Monday, 28 December 2009

Christmas 2009 (Part 3)

After the long drive of the day before it would have been very tempting to sleep in however, being in Budapest on the last day of our official 'tour' with Aron, Meg and Wayne were both up relatively early and headed downstairs for the buffet breakfast. It was exciting to see bacon and eggs (there is not a lot of bacon in Qatar and the bacon that is there is turkey bacon), sausages and other hot foods, along with the cereals, cold meats, fruits and various types of breads that we typically encounter in Europe. Both boys eventually joined us but it was clear that they were still very tired, so they were given the option of staying home for the final Christmas Market of the tour. This they elected to do, so it was only Meg and Wayne who came down to meet Aron when he arrived at the Hotel Unio.

We were very pleased to hear that his children were feeling a little better and determined not to monopolise too much of his time, so that he could return home to spend the remainder of Christmas Eve with his family. The Unio Hotel is not far from Teréz Körút (Theresia Boulevard) one of the main thoroughfares that runs through Pest, so we decided to walk from there up to the Nyugati (Western) Station. The station was opened on October 28, 1877, having been built by the Eiffel Company, the same engineering company run by Gustave Eiffel which was responsible for the design and building of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is the main station for transport to and from Budapest Ferihegy International Airport and one of the major transport hubs in the city.

Above the railway station lays a major shopping centre, the WestEnd City Center which was Central and Eastern Europe's largest shopping centre when it was opened in November, 1999. Even though it may not have been as big as some other shopping malls we had explored in other parts of the world it was still an interesting experience. We were able to do some more Christmas shopping before heading downstairs to the underground railway station which is part of the third oldest underground in the world. While the London Underground was built in 1863 and Istanbul's Metro in 1875, Budapest's Yellow Line was complete in 1896, yet despite that is quick and efficient. Soon we were disembarking at Vörösmarty Station which is adjacent to Vörösmarty Square.

The square is held to be one of the city's most beautiful and is adjacent to the Gerbeaud Confectionary company building which acts as a giant advent calendar during the month of December. Each day one of the windows had been opened till, as we were there on Christmas Eve, there was only one left. As with the other markets that we had been to it was largely comprised of small wooden huts which held a mixture of food and drink stalls and those selling Christmas decorations or traditional Hungarian folk products. All the products on sale have been handmade in the traditional way and this is guaranteed by the Association of Hungarian Folk Artists. Christmas cookies and glassware are particularly famous but the market is also known for providing entertainment in the form of puppet shows, folk dancing, and traditional music.

By this stage of our trip there was very little snow left, with just some small grey scrapings piled off to one side but there was still a very festive feel to the market itself. We particularly loved the Christmas decorations made out of grass, and it was when photographing a large boar made in this way that Wayne was unable to avoid taking a photograph of a small girl. When he raised the camera, she stood beside the boar, when he put it down she looked carefully at him then started to walk away. As soon as he raised the camera again she raced back and stood next to the boar once more. Consequently, there is an unidentified small girl featured in our photos.

From Vörösmarty Square we wandered down a mall toward the Danube to look across the river from Pest to Buda. The banks of the river, along with many other parts of the city are a World Heritage Site and even in the cold on a day which was fairly overcast; it was quite clear how beautiful this part of the city is. Many people know that the city was originally two cities, Buda and Pest, which were unified on November 17, 1873 to form modern Budapest. However, there has been a settlement on the site since, at least, the 1st century BC when it was occupied by the Celts who called it Ak-Ink (which meant 'abundant water'). Aquincum was the name given to the city by the Romans who were but the first of the conquering armies who have overtaken the city at various stages of its history. Aron had entertained us the previous day with the stories of the many glorious defeats which Hungary (and Budapest in particular) had suffered over the centuries. As Australians (who particularly remember the battle of Gallipoli in World War I) we felt we could empathize with him.

From the waterfront you can see some of the amazing sites on the hills which comprise Buda on the eastern side of the river. These include Heroes Square with the Millenary Monument, Matthias Church, Buda Castle, and the statue of Szent Gellért. Saint Gerard (or Saint Gellert as it is in Hungarian) was Hungary's first bishop and lived from 980 till 1046. Allegedly he was placed on a 2-wheel cart, hauled to the top of, what is now, Gellert Hill, and then allowed to roll to the bottom. Because he was still alive at the bottom he was beaten to death. He is now one of the patron Saints of Hungary and every September 24th is celebrated as a feast day for him. Like so many other parts of Europe, statues abound in Budapest and even include statues of people who are completely covered.

From our vantage point between them you could also see two of the most important bridges across the Danube. Looking to the south we could see the Erzsébet (or Elisabeth) bridge which is the second newest bridge in Budapest. It was built between 1897 and 1903 across what is the narrowest point of the Danube through Budapest. The reason it heads directly into the base of Gellert Hill is that the land was owned by a city councilor who bribed other officials so that he could sell the land at a greatly inflated amount for bridge construction purposes. Unfortunately, this necessitated a sharp turn immediately across the bridge on the Buda side which, while it was no doubt painful in a horse drawn carriage, has proven to be disastrous for motor cars with numerous people killed or seriously injured. The bridge is, at least, not named after the councilor but for Queen Elisabeth, a popular Queen and Empress of Austria-Hungary who was assassinated in 1898, while the bridge was being constructed.

To the north is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge which was the first permanent bridge across the Danube and when it was opened in 1849 its center span of 202 m was one of the largest in the world. The bridges primary structure and decorations are cast iron and, along with the stone lions at either end, make it a particularly beautiful example of what the industrial age could achieve. Despite legends to the contrary, the lions do have tongues (although they are not visible from below, which is the usual point of view, as the lions are lying on a stone block some three meters high). However, people have been known to criticize their apparent tonguelessness. When confronted with such criticism the sculptor replied "Your wife should have a tongue just as my lions have, and woe will be unto you!" In a maneuver that has become more common Hungarian stunt pilot, Péter Besenyei, flew upside down under the bridge back in 2001, which would have been very impressive to see.

We retraced our steps back along the mall, stopping to admire some beautiful shop fronts. Part way up, while looking at some of the souvenirs available we spotted a gentleman carrying a large, pine tree over one shoulder. Clearly not everyone is of the impression that Christmas trees need to be erected a month or so prior to Christmas Day. After successfully navigating his way along the side street it was a little more difficult to manoeuvre his way through a narrow doorway and up at least one flight of stairs. We appreciated his tenacity, which reminded us that we still needed to arrange for a Christmas tree for the following morning at our hotel. Aron offered to loan us one, but we assured him that we would be quite able to make do. Indeed, after a return train ride and then the short walk back to the hotel we bid farewell to our guide from the previous few days. He had been very helpful, organising all sorts of things and responding to any requests that we had made of him. If you are interested in travelling in Eastern Europe we strongly recommend contacting him at

Because of the time difference it was already Christmas in Australia so the first of our phone calls to family took place before we went to bed. Following the pattern we had established the year before, Wayne and Meg borrowed a tree from the hotel to set up in our room and spread out the presents ready for the following morning. Also following the pattern, the boys claimed that they were going to sleep in the following morning because they were so tired yet, when the time came both Brock and Quinn were knocking on the door while Wayne and Meg were still in bed, wishing them a Merry Christmas and wanting to come in and investigate. Breakfast was downstairs in the restaurant (we were 4 of only 8 guests staying in the hotel) then more phone calls and present opening were the order of the rest of the morning.

That afternoon we decided to go out to the local shopping centre, Arena Plaza, to see a movie. The boys wanted to see the movie Avatar and, once we had determined that it would be shown in English they went off to see it while Wayne and Meg had a cup of coffee and strolled around the shopping centre. The more we travel, the more we come to realise that things that we took for granted in Australia (almost everything being closed on Christmas Day for example) are not necessarily the case in other parts of the world. In Hungary much of the Christmas celebration takes place much earlier in the month while the other part tends to happen on Christmas Eve. Consequently, there were lots and lots of people out at the shopping centre. By the time the movie was over it was almost dark and time for our Christmas dinner.

When we had first booked the tour with Aron we had asked if he could arrange something for us in Budapest for Christmas dinner on Christmas day. Trying to find food that resembled a traditional Christmas dinner in the UK or Australia was a very difficult task. Pertu Station was down near the Danube on the Pest side and near the Erzsébet Bridge. It is designed to look like a train station on the inside, perhaps one that is on a line that has been discontinued, even down to the rails placed into the floor of the upstairs section of the restaurant. Downstairs was elegant and the staff were very friendly. Dinner began with a beef consommé, followed by a main course chosen from a few different options (including chicken and Hungarian goulash) then desert consisted of a crepe with rich chocolate sauce. All of this had been pre-paid as part of our tour, with only the wine and drinks an exception.

After dinner we walked across and through the streets and malls to give the boys a taste of the Budapest Christmas Market at night. Unlike many of the other markets that we had visited, Budapest continued right up to Christmas itself and the square was very busy with many of the visitors buying the traditional foods and other ornaments and items for sale. The lights were very beautiful, especially at the Gerbeaud Confectionary building on Vörösmarty Square. Walking down to the Danube was cold but still wonderful with the buildings and monuments on both sides of the river being lit up spectacularly. By the time we reached the Széchenyi Chain Bridge we were all shivering but it was only a short taxi ride back to the Unio Hotel for our final night in Budapest.

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