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Budapest at Xmas

Last year (2019), a few friends and I were considering a trip to mainland Europe to wander the Christmas markets. I was on the fence, but when my friend, Sam, suggested "Budapest" my ears really pricked up! Budapest just seemed so much more cultural than some of the other options on the table. We were all in agreement, so we booked four nights in November / December.

Unfortunately, I couldn't blog about my trip soon after as I was having computer problems - in fact I had to order a new one on Boxing Day! I should have kept a diary as my memory of the trip has faded a little. But now, as I'm home under COVID-19 lock-down I'll do my best to recall it!...

This was never to be a "photography trip" as such. I had only one early morning start (my favourite time of day for photography) and no dwelling on locations waiting for the light (I think I'd soon find myself on my own if I did!). I did of course bring my camera - and I didn't leave it on the plane this time! But almost all my images were "grab shots" of things that interested me as we marched between the sights.

**Disclaimer! I've no images of the markets themselves. I didn't really want to live this trip through my camera lens. So while browsing the markets, the camera was put away. But I hope this blog provides a taste of the city.**


First impressions...

We stayed in an Airbnb in "The Jewish Quarter". Upon arrival at our apartment, most of us (including me) were taken aback by the state of the communal area. Coming from the Cornish countryside an hour-and-a-half from the nearest city (not counting the small cathedral city of Truro), I at least was not used to seeing this much graffiti and dereliction in an apartment block. As our landlady led us up the stairs, my friend, Rich, blurted out - "This is awful" - completely summing up what we were all thinking. I'm not going to lie - I had visions of the film "Hostel!"



The communal space in our apartment looked a little ropey! After a while - we realised and appreciated that it added to the building's character and authenticity.


But, once the door to our apartment was opened, we were immediately relieved. It looked just like the glossy Airbnb photos - modern decor in good condition. The only negatives were a strong smell of stagnant drains in the bathrooms and we'd later encounter noisy & aggressive neighbours - but I won't dwell on that.



An example of some of the better street art in Budapest. This was shot on the first morning. Despite having little time as my group walked on, I had the presence of mind to shoot with a long focal length to eliminate the overcast sky. The mural was an obvious focal point for this image. At first, I wished the car wasn't there - but I came to realise that unlike my usual landscape photography, there's more things in city shots that I may not like and just have to work with them. And, in hindsight, I think the car adds to the urban feel. A shutter speed of 1/20 second was just about fast enough to hand hold the camera still. As I lined up the shot, the lady walked into frame - which I thought added to the scene. I don't actually mind the motion blur on the figure - as I feel it gives a sense of face-paced urban life!


We ditched our bags and headed out for food and a drink - without coats as the temperature was surprisingly mild. As I withdrew money from a cash point, the first Hungarian who spoke to me on the street offered me drugs - combined with seeing the state of our apartment communal space this left me even more on edge. But that soon faded. Budapest turned out to be great city experience. We found a cool street market with all sorts of food on offer (I had Thai), and then onto "Szimpla Kert" - one of the city's "Ruin Bars"...


W R E C K & R U I N

While out walking the streets close to where we stayed, I spotted this old motorbike & side car outside a "Ruin Bar" - illuminated by warm morning light. It had to be shot! Without a tripod, I upped the ISO and crouched to take my shot - waiting for the people milling about to leave the scene (which they did when they saw what I was up to).


These Ruin Bars are semi derelict buildings - bombed during the war, covered in graffiti drawn and scratched into the walls and decorated with odd, old artefacts and lights. In this one there were several bars over a couple floors.


Sight-seeing & getting around...

O R S Z A G H A Z This shot of the Hungarian Parliament building was taken boat on a Danube river tour. So, I had to do my best to balance aperture, ISO and shutter speed. At 268 metres long, it's the largest building in Hungary - and one of the largest parliament buildings in the world.


On the second day, the temperature dropped considerably. We were now enjoying a true Budapest winter!

All of our group each bought a three day "Big Bus" ticket (some of us before we flew and others in their Budapest ticket office) - which I'd definitely recommend for getting around as a tourist. The tickets allowed us to jump on regular buses touring the city (with optional audio guide through earphones), a river cruise on the Danube and a shuttle bus to Budapest Castle - which we took full advantage of!



The "Budapest Eye" - a big wheel near the city's Christmas Markets. The lady in the yellow jacket caught my eye as she matched the colours of the trees against the bleak city background. In order to simplify the colour palette, I used a little artistic licence and changed the wheel's carriages from a rose gold colour to a subtle yellow.


On our first visit to the Castle district, we rode a funicular from the west side of the Danube. Despite the queue, it was just one of those tourist things we had to do!



As we stood in the queue for the funicular, I spotted this tree - with some of it's yellow leaves shed on the ground. I kept snapping away, trying different crops - but I hoped that something would happen to "make" the scene. As it turned out, a bus stopping next to the tree was the best I got before we reached the ticket booth.


B U D A P E S T - R O O F S C A P E A view over some of Budapest's reddish-orange rooftops. Taken from an elevated view in the Castle district, I composed this shot to use the lines of foreground building to lead the eye toward the tower in the distance as a focal point. The area around Buda Castle was teeming with other tourists which made taking a good shot very difficult (on top of the harsh mid-day light) - so I looked for less obvious shots. My pre-trip research turned up lots of epic photos from around the castle - but I think I'd really need to be staying a short walk from it and be there at first light to get a good one of my own!


Even with the Big Bus ticket, we probably walked around 15 miles a day - which took it's toll on my feet, even though I wore my Timberlands for the most part! It was worth it though.



The parliament building from Buda Castle district. As we stopped for 20-30 mins for another of our many cups mulled wine (which you could easily find at any tourist spot - too easily for us!), I had time to wait and pick a moment of good light - when I grabbed this shot.


Rich, Sam & Emma taking snaps of the city from a viewpoint at the Buda Castle district.


There were also electric scooters dotted around the city. You simply download the associated "Lime" app, pay a few quid and off you go! Of course our group tried these out - although we didn't really go anywhere - just zipped around park at Vajdahunyad Castle for a while!



Vajdahunyad Castle. I didn't take many shots here in the mid-day cloudy light - but I was drawn to this tree twisting upwards in front of the intricate, but weather-worn architecture.


The Christmas markets



As I mentioned earlier, I have no photos of the markets. But I can tell you that they were packed with all sorts of Hungarian food and crafts...



Some of the Christmas lights near the markets.


Some of the gifts I brought back for my family include: Nutcracker soldiers (from Hungary's German influence - these were abundant), hand-made ceramic mushroom flowerbed decorations and a hand-made ceramic flying owl ornament (ceramics were said to be a Hungarian speciality). I also remember seeing hand made scarfs, leather belts, Russian dolls, Christmas decorations and jewellery.



A street seller bagging up some roasted chestnuts.


Our group sampled the local food in the market - including "Langos" (Hungary's traditional fried flatbread) and "Unicum" liquor. The latter wasn't to any of our tastes!



As it's been a while since the trip, I struggled to remember all the places we ate at. But thankfully my friends had the presence of mind to check into some of them on Facebook! A quick scroll back through my timeline prompted my memory. So, in no particular order (all were pretty good in their own ways), here's a few of the restaurants where we ate...

This was our last evening meal - and we decided to go somewhere a little more up market. So we booked this restaurant located just off the the River Danube on the eastern side. I'd been looking forward to having a good steak all weekend. Having learnt that "Grey Cattle" is a traditional Hungarian cow, I ordered steak from said beast! - which was very nice. Also, having drank a disappointing mojito in a bar on our very first night (not the ruin bar), DNB's version was much more as I would have expected. From memory, the decor was modern, fresh and clean. A negative for me though was that the waiter seemed too keen to up-sell. It was so transparent - not disguised as advice or recommendations.

Located a little further back from the Danube on the east side, we ate here too. But four months on as I write this, I can't recall what I ate. I do remember however that guests were encouraged to write a message to the establishment on the place mats - and I remember all our group wrote very positive notes about the experience. The decor was more unique than DNB which added to creating an interesting atmosphere.

I believe our first breakfast was at the Cyrano Restaurant. Our group loved the high vaulted ceiling with intricate detailing - it wasn't your usual breakfast cafe. Our breakfasts were amazing too. And the price... very reasonable!

I visited Fat Mama twice. First with the whole group when we sat in their garden room (conservatory). I opted for a "traditional Hungarian breakfast." I just couldn't do another fried breakfast at this point so I opted for this healthier option which consisted of boiled egg, horse radish, spring onion, ham, sausage and paprika. My friend, Adam, ordered a "Morning Jack" breakfast cocktail - made up of Jack Daniels, egg whites and maple syrup - it was a lot nicer than it sounds! On my second visit on the last morning with my cousins, a live music duo played. They were very good - singing modern pop songs in their own, chilled style.


Snow on our last day!

T R A M 4 7

The tram stop in Budapest with a dusting of snow - photographed on our way to the Danube. (The illuminated sign to the right of the the tram was totally "blown out" / over exposed... so I dropped in another photo I took from the trip)


An early morning Budapest street scene with a dusting of snow.

The two photos above were taken before sunrise on our way to the Danube.


On our last night, as drank a rum in our local Ruin Bar, it started to snow... through the holes in the roof! With just a morning left in Budapest, our group was split on how to spend it. Most of our group enjoyed the city's famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths, while I somehow convinced two of my cousins, Terry & Jade, to get up super early to walk to the Danube River with my camera.


S Z E C H E N Y I - B R I D G E

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Arriving at just about sunrise, I took this quick snap - without a great deal of thought, other than exposing to the right of the histogram. No sooner had I bagged this quick shot, all the lights on the bridge and those illuminating the buildings opposite went out - leaving the scene pretty "flat." I was glad to have got this one - although I'd have liked to have more time to find a better composition. I also would have tried a faster shutter speed to freeze the falling snow. I think the motion blur of the falling snow combined with my rickety travel tripod made this image a little soft.


I'll hold my hands up and say that the photography on this trip wasn't the best. But it was never about that. It was first and foremost to enjoy a city break with friends - and to bring home to gifts for my family. Which in that sense it was a great success!

I hope though, that you found this blog of interest. There's lots more that I haven't covered! So please feel free to contact me with your comments or questions. And please also feel free to share. If you are planning a Christmas market trip, I'd definitely suggest you should consider the beautiful city of Budapest!

**All images and text are copyright. Please contact me if you wish to use any part of this blog**

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