Originally published 28th December 2012.
As pervy as it was, the bathtub in the hotel room was enticing, and it wasn’t like I didn’t have time to kill. It was decided between us that to go to bed at six in the morning – following a twenty-hour schlep across Europe – would only result in a completely wasted day in Hungary’s capital city. So, an hour-long soak in said pervy bath to pre-piped ‘Spring Burst’ by Red Sky Lullaby led to the breakfast to end all breakfasts. OK, so in NYC we have proper pancakes, Diet Coke and bacon so crispy Gary Lineker should be selling it, but here we sat, grazing on cakes and cheese, taking in super-strength egg-brewed coffee with piping hot milk on almost constant delivery to our table, situated in the glorious New York Cafe under a tapestry of frescoes to rival the Sistine Chapel.
I guess that coffee is coffee, but also location is location – and that means a hell of a lot. There is nothing to be said that Hungarian gastronomy is fanciful – and in many ways it parallels that of its Central European friends, particularly Italy, Austria, Slovakia and Germany – but it always appears to be in the right place at the right time; subsequently nodding towards not just neighbours but neighbourhoods as well. This no better demonstrated that the quiet charm and exuberant abundance of Budapest’s Christmas markets.
Now I have previously talked about the weighting I place on Christmas markets – especially Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park, London – being the ‘tell’ that the festive season is upon us. Sadly this year I had not made it to Hyde Park on account of being preoccupied with other things. This is truly lamentable as everyone I have spoken to about it says the same thing; that this season’s Winter Wonderland is one of the best yet (though still over-priced and overcrowded I reckon).
After three days in Pest – the ‘town centre’-side of the city – it appears that every place that could be loosely described as open space is transformed into some kind of seasonal Christmas market. As is the case with all Christmas markets, there is the usual detritus of hand-crafted shit, parodied in the Daily Mash as the ‘shed effect’, but the bread and butter of the markets in Budapest is food, food, food. And Glühwein. Sipping mulled wine in a park in London is one thing, putting away mugful after mugful in a crisp, snowy Budapest somehow means much more.
Vörösmarty tér and Szent Istvántér – two town squares right in the heart of the action – were home to some serious Christmas feasting. Neither market seemed to be what I would call ‘rammed’, but what became very clear was that these were not really tourist markets in the strictest sense of the phrase. Rather, there was a quiet hustle and bustle not too dissimilar to a suburban supermarket ticking over with healthy teatime trade. The stalls were a spectrum of cured meats, open skillets of sewing meats and vegetables, platters of pastries, cakes and sweets, all glossed over with billowing steam and smoke. Billboards and chalk were informative and opened my eyes as to how inexpensive this whole city is. Csülök (pork’s knuckles): 1400HUF. Rétesek (strudel): 490HUF. Kakastöke Pörkölt (rooster testicle stew): 1000HUF. Not bad at all considering that you currently get around 350HUF to £1.
The driving cold (it was always around minus three to five degrees Celsius around town) and the delicious smells had long since given me the rumblies; lunch was taken in the markets, courtesy of a wonderfully rich and oily Hungarian sausage and a pile of spuds sautéed in goose grease. It tasted shamazing – particularly when washed down with the Hungarian drink of choice, red wine – and left me feeling not only replete, but with a cushy new beer coat and slightly pissed for good measure (still carrying a mug of mulled wine past the shops along Váci utca).
The markets were (sadly) not the only sight of interest in Budapest so, as we were fuelled up and in tune with the rather warm-looking locals, we made headway to such landmarks as the Hungarian Parliament Building, Heroes’ Square and on the second day, Buda; home of Castle Hill, the Burgher Houses and some of the best views of any city I have seen. Turns out it’s not just the food in town which is stunning.