Budapest, Hungary. 24th -29th December 2016
The Prestige Hotel (Honorable Mention!)
Christmas Dinner in Costes
Based on recommendations from friends we were lucky enough to secure a reservation months earlier in the Michelin star restaurant Costes for a special Christmas Eve (Hungarian Christmas Day). Not coincidentally, the restaurant was downstairs in our hotel, so we arrived early and were greeted with a glass of mulled wine. A series of aperitifs emerged plate after plate before we even started into our 5 course meal filled with elegant takes on local delicacies. Sitting for a couple of hours we must have been greeted by each one of the friendly staff with a festive happy Christmas and another plate of food. Thank God we were staying upstairs because after 9 courses of rich Hungarian fare, it was all we could do to get in the lift!
Midnight Mass for our unholy souls
We returned the next day to have a good look round and to go up to the dome at the top, for what we were told would be incredible panoramic views of the city. We bought tickets for the lift that went up. For once, I was delighted that it wasn't some rickety spiral staircase that would test my fear of heights and ultimately, despite my best intentions, prevent me from seeing the view from the top.
Up we went 6 people per lift to the third floor. We exited expecting to see a huge dome, instead we were greeted with another lift, this time 4 at a time…up again. The doors opened into the enclosed basilica dome where we exited to see none other than the usual rickety spiral stairs…Damn, I was out, as were the two French girls that shared our lift.
Hungarian State Opera
Each year on Christmas Day the opera house puts on a show that attracts elite families and international visitors from all over. This year it was the nutcracker, a ballet performed by children and adults with huge talent, and very muscly legs! The most enjoyable element for us was admiring the detailed sets and beautiful costumes that were part of the fabric of the story (pun intended). The live orchestra played continually for an hour at a time without missing a note. The young children in the boxes surrounding us were mesmerized, holding their breath as Tchaikovsky’s melody filled the small opera houses and gave us a Christmas Day to remember.
The kids weren't the only ones mesmerized!
Gellért Thermal Baths
We decided (cough…I decided) that we should spend a morning being pampered! We pre-booked a VIP couples massage, changing cabins and entry to the thermal baths on Stephan's Day for around €100pp. We checked in at reception, a huge circular room with tiled mosaic floor, glass ceiling and lined with sculptures of beautiful naked bodies…no pressure! An electronic key fob gives you access to all areas. We changed into swimsuits and found our masseurs. Two lovely ladies dressed head to toe in white. After an hour of relaxation we made our way (in nothing but swimsuits), back past the camera wielding tourists, through the public lobby (morto) and into the main swimming pool.
The complex is like a maze of underground tunnels with pools and baths around every corner. We took a dip in the 40C bath with only a few brave others …the masses were hanging out in the 36C bath. Then we dropped into the Finnish sauna before hitting the icy plunge pool & heading away. The baths are so pretty with cherubs, mosaics and stained glass that we were tempted to stay there all day.
Cruising the Danube
This market had a large Christmas tree at its centre surrounded by a children’s ice skating rink. While the children may have had to pay a few euros to live out their Disney’s “Frozen” fantasies it was free entertainment for the rest of us watching bundled up little kids fall, crash into each other, bust themselves off the outer walls of the rink or for some smaller ones, slowly and gingerly inch their way along with eyes firmly fixed on their encouraging parents. On the hour a 5 minute light show was projected onto the walls of the Basilica which was very impressive the first time we saw it.
Herself was drawn to the deserts of course and the smell of one particular stall drew us more than others. Conveyor belt-like, these guys were churning out foot-long hollowed out doughnut type desserts filled with a flavour of our choice, melted chocolate, vanilla cream and so on. Revelers could watch the process from start to finish. The raw dough was rolled out into one long continuous tube, then wrapped tightly around a large wooden cylinder, like a rolling pin but longer, making sure the dough overlaps itself on every rotation and finally the dough is sprinkled generously with sugar.
We couldn’t help noticing the poorer citizens of Budapest, poking around the bins near the market or asking for some change from passers-by. One gentleman in particular stuck out for us. We first noticed him on Christmas day, a man in his 50’s digging aggressively in the bins around the market area. We passed him later again along the banks of the river, still whistling. He had an extremely loud and very tuneful whistle albeit he never changed his tune. We could hear him from several streets away as he repeated the verse and chorus to Wham’s “Last Christmas” over and over.
New York café in the Boscolo hotel
Keeping an air of luxury about our trip we decided to walk from our friend’s apartment to the New York café for breakfast. However, the luxury did not extend past the incredible interior architecture and painted ceilings. We queued for a free table with throngs of tourists behind barricades at the door. When seated...eventually, we ordered. An over priced breakfast of fruit, a selection of breads and an omelette for €45. Our table was too small to accommodate the ostentatious plates that held our drinks and the staff were nothing short of rude. The omelette had the wrong ingredients and the selection of breads consisted of croissants or sliced white bread! We did enjoy the view and being serenaded by the violinist but we left as quickly as we came.
The first thing visitors must do after purchasing tickets is to pass through the security gate and metal detectors. Bags are manual inspected and visitors may be padded down by private security men in black bomber jackets and dark sun glasses. Once inside the building the men are asked to wear hats or if you do not have a hat they provide cardboard Jewish skullcaps.
We had visited the catholic St. Stephen’s Basilica on Christmas Eve for midnight mass just a day or two before. We even went back to see it when it was quieter over the following few days. We could enter here at no charge and without any security measures. During midnight mass some older locals had motioned to the non-Catholic tourists to remove their hats while inside. The seats in the Synagogue were individual. Along every row was an arm rest between each seat and a personal compartment which opened to hold one’s prayer book. Men sat together on the ground floor and women sat upstairs, out of the men’s distraction. The Catholic pews were long and undivided. The difference between the two religions was striking, experienced so close together.
Living like a local....ish!
Zse’s apartment is quaint, and wonderfully personalised. We felt almost like intruders, sneaking into someone else’s abode. We had pages of instructions from Zse which were dearly needed in order to run this little house. Zse’s mother had already been and had left a loaf of local bread, some butter, milk (for tea) and some chocolate sweets. With a pizza place nearby we were set for the few days and it was a thrill to walk from a genuine Budapest residential burb into town. Koszonom Zse!
Our friend's hospitality didn't end there, however, as Zse managed to convince her Hungarian boyfriend who was at home for the holidays to collect us on our last day in the city and drop us to the train station. Thanks Kal, we had a fantastic time.