ensured that we all “rolled” out of there completely satisfied.

Parliament viewed from the Danube River

We spent Christmas evening on a large river boat, cruising the Danube and watching the brilliantly lighted buildings and bridges go by, including several places that we did not have time to visit, such as Vajdahunyad Castle, the Citadella and Buda Castle. Once again, we had bottomless champagne glasses. Never thought I would get tired of it, but, well….

European cities are known for their Christmas markets this time of year, and Budapest does it up right. One of the largest is centered around the neoclassical St. Stephens Basilica where the gaily decorated shops stretch for many blocks in all directions, selling food, drinks, decorations and crafts. As the holiday drew near, people from far and wide made their way downtown to celebrate in the festive atmosphere. We made our way through the crowds on several evenings, fortifying ourselves against the chill with mulled wine – quite tasty.

Chimney Cakes - Waiting to be Stuffed

And we found something new to us – chimney cake - a traditional Hungarian (originating in Transylvania) pastry that is wrapped around a wooden spool and slowly turned over an open fire. Then it is coated in melted butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and stuffed with ice cream and/or fruit. Fun to watch it being constructed, and even better to devour. Yum yum!

Christmas Light Show
St. Stephens Basilica

Every hour a brilliant light show was projected on the front of the basilica, portraying abstract scenes from the history of Hungary. We purchased tickets and walked through St. Stephens, named for the first king of Hungary, whose right hand is still housed in the reliquary. Beautiful, gilded ornamentation, statues and stained glass adorn the interior, along with a massive pipe organ.

After admiring the interior we took a combination of lifts and metal stairs to the lookout walkway around the outside of the cupola, where we had a wonderful view of the city in every direction. OK – getting cold – need something to eat – fast! Walked to Fat Mamas, a nearby pizza place, for a nourishing but unremarkable pie. Back to the streets and back to the rooms.

Outdoor Pool at Szechenyi Thermal Baths

On Monday we took a long walk to the north, passing the modern looking Museum of Ethnography and Hero’s Square, to arrive at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. This complex was built in 1913 and houses indoor and outdoor pools of varying temperatures. Buy your ticket and find an empty (and tiny) changing room. Then locate an unused locker (remember the number!) and stow your stuff. Take your towel and head for the water.

Experienced bathers brought robes. Or maybe they rented them? We tried the closest indoor pool first. Warm but not real hot. Maybe 99°. OK, time to brave the outside. It was cold – but not nearly as cold as the US where a real storm was charging through. Still, we didn’t dawdle and stepped into the large central pool, where a spraying fountain was creating clouds of mist that drifted over the bathers. There were a lot of folks in the water of all ages, soaking up the medicinal properties surrounding us. I could feel all my worries slipping away…. Ha-ha, until Skylar and Susie said it was time to get moving again.

Salmon Benedict at Bechamel

We enjoyed dining at several other places like Barack & Szilva next to the apartment, and morning coffee at Klauzal Deli, also next door. We sampled the traditional Hungarian Soup at Ket Szerecsen (good) and Chicken Paprikas at A Legvidamabb Barakk (just ok). The BBQ place nearby was blah. Very tasty breakfast at Bechamel!

Sad to say another trip is winding down, and everyone is leaving at different times – all in the middle of the night to get to the airport at some ungodly hour. Such is travel during the holidays. It was a wonderful time to have the family together for Christmas in such a unique setting. We are so very fortunate and count our blessings every day.

*One more note…we were able to enjoy several hours in the Qatar Business class lounge in Doha, Qatar, on our way to Sri Lanka. One of the most luxurious in the world and absolutely AMAZING!!!! (Thank you Susie for figuring out how to get into these lounges by using the right credit cards for flights!)

See you in Asia in 2023!

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