Sorry, we didn’t bring the camera on this foray, so you’ll just have to imagine what it looked and felt like.)
We’d warmed up at the Boatel for a bit when Katja drove up. After introductions, we piled into her car and drove into Budapest. She said we were a little late for our 7:00 dinner reservation, and we immediately agreed with her suggestion that we eat first and then go sightseeing. (Hey, it couldn’t get much colder). So we headed for a restaurant filled with wooden tables and decorated with embroideries and old cooking utensils. We wandered into the wrong room, and found ourselves welcomed(?) by a wedding party, but backed out. We made ourselves comfortable in the warmth in another room and ordered a real Hungarian dinner. There was music and warmth and marvelous smells. Soup to start–David & Heinz opted for garlic soup again, served this time in a bread bowl. Elizabeth & Silvana for a Goulash Soup and Katja for a clear broth – she knew what was coming. The main dishes just kept coming, each better than the rest. Along with it, Katja answered all our questions about Hungary & food & history(as in, who conquered whom when) & airlines – sometimes after a consultation w/ Heinz in German.
Just a note re: Hungarian. The language is related to Finnish, but otherwise has nothing in common with anything in the area, so our Macedonian, while quite useful in Serbia & Bulgaria, was absolutely useless, and the standard second language is German which is the one Major European language neither Elizabeth and I have any formal training in, so we felt quite helpless. We couldn’t read any signs, and only about 1 in five people have any English. We sometimes got by in French or Spanish, but eventually found bits & pieces of German emerging from hidden corners of our minds. Doesn’t help with signs, however – they are all in Hungarian. It seems unfair somehow – they use the Latin alphabet, so we think we should be able to understand. (A few restaurants have English(?) along with German and Russian translations, and the English is often amusing if not informative.)
Back to the meal – after we had sampled sufficient wines and dishes, we settled for dessert of pancakes & coffee, then realized we had also consumed 3 hours with the food & conversation. So we piled into Katja’s car, and set off for a tour. The entire city is decorated for Christmas, with extravagant displays of lights, creches, and figures–the organization is cooperative – certain streets have specific themes that go on for kilometers. We went out to see the Museum Park – Two grand lighted museums plus a heroic arch and the National Assembly, plus the zoo, each competing with the others for displays, then on to a Transylvanian castle transplanted to Budapest, then rows of 18th century town-palaces, and a sweep along the Danube where bridges, boats and building compete with displays, then up to the Castle District, which looms over the city.
After entering the castle walls, we found a complete cobblestone village (Katja says its the most expensive place to live in Budapest) surrounding the Palace of the President, a Guest Palace, and the Royal Residence, plus ruins of churches, an intact Medieval Synagogue, restaurants with doormen, fancy pensions and – would you believe – a Hilton Hotel. We fled the cold into the warmth of the hotel, admired a wine celler converted from an ancient cloister, then went out to the walls for the Royal entrance. It was a magic site and view, a sheer wall falling about 200 meters with a broad switch-back stairway rising up to battlements overlooked by towers and promenades, with the whole city spread out like a tapestry in front of us. Katja admitted they had now added an elevator, but said most visitors still climb the stairs just to enjoy the experience.
Past midnight by this time, so there was no-one about, and it looked like something out of Disney or Dreamworks, but you could see the wear on the staircase & cobblestones, so you weren’t quite sure you hadn’t been transported a few centuries back to Medieval Budapest. Eventually, even this had to end, and Katja carried us back to our Botel, & we collapsed.