Budapest in winter is cold. Very cold. But who cares, when there's hot wine to warm you up, cosy cafes to hunker down in, and boat trips come complete with brandy and blankets
Forget the spas, river trips, sizzling summers. Think instead about ice rinks, blankets over your knees as you sit on café terraces sipping hot wine, the odd Xmas market, a flurry of snow... A winter trip to Budapest is a superb way to get into the Xmas spirit.
Well actually, you don’t have to forget the spas. They’re still open in the dead of winter, even the open-air one in Szechenyi in the Varosliget. I have to confess that we baulked at this in -4° cold, and watched one couple playing chess in the water through the café window and the steam, while rubbing our mittens together thoughtfully. Time for another hot wine?
In winter, you can sometimes stay at places that may be beyond you in summer. The art'otel had some great deals. It’s a smart boutique hotel with clean lines and large spaces and even some jazzy art. Some rooms have a view of the river. It's on the Buda side (at the bottom of the cliff that most of Buda is built on) and you can walk to Pest in 10 minutes.
This is a city to get lost in. Yes, the buildings on the Buda hill are impressive; the boulevards do remind you of Paris; the Terror museum and the Grand Synagogue can drive you to tears of understanding; and the Parliament buildings are a match for Westminster - but wandering is what it's all about, finding a hidden square, an unadvertised market.
Wander around Buda and take in the views from the Fisherman’s Bastion, and do it again in the evening for completely different vibes. Wander around Pest from Heroes Square to the Parliament building and experience the bustle of the modern city, St Stephen's Basilica with the streets around it decorated for Christmas, and the Parisian-style boulevards.
A great thing about this time of year is the ballets, and you can’t find a better place to see them than Budapest’s Opera House (H1061 Budapest, Andrássy út 22; +36 1 331 2550; www.opera.hu). We were lucky and got some last minute returns for The Nutcracker here. I’ve seen The Nutcracker a couple of times before but in this ornate setting it moved me to tears.
You may or may not want to visit the Museum of Terror (Andrassy ut 60; +36 1 374 2600; www.terrorhaza.hu), or you may be forced into it by your companion, as I was. It is quite gruelling but it does help in understanding some of what has happened in this country, first taken over by the Nazis during World War II and then enduring 40 years of Communism. There is a wealth of memorabilia, reconstructed cells in the basement and, most moving of all, film of interviews with people around in the 1956 risings and confrontations between former guards and former inmates. One middle-aged man's face as he talked of the students, saying, 'they were just young people, full of hope and idealism, and they killed them,' stays with me.
The Jewish Synagogue (Dohány utca 2-8; +36 1 317 2754) provides more understanding. Towards the end of the war, there was a ghetto in this area. I'd never been in a synagogue before and was surprised to find that no pictorial artwork is allowed, just designs, much as in a mosque. They have some amazing guides. Ours was an elderly lady, half Jewish, who had been a child during the war and whose (non-Jewish) father had saved many people from transportation to the death camps. She pointed out his name on a list on a plaque in the grounds, next to Imre Varga's moving sculpture of a tree in metal, each leaf bearing the name of a victim.
The Parliament building is an impressive sight from many points in the city. It is the second largest in the world (after Westminster), reminding you that Hungary was once a much larger country than it is today (it lost huge swathes of land after World War l). You can take a guided tour, but the most poignant thing about this area is the statue of Imre Nagy (the prime minister during the 1956 risings) looking towards parliament. He is standing on a small bridge, symbolising how he tried to bridge the communist masters in Moscow and the people of Hungary. He failed and was shot, but is not forgotten here.
Actually, you don't have to forget the river trips in winter, either. I’m not sure the boat ride we went on would be everyone’s cup of tea. There are swisher boats, pricier trips in the evenings, complete with meals and heat, I suspect. But the open boat we found ourselves on due to bad planning and too much hot wine, also provided blankets (again) and a shot of something I think was brandy helped to numb the pain of the cold! The female guide of a certain age had an extraordinary voice, low and melancholy, which seemed to sum up this town that had endured so much but was still standing and rejuvenating, as she explained how many struggled with the higher cost of living since Communism disappeared and how not all the changes were positive.
However, Budapest is not all about history and not all history is glum… Being invaded by the Austrians (prior to World War l, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) has its advantages. They bring their coffee and cakes with them and they leave the recipes when they go. They could do wonders for Croydon or Gloucester.
Make sure you find (and it's small, so you'll have to look hard) the Ruszwurm Cukraszda coffee shop at I.Szentraromsag utca 7 in Buda (+36 1 375 5284; www.ruszwurm.hu). The cherry strudel will make your air fare worthwhile and the hot chocolate you can try to stand your spoon up in. This is why I came.
Other good eatieries include the Cafe Kor and Carne di Hall. The Café Kor restaurant (V.Sas utca 17; +36 1 311-0053; www.cafekor.com) claims to be modern Hungarian and it's often packed, so book ahead. We had chicken with apricots and a caramel sauce; say no more. It’s packed for good reason. Carne di Hall restaurant (I.Bem rakpart 20; +36 1201 8137) is pricier but close to the art'otel, so handy if you’re staying there, and the beef stroganoff served by friendly staff warmed us nicely on our first night.
You could, though, just abandon everything else in favour of the Gerloczy Kavehaz café/restaurant at V.Gerloczy utca 1 (+36 1 501 4000; www.gerloczy.hu/cafe_and_restaurant/). Whether for breakfasts of ham and eggs on the terrace, warmed by portable heaters and with the ubiquitous blankets on offer, or dining on beef stew and goulash with a Hungarian band in the evenings, it just seemed to sum up Budapest for me. In all honesty, I would be happy to move in right now.