Before moving to Hungary, I thought of it as a southern country with warm weather through all seasons and no tradition of winter sports whatsoever. But I was wrong because one of the things that has definitely amazed me in Budapest is the passion for ice-skating. I have loved ice-skating since my childhood. Growing up in Estonia, we often had nice cold winters and in my town, a natural ice rink was created every winter and this was a place for social gatherings with lots of fun for schoolchildren. But the real paradise for iceskating lovers I found in Helsinki while working at the Estonian Embassy there. They had a natural rink in every park during cold weather and once, we even had a staff meeting at a rink close to the Embassy. Of course, these are Estonia and Finland, both Nordic countries. But ice-skating in Hungary?… Well, this does not seem the obvious kind of entertainment to look for. But it is! During my first winter, 2018/19, I discovered this wonder world of Budapest.
Popular winter pastime
First, I made acquaintance with a small covered rink with artificial ice in the Marczibányi Square Sport Center close to my residence. Then, I realized that there are also other smaller rinks in the neighborhood. I think that nowadays, we do not have this many small local rinks in Estonia. Skating is perhaps less popular in Estonia because the winters are not as cold as they were and there are so many other activities to occupy oneself with. We have some large indoor ice-rinks in the bigger cities that one can use all year around. But indeed, in my hometown, a small outdoor rink is still being built every winter if the weather allows. In Tallinn, one of the most charming places for skating is an outdoor rink in the old town that is very popular among both locals and tourists. While moving to Budapest, I was ignorant enough to leave my skates in Estonia, so I had to organize to get them here as quickly as possible. I started to enjoy the charming atmosphere of the cozy little ‘home rink’ in my neighborhood, and there I saw many children with very professional skating skills. Some of them had obviously been trained but the others could also skate around with high speed and great confidence. And I was amazed at those dedicated parents bringing very young kids to the ice, I would say even in the age of two or so. This was something I had not really experienced in Estonia. So far, I had seen only in Finland that kids sometimes learned skating before they learned to walk. But Finland is a different story – a country covered by ice most of the year and well-known for its world class ice hockey. But who would expect children at the age of two or three years learning skating in Hungary?
In the Hungarian capital, THE rink is, of course, the Városligeti Műjégpálya (City Park Ice Rink) on the City Park Pond. It claims to be the largest open-air ice rink in Europe (another largest something, there are a lot of those in Hungary). It is definitely one of the oldest in Europe, as it was solemnly opened by Crown Prince Rudolf back on January 29th, 1870 and thus, it celebrates its 150th anniversary just this year! That tells a lot about the very long tradition of ice skating in Hungary. A beautiful building with the changing and dining rooms for the skaters was built at the end of 19th century and is still in use for the same purpose. The surroundings are beautiful, as the pond is right next to – actually is part of – the City Park with its impressive buildings that were constructed as monuments for the millennium celebrations of the Hungarian State in 1896. The most magnificent of them, overlooking the ice rink, is the Vajdahunyad Castle that features copies of several landmark buildings from different parts the Kingdom of Hungary, especially the Hunyad Castle in Transylvania (now in Romania). As the castle contains parts of buildings from various time periods, it displays different architectural styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Besides the café with a terrace in the ice rink building, there are also smaller huts selling warm-ups like kürtöskalács (‘spit cake’ or ‘chimney cake’) and forralt bor (mulled wine). No wonder that the place is so popular among both Hungarians and foreigners. One of the downsides of the popularity is that the rink is over-crowded on weekends. Nevertheless, as it is so huge, you can still always make your way on the ice among the crowd.
And there’s more…
One special feature that definitely adds to the enjoyment of skating in Budapest, is the weather. Here, I must confess that I do not miss too much the dark grey days of Estonian winter. What a great feeling it is to glide on the ice with blue skies and sun shining sometimes very warmly even in winter. The evenings have a good energetic mood, as well. As the beautiful lights illuminate the space and a real DJ plays great music, you feel yourself so young and energetic! Although, I love going to Városliget again and again, I am also curious to learn about other splendid rinks around Budapest. Quite a special place to discover finds is on Csepel Island in District XXI. Next to Szent Imre Square, there is a rink that also consists of the curved ice corridor. This place is probably less known among those who do not live in the area but it is worth visiting; it gives you somewhat different possibilities to test and develop your skating skills. Although, Városliget is huge, it would be nice to try skating even on a larger square… In Helsinki, people skate on the sea-surface and it is also possible in Estonia – when the weather is cold enough, even the largest lakes become frozen and you can use them as ice-rinks. There are even open-air long distance competitions organized on lakes. I have also heard about skating on Balaton. So far, this still has to be discovered by me. Maybe next winter?