Hungary / People / Travel

The Lace Ladies of Budapest

Lace Lady 2

“Lace Lady” beside the Matthias Church 2013

It’s comforting to know that some things stay the same.

As we wandered the streets of Budapest after a long absence, we wondered if we’d see any of the charming elements of daily life that endeared us to the Hungarian capital years ago.

We headed to the market and were thrilled to see the iconic strings of peppers and garlic that had captivated us in 1990.

Budapest Peppers 1990

Buying strings of peppers and garlic in Budapest 1990

Peppers and Garlic 2013

Buying strings of peppers and garlic in Budapest 2013

And finally, when we reached Fisherman’s Bastion we saw what we were looking for – the Lace Ladies! They were still here.

When Hungary finally shed the yoke of Communism in 1989, we were there to watch Budapest take its first baby steps transitioning to a free market economy. Private enterprise was booming. Nowhere was this endeavor more evident than in the rows of women and girls who lined the sidewalks selling their beautiful handiwork – delicate lace panels and richly embroidered tablecloths.

We dubbed them “The Lace Ladies.”

The Budapest Lace Ladies 1990. Do you see the first woman holding the small, white lace tablecloth. I now own that! I bought it that day and have loved it ever since.

The Budapest Lace Ladies 1990.
Do you see the first woman holding the small, white lace tablecloth. I now own that! I bought it that day and have loved it ever since.

But they had to be wary. The police still frowned upon such enterprise, so when a spotter saw the cops, the women would quickly stash their wares in shopping bags, sit down, and act nonchalant. It was really cute to watch.

According to travel-savvy Frommers.com, many of these women are from Transylvania (formerly part of Hungary) whose population is still mostly ethnic Hungarians.

Women come to Budapest with bags full of handmade craftwork selling their goods to Hungarians and tourists alike. Their prices are generally quite reasonable, and bargaining is customary … If they spot the police, they may disappear fast, but often return when the coast is clear again.”

*****

Last week I finally spotted the Lace Ladies outside the Matthias Church, mingling casually with the tourists, discreetly displaying lace panels, embroidered tablecloths, and hand-knit sweaters. I was determined to get a photo.

But this wary woman was on to me … even stepping behind a convenient bush.

Lace LadyLace Lady Hiding

It turns out that the government is cracking down on any unlicensed street vendors, so she probably thought I was spying for “The Man.”

Lace Lady Fleeing

Personally, I think it’s a charming tradition and I hope it continues … until we return again.

Charmed in Budapest,
Terri

52 thoughts on “The Lace Ladies of Budapest

  1. I love the photo of the fleeing lace lady! I’d read that same Frommers bit and wondered about them so it was fun to see your photos. I’ll be in Budapest in 3 weeks so I’ve been enjoying these posts!

    • Isn’t that funny Kristin! When she saw me pull out my camera she headed for the hills (or bush in this case). :) You are going to have so much fun at the Christmas Markets. You’ll have to let us know what goodies you discover. I bought some small, embroidered Christmas ornaments that will always make me think of Budapest. ~Terri

  2. That’s so cool! Too bad street venders are being targeted, it’s always one of my favorite charming parts of visiting any city. Selling things indoors is so boring!

    • I agree Sally. I think that street vendors and performers add the spice to any city. Especially in this case where the women only have a few things to sell and they’re not harassing the tourists. ~Terri

  3. We were warned not to buy anything from these individuals when we were there last year, but I also thought it was enterprising and the work looked like good quaility. I think it is the businesses who pay rent (and taxes) that would rather they not take any business away. It reminded me of the Africans in Spain who would quickly fold up their sheets displaying merchandise when the authorties appeared. You can’t blame people for trying to earn a living.

    • You make a great point Darlene. I’m sure that unlicensed vending is an issue that all cities wrestle with. Should they pursue a hard line or take a softer approach. And we’ve all probably encountered aggressive touts on our travels (timeshare hawks come to mind) … but these ladies are so sweet and I really hope the city will find a way to let them exist. :) ~Terri

    • Thanks Andrew … and great point! I just read that Budapest has passed an ordinance to crack down on homeless people, prohibiting them from busking and sleeping in the CBD. I don’t know how widely that net is being cast, but I certainly hope it doesn’t impact the Lace Ladies. ~Terri

  4. Whenever I see ladies holding up something that takes so much time but nets so little money relative to its value, I’m a bit sad. Maybe that explains why I’ve brought home more souvenirs over the years than I needed to! Thanks for the info on these ladies and their work.

    • Oh Rusha, you’re so right. I’m a quilter and I’m always surprised at the low monetary value placed on hand work. The lady I bought the lace from in 1990 (top photo) was there with her young daughter (beside her) and was teaching her the technique – it was actually a form of “cutwork.” I love to see a craft passed on to the next generation. :) ~Terri

  5. That’s kind of sad they have sell in secrecy. It’s hard work and time they put in to beautiful creations. I’m glad you supported them. Thanks for the info! I’ll be keeping my eyes out for these ladies on my future visit to Budapest.

    • Hi Angie! They do create and sell beautiful handwork. I can only imagine how many hours have gone into some of the pieces. When you go to Budapest you should be able to find them up on Castle Hill near the Fisherman’s Bastion. Have fun! :) ~Terri

  6. Lovely post guys. It’s always reassuring when traditions stay strong, especially in the realm of craftsmanship, or craftswomanship, in this case.
    Cheers.

    • Thank you Steve. I wasn’t sure if we would see the Lace Ladies this trip since the police have been cracking down on unlicensed vendors. But they seem to have put a pretty sophisticated “spotter system” in place which may have contributed to their longevity. ~Terri

    • Chris, we were there midday, and it took us a long time to spot them. They are much more subtle than when we visited before, blending in with the tourist crowd and only displaying their wares when they get the “all clear” from their spotters. We did see them totally scatter and disappear at one point – then we saw the police officer stroll through. ~Terri

    • Liz, I was so struck by these women and their daughters when we first visited in 1990 because they were breaking through the barriers of Communism. It appears that they’re quite resilient. :) ~Terri

  7. Traveling often reminds us of the immense amount of freedom we enjoy every day. Thank you for this post showing us that in our travels it’s not always just the beautiful places we go but the people and their lives we are encountering.

    • Anita, I can see the political cartoon now! :)

      Isn’t it interesting what items become keepsakes. I used to be a serious souvenir shopper, but since we simplified our lives, we keep only the items that really mean something to us. Most of our keepers have sentimental value and remind us of special trips and people. Surprisingly, most of mine are Christmas ornaments! ~Terri

      • Now you’re speaking my language! Hubby and I get (and sometimes make) new Christmas ornaments every year that best reflect “us” and the year we’ve had together. Our tree makes me so happy every year – reminding me of our life together. Hmm … is November 19th too soon to put up the tree?! ;)

      • What a cool tradition Anita. I’ve already seen Christmas tree lights twinkling in local homes here on SSI, so you’re in good company. I would love to see some of your handmade ornaments. Any chance they’re in a future post? I’m posting mine on Dec 23. ~T

  8. I love this! Handmade souvenirs are the best. By the way, all your latest posts are making Steve and I get a hankering to spend some time in Eastern Europe. It’s now on our list for 2014! :)

    • I totally agree Leslie. I try to collect a tiny, handmade Christmas ornament from countries we visit. I limit my collection to whatever I can fit in a shoebox, so it’s got to be pretty special to make the cut! :)

      As much as I love Western Europe, traveling throughout Eastern Europe has been a joy – and easier on the travel budget. Places such as Prague, Budapest and Ljubljana offer sophistication, while Tallinn, Wroclaw, and Dubrovnik are so charming. We’re really glad that we’ve been exploring it. How are things in California? Is Paris next? ~Terri

  9. Can you imagine constantly looking over your shoulder to see if the police are watching you, Terri? It isn’t like these folks are selling illegal drugs or elephant tusks. I wonder if the pressure comes from the local merchants who see the lace ladies taking away business? –Curt

    • Curt, I’m sure you’re right. The local merchants are paying rent and don’t want to see their prices undercut. It goes on around the world, doesn’t it? I guess the Lace Ladies won my heart years ago, so they’re a sentimental favorites. I wish the government could come up with a compromise. Are you and Peggy still wandering Mexico? ~Terri

      • I am with you Terri. There should be a way to provide an inexpensive license. Yes, Peggy and I are still in Mexico. We spent yesterday exploring the small town of San Sebastian in the Sierra Madre Mountains. –Curt

  10. We love perusing the markets and plazas and we love seeing local crafts. In our case however, it is impractical to purchases souvenirs, crafts and keepsakes because we have to pack everything we own when we move. The exception is for items we can send back home as gifts, and homemade crafts are the best! In Croatia, it seems there will be a crackdown on unlicensed vendors in order to comply with EU trade rules. The first victims of enforcement may be many of the growers who take their fresh fruits and vegetables to the fresh markets almost daily. That would be a terrible loss, especially in the case of those people who cannot afford a license. Thanks for a great story and photos! – Mike

    • Thank you Mike. I didn’t know that about the EU trade rules! How interesting. Does that mean that all vendors in the EU have to be licensed? You learn something new every day.

      We’re the same as you and Florence when it comes to souvenirs. In our early days when we owned houses we acquired a lot of fun stuff. But since we simplified our lives, we live out of a little 1-bedroom condo … or a backpack. On our last RTW the only thing I bought was a scarf! The guy at customs couldn’t believe it. :) ~Terri

    • Hi AiPheng. The first time we visited 10 years ago the Lace Ladies were highly visible – standing in a row along the sidewalk. But this time they were hard to spot – I might have missed them if I hadn’t been looking for them specifically. Now they try to blend into the crowd and keep a wary eye on their spotter. Next time look for women with big shoulder bags because that’s where they keep all their wares. :) ~Terri

    • Thank you Madhu. It seems that the Lace Ladies are incredibly resilient. Although they used to be easy to spot, now they try to blend in with the crowd. They’re like one of your elusive birds. :) Hopefully, if you go up by the Matthias church you’ll have some luck. ~Terri

  11. This is a great story Terri and what a beautiful tablecloth to own. Is this what they would call tatting in the US? My aunt used to make similar lace tablecloths and doilies and I too have one of her creations.

    • Thanks LuAnn! I love the tablecloth and asked James’ Mom what the technique is called. She said that because it’s a combination of solid cloth and lace inserts that it’s called “cutwork.” It’s great that you have some of your Aunt’s creations. We have some from both of our Moms and they always make me smile. :) ~Terri

  12. Pingback: Day 14 – Budapest; A City to Watch in the 21st Century. | European Holiday and River Cruising Memoirs

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