Tis' the season28 November, 2016 Budapest
The clocks turned back, darkness descended early and the first frost gently kissed the ground. Winter had arrived. With this came the beginning of the Christmas countdown. There was still a two month span to the holidays. There is no denying Dublin’s festive charms, but mainland Europe is where the magic really happens each year, and we wanted to see that magic! My friends and I booked our flights, dressed for the season and headed to Budapest, Hungary. Bisected by the Danube River, Budapest is an easily accessible city. The famous Chain Link Bridge joins the hilly Buda district with the flat Pest side. On our first day we headed exploring on a walking tour traversing the city, taking in the rich history it has to offer, from its background in World War II and Communist era, its architecture and its culture. Starting in Pest we finished in Buda in the turrets of Fisherman’s Bastion which give romantic sweeping panoramas of the city. As we walked, each and every square was a bustling hive of activity in preparation for the evening, a sense of expectation hanging in the city. Back in Pest as dusk fell a new persona emerged and a magical aura engulfed the city as Budapest fully embraced Christmas. The squares lit up with festive lights, the savoury aroma of hot food and mulled wine made our mouths water as we spun around absorbing the atmosphere. Rows and rows of beautifully crafted stalls filled the square, each selling beautiful gifts, most of them hand-made. They stood as an amazing testament to the stunning talent that lies here. From a stand in the corner of the square a lone note echoed through the night, followed soon by more as a string quartet struck up and sent forth hypnotic music to the evening. The happiness was infectious. I looked around and thought this is Christmas. Materiality is not taking centre stage, it is the people, atmosphere, talent and happiness that are.
Each night I wandered around in awe drinking in the sights, sounds and smells, trying to estimate how much I could fit into my carry on suitcase!
The following day we took full advantage of our location and paid a visit to the famed Gelhert Bath house. Inside its lavish interiors with full selection of steam rooms, saunas and pools I let my worries float away. En route to the bath house we passed through one of the many wonderful bric a brac markets the city has to offer selling everything from crafts to war memorabilia. Here talking to the locals I heard from the young people how wonderful it was to be living in a Communist free country but also from the older ones how they yearned for the days of the Communist Party. Having growing up learning of the dictatorship policies of Communism this revelation shed a whole new light on what positives they had to offer. It really is true; you have to hear both sides of the story personally before you see things clearly. Each night we ate in the Jewish Quarter, where food was delicious and prices incredibly reasonable. From here it was straight back to another square to enjoy more festivities. Each night I wandered around in awe drinking in the sights, sounds and smells, trying to estimate how much I could fit into my carry on suitcase! Every night we fell prey to one particularly sweet treat. Chimney cakes are a local delicacy and we were lured in to the treat being baked on the street side, the perfect accompaniment to an evening’s browsing.
Our cosy apartment was situated just around the corner from St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the city. One night walking home we popped in. Our timing was beautiful. A hushed silence met us as we saw cameras pointed to the alter. Angelic notes of a harp began to play and the voices of the choir standing on the steps of the alter filled the cavernous space of the church. They sang in Hungarian, it didn’t matter that we didn’t understand a word, their voices, the familiar tunes and the beauty of the space we stood in was truly mesmerising. We had stumbled into something very special that no other visitor was getting to witness. We stayed as invisible as we could, left the hustle and bustle outside and simply listened. Budapest certainly gave us a special gift that night.
On our final day we paid a visit to the Market Hall where locals shop for fresh food and crafts people sell their wares. Wandering the double height space we laughed with the vendors and ate like the locals. I got on the return flight home – music, people, culture, food, religion, atmosphere, crafts, relaxation, laughter, zero stress and so many happy faces – there is Christmas in one beautiful bundle, wrapped and presented by Budapest. Who could resist a gift like that?