Friday 3 April 2015

Hungary for salted caramel icecream?

Good Friday, sunshine, people on the beach and in the water making the most of the last of summer before the clocks go back tomorrow, gulls squabbling over the stinky fish frame on the sand nearby, and I'm eating an icecream bar and thinking about Budapest at Christmas. Magnums are made in Hungary, it turns out. Who knew? Seems like a coals-to-Newcastle scenario, but that's what the packaging says.

And of course I was in Budapest shortly before last Christmas - not that long ago, to judge by the 'Season's Greetings' sign on the window of the local dairy here, above a candle picture still bright and unsmudged (well, after all, I guess Easter is a season too). To be honest, it was pretty dismal when we arrived - it didn't help that we'd had a stop-off in Dubai where it was 30 degrees - and stepping out of the airport was like entering a fridge. Except colder, at one degree, and wetter, and greyer. There were few people on the streets, everything looked dull, and there was no colour anywhere. Even the famous Christmas markets, the whole purpose of our visit, were unattractive.
I really felt for the stall-holders, having to sit crouched in their little huts all day, muffled up in gloves and beanies as stragglers shuffled by, hands in pockets, mostly looking and not buying. Then I went back to the boat, Uniworld's River Beatrice, that I'd be cruising the Danube in for the next five days, and my room was like an icebox, the heater pumping out cold air. It was hard to get enthusiastic.

But then the maintenance guy fixed the heater and I thawed out, it got dark, I put on some extra layers and went out again, and it was all different. The wet cobbles reflected the lights of the decorations on the stalls, on the big Christmas tree in the square and over the boarded-up fountain, the stalls were pumping out delicious smells of fried food and mulled wine and cider, the high tables in the middle were buzzing with local office workers celebrating the end of their working day with a sociable drink and a snack, families with little kids were hanging over the wooden fence of the life-sized nativity scene, oohing over the real sheep and goat. The buildings were floodlit, the market atmosphere was welcoming, it was bright and colourful under a black sky, the goods and crafts on the stalls looked so attractive, and I was really glad to be there in winter, when it felt so special.
(As for that salted caramel flavour - well, it was nothing like they do in New England. But that's another connection entirely...)

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