I love Europe in December, where short days yield to nights illuminated by spotlighted iconic landmarks and, in many city squares, by the colorful lights of Christmas markets. I returned from Budapest earlier this month where, despite gloomy winter skies, the lively markets added bustling cheer and lit up the pedestrian promenades and squares when nightfall hit by 4 p.m.
I visited two prominent Christmas markets that filled Mihály Vörösmarty Square and the square in front of the colossal St. Stephen’s Basilica with its Neo-Renaissance dome – both in Pest. The markets come alive in the evening, when hot sausage and cabbage plates along with steaming gluhwein – hot red wine that’s so popular in Europe this time of year – help warm the chill of winter’s rainy cold.
I passed a vendor selling spiced Christmas wreaths with dried fruits including mandarin, orange and lime. “They’re colorful, natural and smell really good,” the vendor told me. Other booths displayed lacework, small pillows, wooden frames, books, small decorative drums, dried lavender bouquets, sweet-smelling candles, porcelain and wooden Christmas ornaments, just to name a few.
Come dinnertime, I couldn’t quite make up my mind whether I should choose the foot-long bratwurst links or a steaming pork knuckle plate, all side by side with vats of pork chops, chicken, sour cabbage rolls and red cabbage. Also tempting were the cinnamon-crusted bread rolls known as kürtőskalács, often seen toasting on skewers over an open flame. I found one bakery, Molnárs Kürtőskalács at Váci utca 31, on the central and bustling pedestrian street, where I tasted the sweet bread rolled in almonds. “It’s made by hand from the traditional recipe. We make everything fresh here,” explained bakery employee Dormán Dorka. “We add oil, roll it in sugar and bake it.”
Come nightfall, prominent palaces and cathedrals aglow in lights enliven the winter skyline, reflecting off the Danube’s calm but steady waters. They include the colossal Parliament building, the Gresham Palace (now a Four Seasons hotel) with its gold-trimmed Secession architecture façade, and the nearby Chain Bridge, one of Budapest’s most recognized sights. In hilly Buda, the Royal Palace towers over the river not far from the Neo-Gothic Mátyás Church, the poignant landmark in Old Town.
After walking the city for five days, I ended my trip by soaking and relaxing at the Gellért Hotel and Bath Complex with its several thermal pools. Music enthusiasts may also want to visit the Franz Liszt Museum in the house where the 19th century composer – one of Budapest’s favorite sons – lived in his later years. It’s where I looked upon pianos his hands once played. “He was a very intense man where he worked a lot, getting up very early to compose before breakfast,” said musicologist and tour guide David Spischal. “He was like a rock star during the period of his life when he was touring, always playing his best.”