Sometimes opportunities crop up out of the blue and there’s no way you can turn them down. So when a classmate of mine asked if I wanted to spend Christmas with her family in Hungary, the only sane response was “Ahhhhh! Bien sûr!”.
We flew into Budapest (via Munich) on the Sunday night, where her brother and his wife were waiting to take us to their flat. Thankfully they spoke English and were able to give me a bit of a historical background to our surroundings. A thick fog had rolled into the city and as we drove over the bridge from Buda to Pest statues of giant lions stood in sharp relief against the pitch blackness around us: peaking my excitement for what we’d discover the next day.
The fog persisted. Budapest was grey and cold and shrouded in mystery. It also gave me a lot of opportunities to practice saying “brouillard”, which means “fog” in French and is super tricky to pronounce. As the common language between my friend and me is French, it was kinda funny to be a kiwi in Hungary spending all my time speaking French!
The day remained cold and we popped into cafés whenever the chill became too much. At one point we dived into a café for a hot chocolate, marveling at how swollen our hands looked. Yikes!
Walking through the winter markets in the chill really brought home the fact that it was Christmas. The lights were so pretty, especially as the sun set in the mid afternoon.
We even popped into the cathedral that had a thousand year old hand in a little shrine!
After a few drinks in a super cute café with more of her family, we wandered off to catch the bus to Székesfehérvár. Here we would spend most of our time, living at my friend’s grandmother’s house along with her five siblings and a cousin.
I soon discovered the Hungarians love of soup, sour cabbage, sour cream, and a kind of cottage cheese called “túró”. You can even buy chocolate covered túró bars! We also ate a lot of Hungarian peppers, drank Hungarian wine and downed shots of a Hungarian spirit called Palinka… although everyone agreed that the sugary version they make in Transylvania is the best.
And since we’re on the subject of drinking, one interesting fact that I discovered is that Hungarians don’t “toast” with beer. The story goes that after Hungary’s failed revolution against the Austrian crown in the 18 hundreds, the Austrians toasted their success with beer. When word got out, the Hungarians vowed that for the next hundred years they wouldn’t toast with beer in remembrance. Even though more than a hundred years have passed, the tradition still persists.
Our evenings were spent playing boardgames (some of which my friend and I sat out, of course!), reading and watching cartoons. Christmas eve is when Hungarians celebrate Christmas, so that was when we feasted on duck and mashed potatoes and soup and deserts made with poppy seeds.
Christmas day was filled with more eating, this time at an aunt’s house. Here I was given some super cute hungarian souvenirs as a gift, including paprika (they are so proud of their spices!). I was then treated by my friend’s uncle to an in depth display of all his working replica guns and military uniforms spanning the last two hundred years. So many guns!!!! Including civil war rifles that sparked as the flint stone struck the iron. His cannon and pirate sword were pretty impressive too.
We spent a few more days in Székesfehérvár, spending one afternoon relaxing at the bath house and another evening in a pizza restaurant behind the ruins of the old city. It was completely decked out in soviet and communist memorabilia and had the peeling paint and old army uniforms to prove it’s authenticity (although, the boys were quick to assure me that it was a joke). After a mulled wine in the town square, we passed a statue of an old woman, her nose gleaming from so many hands rubbing it for good luck.
Then it was back to Budapest for our final two days. Just in time the fog, which had been with us throughout my stay, rolled away, leaving a beautiful winter’s day to explore the city some more!
We visited the big covered market and a museum before it was time to say good-bye to everyone and head to the airport.
Flying out of Budapest on new years eve with fireworks exploding below us was truly magical and the perfect end to our Hungarian Christmas.