At Budapest’s Christmas market, I’m suddenly reminded of the toast my mom used to make when I was little — crunchy and buttery, and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

Though the taste is familiar, this is a souped-up version of the childhood treat: a giant, hollowed-out cylinder of dough almost as tall as the boots I’m wearing with a consistency somewhere between a doughnut and a churro. I can’t pronounce the Hungarian word for them, Kürtőskalács, but these pastries are also known as “chimney cakes” — a fitting name, I think to myself, as Christmastime approaches.

They look a little like chimneys, right? (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

But Hungary’s version of Santa Claus is St. Nicholas, and he doesn’t shimmy down chimneys on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to little boys and girls. (Of course, Santa Claus — and many of the traditions and folklore that surround him — derive from St. Nicholas through a happy series of mistranslations and elisions).

Instead, in Hungary (and in many other, mostly European, countries), it’s December 6 — St. Nicholas Day – that children eagerly await. On the eve of that night, they choose their best pair of shoes to leave out for the bearded and mitred saint to fill with candy and small toys. If, of course, they have been “good.” If they have been “bad,” they get twigs or wooden spoons.

When I ask a Hungarian friend — a local tour guide who can condense the history of Austro-Hungarian empire into (a hilarious) five minutes — if she left out her shoes for St. Nick, she responds with an emphatic, “YES, WE DID!” So, did she get sticks or candy in her shoes? “Both,” she says. “Some candy and some sticks. I was good and bad.”

The award-winning market has just opened when I arrive. Back home in New York, at the Union Square or Columbus Circle Christmas markets, my elbows are at the ready to jab through the masses. But, here, it’s downright pleasant, with ample room to amble along and stop and smell the flowers — or vats of mulled wine and hanging pomander balls of oranges and cloves.

Who could resist snapping one of these up? (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

Rules are strict at the market, where you can pick up authentic, hand-made gifts from scores of stalls. Every product on offer must receive the official seal of approval from the Association of the Hungarian Folk Artists, so there’s a level of quality you won’t see at most other markets.

I run my hands over stacks of smooth wooden cheese boards and serving platters, picturing myself as hostess, presenting a selection of extra sharp cheddar, creamy brie, cold grapes, and sliced breads to my guests. This cheese board alone could make me the Martha Stewart of Greenwich Village and make my kitchen catalog-ready!

The next step is to see if I can afford it. I quickly convert forints into dollars in my math-averse brain and come up with $15. But it can’t be $15. Something this beautiful would cost at least $100 at Williams-Sonoma. But my iPhone currency converter app confirms it.

I strike up a conversation with the man in the stall. “Do you make these yourself?” With mild indignation, and a crinkly-eyed smile that betrays it, he replies: “Of course I do! I chop down the tree myself and make them all!” After hearing about his home, 30 miles outside the city, that doubles as his workshop, I’m more than sold.

I buy the board and think of all the parties I’ll throw. I’ll respond casually, of course, when asked where I got it.

“Oh, Budapest. At the Christmas market for fifteen bucks.”

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.

Comments

  1. Nancy D. Brown
    San Francisco, California
    November 29, 2012, 5:46 pm

    You made the Budapest Christmas markets come alive. Great post!

  2. Calli
    http://mapsalesdotcom.wordpress.com/
    November 29, 2012, 6:59 pm

    Those would make a beautiful gift as well!

  3. Eurodollar
    World
    December 1, 2012, 3:29 pm

    Ugh. Another self-important “ugly American”. No wonder we are so unpopular abroad. Can’t you people just write about other cultures with a hint if interest that’s beyond how much stuff costs and how oh-so impressed you are with the utter “quaintness” of genuinely hand made trinkets? Your post reeks of patronizing arrogance over a people who make an honest living versus our American self-gratifying ways of exploiting the rest of the world, simply because we have more weapons.

  4. Isabel Blanco
    Montevideo
    December 2, 2012, 12:20 pm

    Estuve alli hace unos dias y realmente es un mercado increible¡¡¡¡ imposible no comprar algo.

  5. Christian Rene Friborg
    Germany
    December 5, 2012, 6:56 pm

    Some of these make really great gifts for Christmas. Thanks for sharing. :)

  6. Stephen Gross
    NYC
    December 8, 2012, 3:37 pm

    Eurodollar.
    You’re way off base. Visited Budapest this past August and loved the friendly people and the city. We are not unpopular abroad, rather well respected as is the American culture, ex. music, film, styles, etc. Best you stay home and not embarrass us.The article was well written and gave us a little slice of Budapest at Christmas.

  7. lecorri
    Texas
    December 11, 2012, 8:36 am

    I remember visiting Budapest in 1972. What a difference the decades have made! I am so glad to see this as Hungary is really beautiful and has much to offer.

  8. poise
    Canada
    December 11, 2012, 9:46 am

    Great article, very well written. It really makes me want to be there. I don’t know what these two people above are rambling about in regards to how American’s are viewed. What’s wrong with quaint places. I love finding quaint places. And by the way Americans are unpopular abroad…and it has nothing to do with this article.

  9. Canadian
    B.C., Canada
    December 11, 2012, 3:24 pm

    I like the article and the photos. But sick to death of people inserting their hatred of all things American at every opportunity. Give it a rest already.

  10. WellYouAreNotOnlyyCanadian
    Mars
    December 12, 2012, 5:04 am

    Well Budapest and Hungary are very interesting places to wisit…

    It is good to be there, I was in Budapest long time ago it was all nice but it was the time of Comunisam…. I hope the place is better this days and I hope that my dish crsh ther one day.
    I heard that Hungaryian girls are some nice and they like to wear red shoes.

    See Ya wen I got there

  11. Budapest Christmas
    http://budapestchristmas.com/
    December 20, 2012, 3:49 am

    Hi Annie, thanks for visiting the Budapest Christmas market on Vorosmarty Square. Nicely written.
    Kurtoskalacs is indeed a mouthful, but not impossible to say: cure-tosh-kohl-arch. Doesn’t sund so bad, does it?
    As St Nick comes to us earlier, it is little Jesus (yes, the baby Jesus) or the little Angel (Angyalka) that brings the Christmas presents to Hungarian families.
    There are more Christmas markets in Budapest. Did you have a chance to visit the Basilica Christmas market in Budapest?
    http://budapestchristmas.com/budapest-basilica-christmas-market