Another Day, Another Christmas Market

The most popular Christmas Market in Budapest is on Vörösmarty Square, right in front of Café Gerbeaud. It’s one of my favourites—I’ve been there more than a dozen times, by day and by night. Day visits are a joy, and nights are even better.

Repeat visits are easy, since the market is open every day from early November through New Year’s Day, usually from 10 AM – 9 PM.

Like most Christmas Markets, this one has booths selling anything and everything even vaguely related to the holidays, or to winter in general, or to the seasonal decoration of houses, preferable in shades of red and green. Where it really excels, though, is in the quality and variety of its food offerings.

If you aren’t currently in Budapest, Look on these Booths, ye Hungry, and despair!*

*Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” in 1818, so this year is its 200th anniversary. My trivia fact du jour.


Café Gerbeaud and the Best Desserts in Budapest

Café Gerbeaud

Café Gerbeaud

It’s possible to spend time in Budapest without visiting Café Gerbeaud, but why on earth would you do a silly thing like that? The café, dominating Vörösmarty Square in the heart of the city, is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. Long known as one of the great coffee houses of Europe, Café Gerbeaud has survived two world wars and a dismal 50-year period of nationalization. After the collapse of Communism in the 1990s, it was purchased by a German businessman and, like Fashion Street a few blocks away, beautifully restored to its former glory. There’s no better place in Budapest to enjoy fabulous desserts in a truly elegant setting.

Here’s what I ordered:

Caramel and Dried Plum Sundae

Caramel and Dried Plum Sundae

The menu describes this Caramel and Dried Plum Sundae as “Two scoops of vanilla ice cream, two scoops of caramel ice cream, dried plum ragout, caramelized hazelnut pieces, walnut croquant, whipped cream, caramel bon-bon, and a walnut crisp”, which left me unsure about the exact dfference between a “walnut croquant” and a “walnut crisp”. That uncertainty didn’t prevent me from savouring every delicious spoonful of this unforgettable sundae.

Café Gerbeaud Interiors
Images Found on the Web

Budapest at Night

I had business in Budapest, so I took the train from Vienna.

And there I was, prowling along the shadowy Hungarian streets on a cold, rainy Wednesday night in November, with film noir memories of spies and Eastern intrigue playing in my head, hoping the rendőrség wouldn’t look at my papers too closely, wondering if I could just drop the damn microfilm in a trash can and walk away, estimating how far it was to the Swedish embassy….

Sorry, got a little carried away there.

And then I walked into the light. Literally.

I was at the foot of Budapest’s Fashion Street, which was brilliantly lit for the holidays. The street, which had deteriorated badly because of the hardships of WWII and by the non-benign neglect of the following Communist government, has been beautifully restored and renovated. This year marks Fashion Street’s 10th Anniversary.

I lingered. This was my third trip to the city, and once again, I’d found something new and beautiful.

Here’s a drone’s eye view of the area:

Café Landtmann — Lunching with the Ghost of Dr Freud

Café Landtmann

Café Landtmann

Q: What did Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, Stalin, Emperor Franz Joseph, and Sigmund Freud have in common?

A: In 1913, they all lived within a few miles of each other in Vienna.

It’s not all that surprising when you think about it. Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the European great powers, with 50 million inhabitants in its 15 constituent nations. In the years leading up to the first World War, the city was at the red-hot center of the intellectual world, and second only to Paris on the cutting edge of the arts. And where did all this intellectual heating and artistic cutting take place? In the city’s cafés and coffeehouses.

I had lunch at Café Landtmann, which was Freud’s favourite.

Café Landtmann Interior. Image found on the Web.

Café Landtmann Interior. Image found on the Web.

Mixed Sausages

Mixed Sausages

I went with Viennese classics, starting with an assortment of four kinds of sausages, which are barely visible at the top of this picture. They came with three dipping sauces and brown bread.

Viennese Chicken

Viennese Chicken

And for the main, Viennese Chicken. It reminded me of breaded veal—same look, same texture. Austrian/German cooking is not noted for its range or variety.

This was very good, though. Loved the crunch.

Pete Shelley, 17 April 1955 — 6 December 2018

Pete Shelley in His Prime

David Bowie and Lou Reed are dead.

And now we’ve lost Pete Shelley, leader of the Buzzcocks, who died in Tallinn last week of a probable heart attack.

The Buzzcocks’ first single for United Artists Records was “Orgasm Addict”, which was promptly banned by the BBC. Can’t imagine why.

Then there was the Buzzcocks’ biggest commercial success, of which New Music Express wrote that “Shelley’s bisexuality would form the subject matter of arguably punk’s greatest song, 1978’s ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have)’.

And more “singles that fused pop craftsmanship with rapid-fire punk energy “, like this…

…and this…

…and this.

Look. If you don’t own it already, get a copy of the Buzzcocks’ “Singles Going Steady”. The Buzzcocks were a singles band,  and “Singles Going Steady” is a superb collection of their best songs.

Play it loud.

I missed the Buzzcocks the first time around, which gave my brother David permanent bragging rights, because he saw them perform live before I did. It wasn’t until their 1989 reunion tour that I went to my first Buzzcocks concert, at the old 930 Club in Washington. They’d been inactive for a while, and I didn’t know what to expect.

It was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. They played everything, and they played it faster and ten times as loud as I played it at home. It was a truly transcendent night.

In an interval between one of the Buzzcocks’s many breakups and reformations, Shelley released his first solo single, the song “Homosapien”. It was banned by the BBC (plus ça change…) which didn’t stop an extended version of the song from becoming a major dance hit in the US. For a while, it seemed to be playing everywhere.

In The Guardian‘s obituary for Shelley, Neil Gaiman is quoted as writing: “Part of my youth dies with him.”

It’s a sad sentiment I share.

The 2018 British Christmas Ads: Sainsbury’s “The Big Night”

In the same way that American advertizers screen some of their most creative (and expensive) ads during the Super Bowl, British department stores and supermarkets go all out on television advertizing at Christmastime. While this year’s crop isn’t as memorable as some of the ads in recent years—that 2014 John Lewis Penquin ad!—this one stands out.

It’s this year’s ad from Sainsbury’s, which is one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains. The ad is an early favourite for the Best Christmas Ad of 2018.

Full screen recommended.

The song, btw, is the New Radicals’  “You Get What You Give”.

Christmas Market at the Vienna Rathaus

Here are some pictures from the Christmas Market in front of Vienna’s Rathaus, or “Townhall”. You can find smaller markets in almost every public space in the old city, but this one is probably the most famous and popular.

I wonder why Christmas Markets, so popular throughout Europe, have never really caught on in the US. There are a scattering of them here, especially in places with large German-American communities, but nothing on the scale of what you’d find in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Despite the lights and the music and the food and the mulled wine, visiting one of these markets always leaves me a little sad.

I’m not a Christmas person, but my mother was. She started decorating for the holidays about the same time that the leaves in Pennsylvania began to change colour, and didn’t stop until every room looked like a Santa’s workshop.

I think of her whenever I walk through a Christmas Market like this.

She would have loved it.