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Valentine’s Day in Budapest: An Insider’s Guide

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My Hungarian partner and I met in Budapest, and spent our first Valentine’s Day together here. On that first freezing Valentine’s, we wandered Budapest from Heroes Square to the Danube, from morning to midnight. Beautiful blonde on my arm, I fantasized I was in a spy movie or a 1980s video for a kitchen sink ballad such as Ultravox’s “Vienna.”

For me, the romance of Budapest isn’t confined to monumental statues, the glittering spires of the buildings that line the Danube between Széchenyi lánchíd (Chain Bridge) and Margit híd (Margaret Bridge) or the parks in which it’s easy to imagine 19th century poets lifting away the furry earmuff of a minor princess so they could drip a sonnet in her shell-like.  

Many of the buildings that line the often canyon-like streets of Districts VII and VIII also have a battered allure to them, right down to the bullet holes that pockmark their palimpsest facades. Even the apartment blocks in districts like the 10th, where you’ll find Budapest’s surreal Chinatown, are shrouded in a brutalist air of romantic mystery. I accept I may be going a bit too far here.

One of the most surprising things about the first glorious Valentine’s Day I spent with my now partner was when I discovered it had only existed in Hungary since 1989.

What was traditionally celebrated in Hungary on February 14 was Bálint Nap (which makes sense, as Bálint is Hungarian for Valentine). In Hungarian folklore, it was a good day to sit your geese and chickens on their eggs. It was about fertility and welcoming spring, more in line with the Roman Lupercalia.

Under socialism, which the Hungarians called communism, Valentine’s Day wasn’t officially celebrated at all. Still, I’d like to think there were incurable, intrepid romantics who smuggled in cards and heart-shaped boxes of candies from the West.

Valentine’s Day took off after the change in regime in 1989 when, according to the Hunglish.org website, “Ági Guba, the director of the Hungarian Professional Florists Association decided to bring the tradition to Hungary as more of a commercialized effort than a holiday steeped in past traditions.”

I can only imagine that Hungarians, who – generalizing terribly, I know – have a taste for the chocolate box aspect of romance, took to Valentine’s Day like ducks to rosé.

The Big Deal

What’s interesting is that Women’s Day on March 8 is still more of a big deal in Hungary than Valentine’s Day. This is because it’s a holiday rooted in touchy-feely socialism. It began as a way of honoring female laborers in the New York garment industry who struck for better working conditions.

In Hungary, male workers present their female coworkers with flowers and chocolate on that day. The first international Women’s Day was on March 19, 1911. It shifted to March 8 in 1917 to celebrate the achievements of the brave women of Russia, who mobbed up in St. Petersburg to protest food shortages and demand the end of WWI and Czarist rule while they were about it.

Women’s Day was first observed in Hungary in 1913, partly as a bid to demand equality for women. When the socialists came to power at the end of WWII and the country fell into Russian control, Woman’s Day became an official celebration. Given that March 8 is so close to February 14, I’m sure Women’s Day in Hungary was a bit of a Trojan Horse for undeclared romantic feelings.

I still manage to forget Women’s Day every year, much to my woman’s chagrin. But I’m great at Valentine’s Day.

Here’s how we’ll be spending Valentine’s Day in Budapest. My apologies that what follows is so couples centric. I’m not being singleist or #wetwo but, as I gushed earlier, my Budapest is for lovers.

We’ll start with a drink at the Párisi Udvar, the newly reopened and spectacularly renovated Art Nouveau shopping arcade with bars, a restaurant and hotel on Petőfi Sándor utca, just up from the Danube.

Hungarian Temple

Apparently, the Párisi Udvar is a kind of temple for Hungarians, including my partner. Having a drink and spilling it down one’s shirt while gazing at up at that extraordinary roof becomes a quasi-religious experience.

I’m told by Anna Révi of Párisi Udvar that, on Valentine’s Day, the hotel will “allow guests to time travel to Budapest’s Golden Age, where classic heartwarming love stories occurred decades ago and continue to do so today. Couples are able to experience a fairytale and elevate the amorous experience with our restaurant’s ‘Sweet and Bubbly’ offer and our spa’s ‘Párisi Romance Couples Massage’.”

After this, to work up an appetite, we’ll schlep over the Lánchíd and up to the mystery-shrouded cobbled streets of the Old Town for dinner at the Pierrot restaurant on Fortuna utca. Apart from its superb menu, this is a long, low-ceilinged and artfully lit restaurant which gives it a romantic vibe. I’m also hoping that there’ll be some nice tinkly-winkly jazz of the slushy sort to provide the soundtrack. I pray to St. Bálint it’s not violins.

I’m lucky enough to be a citizen of what’s called Brodyland so, to continue the evening, we may well head over to boho-mantic Brody House at the grander end of District VIII. They’re having a “Drink & Draw” event led by the young Hungarian artist Boglárka Nagy, who’s steadily becoming internationally known. She’ll guide guests as they draw each other and sip the “Brody Love Potion,” made of Tanqueray gin, rose, pomegranate, citruses and drops from secret tinctures.

This sounds like a Valentine’s experience with a difference. The only thing is that neither my partner nor I can draw for toffee.

For Párisi Udvar, it is probably easier just to search Google than type in its website address (https://www.hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/hungary/parisi-udvar-hotel/budub). Pierrot is at www.pierrot.hu and Brody House is at www.brody.land.

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