Sightseeing by 0 degrees Celsius

A couple of weeks ago, I decided, quite out of the blue, that our family needed a change of scenery. After all, we had landed in Belgrade on August 18. My husband traveled all over the place until the beginning of November, but the children and I stayed put. Also, the lack of Christmas atmosphere, in Belgrade, has been a bit of a disappointment. If we’re going to endure cold, grey days that end at 4 PM, I’d at least expect a bit of tinkle and holiday spirit to make up for it. Only, Serbia is an Orthodox country, and they celebrate Christmas on January 7. Even finding a real Christmas tree is difficult. So, I booked an apartment in the center of Budapest, looked up the itinerary on Google Map (and forgot it on my desk), and off we went the minute the girls were out of school on Friday.

Three and half hours later, we reached the outskirts of the Hungarian capital, and I heard one girl cry excitedly from the back of the car: “Decathlon! There’s a Decathlon!” Now, maybe only the French reading this will know what Decathlon is, but our girls know it very well because we spend an entire afternoon there, each and every summer. This is where I buy the sport shoes, swimming and horse riding gear, ballet slippers and tutus that will fill our suitcases and last us until the following summer. “And Ikea! Maman, they have Ikea!” cried the second one, who knows my weakness for the Ikea stores. And my husband to add: “They have an Auchan as well. We could try and find some salted butter on our way out.” And here, even though in my heart of heart I was lamenting the fact that we have so little time and I won’t be able to go to Decathlon, Ikea and Auchan, I declared, in my most authoritarian voice : “We’ve come to visit Budapest, not to shop.”

Yep, that was the plan. Only, I had not thought about one little detail. Sightseeing in winter in Europe is not the same as sightseeing in Asia pretty much any time of the year. I had checked the weather reports : no rain, no snow, ergo all would be fine. And the first evening did indeed go well. We checked in, went out to have dinner at a nice nearby restaurant where I was only too happy to order a Borscht, because when in Hungary, I eat Hungarian, and I was feeling alive, energized, and happier than I had in weeks.

The following morning, after a lovely breakfast in a café, we set off to visit St Stephen’s Basilica. It was a short walk from the apartment, but by the time we arrived, we were all frozen. Three of us had no gloves and no hats, and shoes that didn’t feel warm enough in spite of thick socks and all. Once inside the Basilica, and out of the wind’s way, we were able to recover a little, but we couldn’t possibly spend the entire day in the church.

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Outside, there was a lovely Christmas market, and we soon noticed a stall selling hats, and gloves. So we bought some of that and at least, our hands and heads were a little warmer. But the feet were still cold, and getting even colder.

So, I looked for a place I had planned on visiting, as it is known for its chocolates, hot chocolate, and chocolate soup. Once there, the girls took their shoes off (I know) and we even laid their socks on the very warm bathroom radiator. I used the opportunity to reminisce about my first trip to Corsica with friends, when I was 19, and we camped on beaches at night, and washed in restaurants’ and cafe’s bathrooms, which seemed to delight my girls.Image

By then, a little trip to Decathlon was looking more and more attractive by the second. We did need warmer shoes, after all. And we also needed ski clothes for our upcoming ski vacation in Bulgaria. So, I relented, and we went back to get the car and drive to Decathlon. The plan was to be back by 5 pm, so we could check the Christmas Market and the Chain bridge, which I’d read is a landmark and gorgeous at night.

And so, we spent the following three hours trying on warm boots, thermal underwear, ski jackets and what not, before we went back to the center of town.

Budapest Christmas market is indeed lovely, and at last, I had my Christmas atmosphere. ImageLights, good mood, music, a giant Christmas tree, mulled wine, and crowds eating right there outside, never mind the cold. By then, we were all starving, so in true “when in Hungary, do as the Hungarians do” fashion, we decided to eat right there. The girls chose humongous Bradwurst sausages and I had a Sauerkraut stew in a big round bread. All very light (I should write a post about what living again in a cold country is doing to my waist line, by the way). ImageExcept that my husband is not the type to eat just anything because that’s what the locals eat. He is a little difficult that way. So, off we had to go again to try and find a place that sold pizza. Once we had all eaten, I steered my crowd in the direction of the Chain Bridge, because, well, because.

On the way, we bought hot chestnuts that reminded me of my childhood winters in Paris, and we also bought some sugary concoctions baked over a coal fire, and they were divine.

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Finally, we reached the famous Chain Bridge. And indeed, it is very pretty at night, with the Buda castle towering over the Danube river, but by the water, the temperatures seemed to drop even more under the zero line. Everyone was complaining, and I had to come to terms with the fact that we were all tired, cranky, ill-equipped and quite simply not used to sightseeing in such weather. I gave up.

We went back to our apartment, and the following day, we had again a lovely breakfast, and I was the one to say: “Let’s go to Auchan and Ikea on the way back to Belgrade, see if we can find some salted butter, and buy some of their Swedish meatballs.” By 3 pm, when we finally got back into the car to drive back to Serbia, we could barely close the boot.

We’ll go back to Budapest, of course. In the spring. When the weather is a little more clement, the days a little longer, and walking outside is not sheer torture.

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