Budapest: Castles at Twilight

View of Budapest from a Distance
December in Budapest is frig­id and hours of daylight are lim­ited. It gets dark here before 4 in the afternoon, so when I arrive at my hotel around 2 p.m., the temptation to cuddle into bed and order room service is fierce. But the Hungarian capi­tal, once three separate cities, Buda, Obuda and Pest, merits bundling up and trundling out. With my childhood passion for castles intact, I decide to explore the city’s Castle Hill and Castle District. To keep warm, I walk-run as fast as my legs will carry me to the Chain Bridge, where I’m told I can catch a funicular. On the way, I’m distracted by an eerie parade of shoes in varying styles and sizes. Seeming strewn along the riverbank, and bronzed at a later date, the shoes are a monument
to the Jews killed during World War II. The story goes that the Jews and other “undesirables” were lined up on the banks of the Danube, told to step out of their shoes (then an expensive commodity) and then were shot, their bodies left to the frigid waters of the river.

The Chain Bridge Across the Danube, Budapest

Monument to the Jews, Budapest, Hungary
Making my way down the riv­erbank, in what little sunlight filters through a densely overcast sky, it’s too easy to imagine what was. I blow on my hands and hope it will warm my outlook. Reminding myself that Budapest has moved forward and I should too, I grab the funicular up Castle Hill. Today, despite its history, Budapest has the highest number of Jewish citizens per capita of any city in Europe as well as the largest synagogue in Europe.

The Largest Synagogue in Europe, Budapest, Hungary

While I’m loath to abandon the comparative warmth of the funicular, a land of churches, palaces and sculptures awaits my exploration and obsessive pic­ture taking, so I step out into the frosty air and hope to stay warm and oriented. Getting lost in temperatures that hover below freez­ing is pretty high on my list of travel don’ts.

Statue of Hungary’s Mythical Bird

Around 4 p.m., to my delight and my cam­era’s great displeasure, the sunset transforms everything. Statues of the Turul, the mythi­cal bird of the Magyar people, are poised and ready to wing their way to the farthest reaches of Hungary. In front of the 700-year-old Mat­thias Church, Hunga­ry’s first Christian king and Patron Saint, King Istvan I, sits on his noble steed. He peers down at me, the strange little American swear­ing at the flashing box, i.e. her uncooperative digital camera. I argue with my new-fangled pic­ture maker, yes, I know there’s not much light, but no flash and focus pretty please, while tour­ists scuttle up and down the fairy tale monument in front of me trailed by gypsy vendors with wooden toys and hand-embroi­dered tablecloths.

King Istvan I at the Fishermen’s Bastion

Close-up of statues at the Fishermen’s Bastion
Built in the early 20th century, The Fishermen’s Bas­tion is a walking terrace with seven towers. The pointy conical spires represent the seven Magyar tribes that set­tled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. Named for the guild of fisher­man who defended this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages, in the fading afternoon light it could be a prin­cess’ toy castle carved in ivory, yellowed by time. I find myself wishing I could scoop it up and keep it and its sweeping views of Budapest in my pocket.
Close-up, tower, Fishermen’s Bastion

The Fishermen’s Bastion

Entry to the Fishermen’s Bastion Monument

On my way down in the funicular, I fall fur­ther in love with the city. At night Buda Castle, the Fishermen’s Bas­tion, Parliament, and the Chain Bridge, all the major buildings and monuments are lit up in a golden spectacle ex­tending into deep blue sky and deeper blue waters.
Crossing the Chain Bridge, I salute its gatekeepers, Lions with teeth to defend their territo­ry, but the story goes, no tongues to tell her secrets. Urban legend has it that when the sculptor of the lions in question found out his artwork was anatomically flawed; he jumped off the bridge into the freezing waters of the Danube. But my guidebook as­sures me that this is not the case. While only visible from above, the stone felines do indeed have hard as rock tongues to wag and gossip if they should so desire.
On the cold trek to home sweet hotel, my stomach reminds me of my commitment to sample the local cuisine. I settle into a small restaurant for Hungary’s most famous national dish, Goulash, and a glass of plum Palinka. I or­der my Goulash with Csipetke, or pinched noodles, because, I have to reward my body for surviving the outdoors somehow. As their name implies, pinched noodles are made by pinching off little pieces of dough directly into the soup. Gulyas, Hungarian for Herdsman or Shepherd, is spicy, falling somewhere between soup and stew consistency. When I’m tempted to order another bowl, I remind myself that much of Hungarian cuisine is made with lard and my stomach has become alarmingly acclimated to olive oil-based Mediterranean cuisine during my years in Barcelona. I do, however, order another Pal­inka to keep me warm on my race home. I pay the ticket, throw back my shot of apricot-flavored 80 proof liquor and do what I can to get to my warm bed as fast as I can. Dreams of sugarplum pal­inkas, gossiping lions and ivory castles await me.

Budapest at Sunset

Recipe for
Traditional Goulash
(4 servings)
  • 1.5 lbs beef (shoulder or rump) cut into small approximately 1 inch cubes
  • 2 tablespoons lard (substitute with oil for a lower fat Goulash)
  • 2 medium purple onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery leaves
  • 3 tablespoons tomato sauce
  • 2 fresh green peppers, thinly sliced
  • 3 medium white potatoes, chunked
  • 1 tablespoon Hungarian pa­prika (I prefer spicy)
  • 1 teaspoon ground caraway
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Ground black and white pep­per and salt to taste
  • Water

Pinched Noodles
  • 1 egg
  • Flour
  • Salt
  • 1 teaspoon water

  1. Sautee the onions in the lard, gradually sprinkling them with the paprika. 
  2. Be careful not to burn the paprika, it will make your Goulash bitter. 
  3. Add in the beef cubes. 
  4. When they begin to brown, add in diced garlic and the rest of the spices. 
  5. Add enough water to completely cov­er the contents of the pan. 
  6. When the meat has cooked about an hour, add in the potatoes and carrots and more water to cover them. 
  7. When the vegetables and meat are nearly cooked, add in the green peppers and the toma­to sauce and cook it on low heat with the lid off so that the soup can thicken.
  8. While your soup is cooking, make the Pinched Noodle dough by beating an egg, and add­ing salt and flour to make stiff dough. If necessary add water. 
  9. Roll the dough into a ball and flatten it between your hands. 
  10. Pinch off pieces directly into your Goulash, cooking them for about five minutes. 
  11. Salt and pep­per the Goulash to taste.

A Video About Christmas in Budapest:

Thanks for reading. Head to for more good stuff!


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: