Prior to setting off on our trip to Budapest Brunette discovered that the city has a long- standing bathhouse culture. Our fate was sealed. Small, water-obsessed brunettes can be formidable obstacles and are best placated. (Now if Brunette’s research had shown that you had to be nude to use the baths there might have been a different outcome. Might have been.)
So why does Budapest have public baths in the first place? Because the city has 118 natural thermal springs that are believed to confer various health benefits. Budapest’s love affair with baths is said to have been “already famed in the 13th century”. We’re just going to assume that they have the newspaper clippings to substantiate this claim.
The Gellért Baths, Budapest
Our first foray was to the Gellért Thermal Baths on the Buda side of the Danube. (Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, which are separated by the river). The Gellért Baths are accessible by a tram that leaves you off right in front of them.
These baths, both outdoor and indoor, were first opened in 1918, were expanded in 1927 and, hold on to your seats, had the “effervescent bath” added in 1934. A look at their website shows that they still have various renovations underway so 1934 did not mark the end of the upgrades.
We were prepared with bathing suits but not much else as we were heading out on a trip to a village after the baths so suspected we might not actually have time for a dip. If you go there without plans to use the facilities but just to have a look around you should know what we did not – you can do that for free. We bought tickets from possibly the only person in Budapest who misses the Soviets.
The baths are heavily inspired by Art Nouveau in both architecture and décor. The baths also have Zsolnay tiles, which are very famous in the tile world. The Zsolnay Factory, opened in Pécs in 1853, and developed high-fire glazed porcelain that won awards throughout Europe.
At Gellért you can buy anything you may need for a spontaneous bathing session; bathing suits and caps, goggles and mandatory flip-flops. There is also a quaint little café in the lobby.
Amazingly you are allowed to take pictures in the baths so we did. Our cameras, combined with the fact that we were fully clothed and giggling drew attention to our presence and some consternation from the staff. Luckily a young man, Abebe, who is from Ethiopia but is employed at the baths, took pity on us. He gave us fashionable shower caps to cover our shoes and we slid around the floors looking even more conspicuous but at least we now had an air of institutional legitimacy due to our helpful new friend (who wanted us to be sure to include his name).
Our visit to the Gellért Baths was frustratingly brief so we determined that the next baths we visited would be given the time they deserved and we would partake of their pleasures. (That sounds vaguely pornographic so we’ll leave it.)
Széchenyi Medicinal Baths, Budapest
It was a rainy, sometimes merely ghastly gloomy, day that we went to the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths which were within easy walking distance of our hotel on the Pest side of the city near Heroes Square. If you want to see these baths you do have to pay a fee but once again they’re amazingly tolerant of cameras. (Apparently 44 years of Communist rule did a real number on the expectation of privacy.)
Because we were going to use the baths this time we had to learn how to do that. It was an odd combination of high tech wrist bracelets and changing rooms that may have dated to 1913 when the baths opened.
We had purchased some flip-flops from a street vendor near the baths and bought bathing caps in the lobby. In order to get a towel and a robe you had to go downstairs and rent them – while leaving a large enough deposit for the robe to solve the EU financial crisis.
When Brunette got herself attired for her bathing foray she realized she couldn’t break the piece of plastic connecting her newly acquired flip-flops. Fortunately an otherwise vaguely disgusted (with us) female employee whipped out her cigarette lighter and burned the plastic connector right off! Apparently there are benefits to smoking.
Although the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths were built around the same time as the Gellért Baths they have completely different architecture and are much larger. The Széchenyi baths are built in Neo-baroque style. We didn’t know what that was either but apparently it’s architecture in the Baroque style that wasn’t built in the official Baroque period.
The Széchenyi Baths are the largest “medicinal baths” in Europe. Some of the services provided in their 21 pools are:
- Drink therapy
- Balneotherapy (the treatment, by bathing, of a variety of diseases)
- Private tub-bath
- Mud treatment (available only on medical prescription)
- Weight bath (available only on medical prescription)
- Carbon-dioxide bath (available only on medical prescription)
- Medical massage (available only on medical prescription)
- Underwater jet massage (available only on medical prescription)
- Underwater curative gymnastics (available only on medical prescription)
- Complex balneotherapy treatment (available only on medical prescription)
Drink therapy didn’t seem to be having wine while in any of the pools and we didn’t have prescriptions for the other options. (Damned Obamacare!)
Brunette decided to swim in one of the pools and Blonde was easily seduced by an offer of a discounted massage.
Most of the time we spent at the Széchenyi Baths was spent taking pictures and, of course, giggling.
We planned to meet in the lobby at closing time and then failed to do so. Par for the course.
We weren’t cured of any of our afflictions (although it was a good massage) but we had an experience in the baths of Budapest that was fascinating and unlike anything we have experienced anywhere else. It really gives you a view into their culture that you can’t get at other tourist sites.
It also means you see their bodies in more detail than you otherwise would and that may not be such a good thing. Undoubtedly they had similar thoughts about us.