Ode to Winter in Budapest

On this first day of December everybody complained all day. We have just entered real fall/winter weather after a mild month of November: temperature hovering just above freezing and it has been raining all day. Locals complain, expats complain, tourists complain – boohoohoo!

It should have been snowing – which is actually preferred by many – it is only raining, not even enough to provoke deadly inundations like in the south of France. It is not like nobody knows rain in Budapest but today everybody made it a big deal. Buses were absent or late, drivers could not drive anymore and even the biggest school in Budapest sent its 800 students back home because electricity did not work.

All our posts before Budapest were in warm countries, countries where even in winter the mercury does not go below 20 Celsius (68F). It is great to a certain extend. When do you get to show off your superb leather boots or crazy rain boots or cozy up in a warm angora sweater with a cashmere shawl? When do you light a fire in the fire place and glow, eyes half-closed sipping mulled wine and munching roasted chestnuts? People complain about the short – replace short by dark – days, but if it is not dark outside there is no reason to light candles and give the house a magic look.

Out of all places where to spend a cold winter, Budapest is probably the best. Besides all the Christmas or Advents markets (Vörösmarty tér, Basilika, Gresham Palace) and street lights, this is the only city that I know boasting an entirely lit Christmas tram. For the 6th year tram 2 in Pest and tram 19 in Buda, both running along the Danube, will be decorated with almost 40,000 LEDs starting on Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th for about one month. Tramline 2 is one of the most famous tramlines running on the bank of the Danube, between Jászai Mari tér and Közvágóhíd (the bridge south of Petöfi), which means from the Parliament to the Great Market and beyond. It runs usually 4:00-8:00 pm on weekends and holidays. Personally I like Tram 19 better since it runs on the Buda bank of the Danube which means a much better view of the Parliament. It runs usually 4:00-9:00 pm on weekdays.

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Winter is the perfect time for kürtőskalács, the famous ‘chimney cake’ baked over charcoal in front of your eyes after the dough has been worked into a fine strip spun around a wooden cone-shaped spit. It is covered in sugar which turns into caramel so that when it is golden, it is removed from the coals and you may add anything that will stick to it: coco, chocolate, cinnamon, crushed almonds, or plain additional sugar. Töki pompos is another very Hungarian treat when it is cold outside, it is the Hungarian version of a pizza, baked in an oven contrarily to the lángos, which could be assimilated to a fried pizza.

This winter Christmas will be even more fun in Budapest  with the first Santa Claus run, oufit and beard included! It will start at 3:00 pm on December 6th from Fövam tér. More details (in Hungarian) on: http://www.futanet.hu/cikk/spuri-mikulasfutas.

And to not miss anything this holiday season in Budapest, check http://budapestchristmas.com/.

Now, let’s get ready for some snow!

Budapest, my new home town

My first steps in Budapest were in several supermarkets, not museums. Expats are not tourists. Expats need to make their nest first, then they are ready to explore. And go to work!

From abroad we say Budapest. Once we have settled in the capital city we learn how to speak like locals. You either live in Buda on the west side of the Danube or in Pest (pronounced Pesht) on the east side. It was not until 1849 that a bridge – Chain Bridge or Széchenyi Hid in Hungarian – connected the multiple Buda hills to the plains of very flat Pest. About twenty years later Obuda (the ‘old’ Buda, north of Buda), united with Buda and Pest.

In Paris the districts (arrondissements) are set in a clockwise spiral, like a snail which makes them easy to learn: small numbers in the center and larger numbers on the outside. Because of the development of Buda, Obuda and Pest separately for many years, the numbers of the districts don’t really follow each other in an easy spiral. Buda has its center, district 1 (district 12 is next to it) and Pest has also its center, district 5 (district 13 is next to it), tough logic. Obuda comprises district 3 and 4 which says that this city was developed before Pest.

District 1 is dominated by the city’s main castle surrounded by ramparts. Locals call it the Vár district and it is about 100 meters above sea level. We live in district 12, a residential district, one of the largest, with the greenest hills – also the highest: this is where you may climb the highest point of the city, the János Hegy (John’s Hill) at 527 meters. The President, Prime Minister and many ambassadors together with only 75,000 others inhabitants live in district 12 out of almost two million inhabitants. Some time ago it was covered with vines. District 5 is where the magnificent parliament and our embassy are. It is also the most touristic district including the Basilica, the main pedestrian street Vaci utca, a huge Eiffel-inspired covered market ‘Vasarcsarnok’ and many five-star hotels.

From our new house to the embassy we take a tram for 15 minutes and then the subway for six minutes. There are four subway lines in Budapest. The Budapest subway was the first on the continental mainland, the second in Europe after London. Line 1 is yellow, line 2 is red, line 3 is blue and the brand new line 4 is green. The nearest subway station to the parliament is named Kossuth Lajos (pronounced Koshout Lah-yos) after a famous lawyer, journalist and politician considered the father of Hungarian democracy. On April 14th, 1849 he proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Hungary and the downfall of the Habsburg dynasty. Alas the Austrian Chancellor refused and Kossuth took exile in England and died in Turin.

The parliament, a major symbol of Budapest, is inspired by the British parliament. Near it is Szabadság tér (pronounced ‘Sobodshag‘) which translates as Liberty or Freedom square. The embassy is located in one of the beautiful old buildings which line the plaza.

Our surroundings are beautiful and our commute is short. This is a good start!