Catching Up, Part 2: Bewitched by Budapest

In our whirlwind of a November, the last stop was Budapest for Thanksgiving.  I don’t remember quite how we settled on that, but it seemed just right– Clay had spent a semester in Budapest as a 20-yr-old and, amazingly with all the traveling he does, he hadn’t been back since then.

I was excited to see the city because of his experience there and just because– well, Budapest!  Doesn’t it sound exotic?  Eastern?  Indeed, it would be the furthest east I’d ever ventured on the map.  I had secured what looked to be a charming little apartment for our stay, and the owner had set up a car for us from the airport and even arranged a reservation for us at his favorite restaurant on Thanksgiving.  We had a guide book, plus Clay’s experience– and we set off quite excited about the adventure.

The fanciful monument called the Fisherman’s Bastion. It’s right next to St Matyas, and is where we were standing when we took the picture of parliament. All together, they make a wonderland setting all lit up at night.

It turns out our lodging find (on VRBO.com) was the best we’ve ever done.   The apartment was in exactly the location I would have picked if I’d known the city.pastedGraphic.pdf We were in a little square on the Pest side of the city (yes, the river splits Buda from Pest, who knew?), near a series of pedestrian-only shopping streets, and there was a Christmas fair spread out across the large square a block or two from our place.  The caretaker who met us was very friendly, spoke English, and gave us the basics on our apartment as well as presented us with two plates of cakes and pastries, and two bottles of Hungarian wine to welcome us.  So, good start! We walked out into the market streets, and after some wandering, found a cellar-like place for a late lunch.  We warmed up with real Hungarian goulyash and other traditional foods.  Not bad for lunch in the tourist zone.  Then we made for the Chain Bridge, which we walked across to reach the Buda side of the city.  Already I was surprised by the beauty of the city, even on a bitter cold, gray day.  Everything was lit up, and the architecture seemed to glow   festively through the misty cold. Across the grand bridge, we took an antique funicular car up the side of a steep hill to the Buda Palace (which I guess we took NO pictures of?) and the views back across the river– toward Parliament (the big picture above)– were  amazing.  I didn’t yet understand what was what in the cityscape, but it was so beautiful, you couldn’t help feeling an affinity for the city.  You wanted to get to know it. Our dinner was a bit of a hike from the apartment, but Clay knew his way around pretty well, and the walk took us through a park, through the lighted, beautiful square outside St Istvan church (cathedral? and again, NO pictures?), and even across the glam shopping street, Andrassy.  Then dinner itself.  Oh my goodness.  Traditional Hungarian foods– goose liver pate, roasted goose, rich, rich, rich foods and cakes and wines and liquors and… yum!  What’s more, the experience was just so nice because the staff took such good care of us.  I don’t fully know whether they treated us extra specially well because we were guests of their friend, Mr. Farago; or if we would have had the same consideration and attention in any case.  But they were also justifiably proud of their cuisine and seemed to love sharing and explaining it to us.  We ‘ate it up’… so to speak. The next day, we found time to explore old Buda at more length– even going into “The Labyrinth”– which is an underground series of caves and passageways somehow related to the Buda Palace, and used for everything from hiding out in wartime to more nefarious activities we didn’t try too hard to seek out and describe in the company of our kiddos– but there were areas with prison bars… It was a fun walk to do with the littles, who found it just scary enough to feel like a Scooby Doo episode, but not so much that they were overwhelmed.  pastedGraphic_2.pdfAfter another terrific late lunch, we found ourselves back by the river at dusk and after dark.  The pictures at top, as well as the Christmas card photo here, might capture just part of the enchantment the city was casting.  And we’d barely scratched the surface.  Walking back across the Danube on that grand Chain Bridge (which was, admittedly, pretty dang cold), we came into Roosevelt Square on the other side of the river and a gorgeous Art Deco palace that’s now a hotel (Clay and I had drinks there a couple nights later, on our anniversary).  Then a short walk through our neighborhood, where the Christmas fair was now buzzing with vendors and music and that blessed, blessed hot mulled wine (forralt bor, they call it).  When you are walking around cold all day, there is just nothing like it to help warm up! As I let drop, Clay and I celebrated our anniversary in Budapest.  He surprised me with tickets to the ballet at the Hungarian National Opera, and sweet Chloe babysat.  The Opera House, situated in Budapest’s swankest shopping area, is simply magnificent.  It’s a gorgeous building, particularly the interior.  It’s grand and sumptuous but authentic, and people still really dress for the occasion– in evening wear and furs!  (I love that, as it always feels like a let down to me to arrive for a big occasion and find people in trainers and jeans…)  I might have had a moment’s alarm that the production was “The Taming of the Shrew,” but I reasoned that he really didn’t have a choice of what was on while we were in town… right??  Anyway, the ballet itself was well done and really fun and entertaining, which is not always the case with ballet.  Afterwards, we walked back to the cathedral square, St Istvan’s, and there was another Christmas market going there.  But we walked on past the forralt bor and down toward the river, where we turned in for drinks at the Art Nouveau Gresham Palace, which is now a Four Seasons Hotel with a breathtakingly beautiful lobby and a piano bar.  As we wound up our evening in that beautiful spot, it would have been difficult not to feel like a very happy and very privileged person.  How did I wind up in such a place? pastedGraphic_3.pdfIn subsequent days we shopped our neighborhood and sampled coffeehouses and tea and pastry places– apparently Hungarian cakes are a point of national pride, so there are many, many places to indulge!  We watched folk bands and dancers and children’s choirs on the stage in our local square.  We climbed Gellert Hill, on the Buda side, to the fortress and monument that sits above the whole city (Gellert was a missionary supposedly rolled off the hill into the Danube in some kind of barrel by early Buda inhabitants who, it seems, didn’t much appreciate his efforts to convert them!).  We walked through another grand old hotel (The Gellert) and peeked in at the hot baths– which are a Budapest feature we didn’t much explore on this trip.  pastedGraphic_4.pdfIn the same neighborhood, we found and lunched in an old budget Italian restaurant Clay used to eat in as a student (he said it hadn’t changed much!), and we visited his old school (which still boasts a statue of Marx) and the grand indoor food market next to it.  We took the old subway out to Heroes Square, and walked through that over to the castle situated in what must be a gorgeous park setting in nicer weather.  pastedGraphic_5.pdfOn the castle grounds is a statue of Anonymous– and of course I went and touched his (why is it a ‘he?’) inspired pen, for luck and inspiration! (Still waiting…)  We enjoyed another fabulous, multi-course Hungarian meal at a quaint little restaurant near the castle and the zoo.  Something like “The Owlery.”  Delicious and perfect for the moment– which seemed to just keep happening throughout the trip. Every once in a while you find a place that surprises you.  Everywhere you turn you see something unexpected that somehow delights you– and it’s different for each of us, of course.  Budapest captured my imagination.  There was a gracious beauty that reminded me of Paris, but with the added charm that it was completely new to me and a little more foreign-feeling.  It was also manageable.  I know there are lots of things we didn’t do or see– LOTS.  But it felt like we got a really good feel for the city in just a few days there.  I like to think we will go back– maybe when the weather is nicer and we can stroll through the parks and across the bridges without shivering.  But then we would miss the hot wine…pastedGraphic_6.pdfDilemmas. Hope you all are keeping warm and happy through the winter.  Thanks for bearing with me through another long travelogue!  Next time, Christmas with Will in London– mostly in pictures.  Love to all of you! … a parting photo– Fisherman’s Bastion by day…

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