We take the waters

Trip Start Oct 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 27, 2011

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Wednesday, October 12, 2011

There seems to be a law at the Budapest thermal baths that the size of the bathing suit is inversely proportional to the mass of the man wearing it. Today we spent an incredible afternoon and evening at the Széchenyi Fürdȍ, the Széchenyi Baths.  The biggest man we saw was wearing a Speedo that I would have been embarrassed to see on my 3 1/2 year old grandson.

We plunged into the Soviet era Metro system (see photos documenting the experience), and after going around and around the virtually unsigned station finally ended up in a park in north Budapest.  The baths are located in a grand structure (they are Europe's--if not the world's--biggest thermal baths) in the middle of the park.  The building, which looks more like a castle than anything that has to do with bathing, was build about a century ago and houses 15 (count 'em!) indoor baths of various sizes and shapes, plus three huge outdoor pools

The citizens of Budapest have the good fortune to live on a thin crust of earth under which flow numerous hot springs of different temperatures and mineral compositions.  Some of these have been diverted to create the Széchenyi baths.  Each of the indoor baths is labeled by a marble plaque on the wall of the room it's located in with the temperature and in some cases the mineral content, so the discriminating bather can choose his preferred succession of warmth and flavors. 

The first entrance we came to, though Hungarian was about 98% opaque, seemed to indicate something like "gynecotherapy entrance."  This was probably reasonably accurate since we knew that the baths are run by the Health Ministry, and patients with all sorts of ailments are often prescribed a series of trips to the waters.  After considering various strategies, Manfred and I agreed that we should seek a different entrance, and convinced Annie and Carol to join us in the search. 

Walking around a long arching mustard yellow wall of the building we lucked out in finding the entrance (there are three all together) that our Budapest guidebook said was the best one for neophytes to negotiate.  At the reception desk we were asked by a very sweet young woman who spoke great English if we would like massages as well as the baths.  Hmm, why not!  So we booked two couples' massages for several hours hence.  There was lots of speculation as to whether this meant that one masseuse would massage each of the two of us with one of his or her pair of hands, whether they would first do one, then the other, or whether there would be two side-by-side masseuses simultaneously working on side-by-side bodies.  Stay tuned for what we found out to be the case.

Our English-speaking angel led us to the cashier where we paid the entry and massage fees.  Then we were fitted with plastic wrist bands that looked like watches with blank blue faces.  It felt sort of like being admitted to a hospital.  We held them up to a sensor that let us through a gate into a curving tiled corridor with banks of "changing cabins" with old wooden doors.  Each couple found the one it was assigned, and the designated member touched his "watch" to a metal plate on the door frame.  Voila: there was a buzz, a blue light flashed, and the door unlocked.  Annie and I found ourselves in a miniature locker room with several shelves and hooks on the walls.  Here we changed into our bathing suits (no, mine wasn't a Speedo thong), left our stuff, and bravely marched out into the corridor clutching towels.  We had to walk across an enormous courtyard with the three outdoor pools to reach the indoor baths that were our target.  The breeze was pretty darn brisk, which made the prospect of marinating in hot water even more appealing. 

When we entered the indoor bath area we were greeted by whooshes of sulfur-laden steam.  We explored a series of high-ceilinged rooms.  Each had a different combination of columns, soaring domes with golden curlicues, and decorative ironwork over the windows.  The perimeters of the baths were usually marble.  Some rooms held a single bath, and others housed two or three. Each pool was a different in shape, and even the color of the water varied, from clear to yellowish to green, depending on the particulars of the mineral soup.  After a lot of exploring, we finally got up our courage and plunged in to one of the less crowded baths, melting in the welcoming warmth. 

Endless permutations of young and old, terribly thin and frankly fat, lolled in the waters or sat on submerged benches around the periphery.  Several couples of older men were parked side-by-side in the water playing chess on waterproof boards perched on the marble border of the bath, oblivious to what was going on around them.  Soon we too lost our self-consciousness and wandered promiscuously from bath to bath in an aqueous version of wine-tasting.  It was bliss to be held by the hot, soothing water.  We began to feel more and more relaxed, further and further removed from all known forms of discomfort and stress.

Before long we progressed to the hottest bath--38 degrees Centigrade, which is just a touch above 100 F.  But soon we sought an even more intense thermal fix and went into the steam rooms and the saunas (these were also available in several temperature ranges).  After emerging from the hottest sauna I plunged into the 20 degree pool, which felt like ice, even though that translates to 68 degrees F!

My only concern in the world was keeping an eye on the time so we wouldn't miss our highly-anticipated massage appointment.  Annie and I had been assigned a massage room on the indoor bath side of the building while Manfred and Carole had to bravely cross back over the courtyard for their rendezvous on the other side.

At last we were to find what a couple's massage really was. Annie and I were greeted by two men dressed in white, evoking thoughts of the cricket players we saw so commonly when we lived in England.  They spoke no English, so mimed for us to lie down on two parallel tables a few feet apart.  Like mirror images, each squirted on some lotion and set to work.  The massages were fine, if a bit unceremonious.   When we conferred post-massage Annie and I agreed that they had been way too wimpy.  Ironically, Carol and Manfred's masseurs actually turned out to be masseuses--a pair of buff blonde women who gave very vigorous and rewarding massages.

We reconvened in one of the outdoor pools (see photos), which was also about 38 degrees.  By this time the moon had come up.  Naturally, it was a full moon that loomed majestically over one of the domes of the bath building.  We spent an ultra-relaxing post-massage hour or two in glorious outdoor soaking, watching the clouds scrape the front of the moon, the fountains spew out steaming water, and the steam curl up into the cool air.  This was one of the most sublime experiences I can remember.

On a more prosaic note, please see the last photo (click on it to make it legible).  The World's superlative of the day has to do with coffee, a great deal of which is drunk in Hungary.
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Julie on

Was anyone wearing knee length board shorts? That would have been equally conspicuous!!!!

Daniel on

looks like manfred was having fun... :-D

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