Budapest - In Hot Water
Written by Carolyn Bánfalvi
In the midst of a bitter cold Budapest winter, slipping on a bathing suit, stripping off your towel, and walking over the icy ground to an outdoor pool may be the last thing any sane person wants to do.
But once you plunge into the thermal water – surrounded by steam so thick you can’t see much farther than the person next to you – you’ll see why the old men playing chess on the waterproof boards are fixtures here, and why the women who sit gossiping on the stairs seem so radiant. Slowly, your muscles will loosen up and later you may notice that your skin is brighter and softer.
This is the Széchenyi bath house – the grande dame of Budapest’s thermal bath houses (pictured). Located in City Park, the complex houses a daunting number of saunas and steam rooms, pools from ice cold to sizzling hot, and the jewel of the place, the outdoor thermal pool which has been immortalised on the cover of many Budapest guidebooks.
There are more than a dozen places to take to the thermal water in Budapest. From the domed Turkish bath houses with sharp beams of sunlight piercing the steaming water, to the thoroughly modern day spas, Budapest is undoubtedly one of the world’s great spa cities. In Hungary, they say you can drill into the ground almost anywhere in the country and find mineral-rich thermal water. With 118 thermal outlets in Budapest alone, and an estimated 1,300 in the rest of the country, there’s probably some truth in that. The Romans were the first to tap these hot springs nearly 2,000 years ago, and spas have been built here ever since.
But what really sets Budapest apart from its Eastern and Central European neighbours is its historic bath houses. The Rudas and the Király are the domed bath houses built from stone during the 150-year Turkish occupation that ended in the late 17th century. Until recently they were restricted to men only, but now there are a few ‘co-ed’ days per week, as well as days for men, and days for women.
Another Turkish bath house from 1550, the Rácz, has been closed for years, and is being thoroughly restored and incorporated into a luxury hotel set to open in the Spring of 2011. The ornate art nouveau Gellért was built during the early 20th century, the city’s golden age, and has a pool encircled by marble columns and mosaic tiles inside, separate men’s and women’s sections, and an outdoor pool (and wave pool). The Lukács, once a haunt of writers and artistic types, has a wall of stone plaques from bathers who have benefited from the mineral-rich water.
All bath houses offer long lists of services (massages, manicures, pedicures, mud baths, and specific treatments for dozens of ailments), which are often astonishingly cheap. There are also occasional parties at the bath houses, and some keep extra late hours (to encourage the younger generation to come). In Hungary, spas aren’t seen as indulgences for the rich, but as part of a balanced life. Soaking in Budapest’s thermal water feels decadent, and it’s addictive. And you can’t say you’ve experienced the city properly until you’ve slowly descended into the hot waters of the Széchenyi bath house when the air is chilly and snow is falling.
What to expect
While many of Budapest’s old bath houses have been renovated, they remain as confusing as ever for the uninitiated. Like many aspects of Hungarian life, be prepared for lines, cashiers who don’t speak English, and brusque staff.
It is highly recommended that you bring your own bathing suit and towel (but at some bath houses you will be given a large white sheet to use as a towel).
Be sure to check to see whether it is a men’s, women’s, or ‘co-ed’ day.
Services and treatments (massages, etc.) must be paid for in advance. Follow the crowds to the changing rooms (some bath houses have single-sex changing rooms, others have rows of private cabins in which you can lock your belongings).
If you are getting a massage, don’t expect any soft music or scented oils. Masseuses will most likely be chatting with their colleagues over the room divider, and make no attempt to provide a soothing atmosphere. You can, however, expect an excellent massage.
The water will relax you to the core, and the rest of the bath house experience will be just as authentically Hungarian: difficult to navigate, but worth the trouble to penetrate.