Letter from Hungary: soaking in the history in the bathhouses of Budapest

For two millennia the citizens of Budapest have nursed a passion for bathing. Far beneath them, in geological fault lines, is a watery cauldron, the source for over 120 thermal springs whose temperatures range from warm to scalding. These waters have produced an obsession. It began as a pursuit of health. It quickly became a pursuit of pleasure.

In Budapest the bathhouse is to the inhabitants what the pub is to the English or the coffee house is to inhabitants of American sitcoms. Stripped off and immersed in communal pools, they come to meet friends, to chat, to read the papers, to play chess, to catch up on the gossip. Rather than a couple of beers or a skinny latte and a blueberry muffin, there are steam chambers, hot pools and a vigorous masseur.

Some people kick-start their day in the bathhouse. Others come after work to unwind. For others still it is the mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I bought a swimming cap, a pair of flip-flops and bath towel, and set off into the city’s waterworld.

In the vaulted entry halls of the Rudas baths at the bottom of Buda hill, I passed through the turnstiles where a white-coated attendant handed me a key and small white apron. The key was for a locker where I left my clothes; the apron was to wear in the bath. It was a fetching garment which just covered one’s privates while leaving the buttocks exposed. Feeling a trifle self-conscious in what could be mistaken for a male stripper’s costume, I proceeded into the main baths, pausing first for the obligatory shower.In the central chamber I seemed to slip through a time warp, perhaps to Rome in the 1st century AD. Clouds of steam parted to reveal men strolling about in their toga-like aprons. An eerie mix of sounds — voices, water dripping and splashing, and flesh being slapped — echoed beneath the dome above us from where pinpoint shafts of light slanted through the steam. In the large central pool I stretched out in water that was blood temperature. It was deliciously soothing.

It was the Romans who began the tradition of medicinal thermal baths in Budapest. Arthritis sufferers from all over the empire came to bathe in Budapest. But the Romans soon realized there was more to bathing than medicinal cures. The slow rituals of hot and cold water, of massage rooms and steam chambers, were a pleasure in themselves, and that pleasure was deemed central to physical and mental well-being. The Romans built eleven bathhouses in the city they called Acquincum.

The Middle Ages was a time when Europeans and soap and water were strangers. Isabella of Castille only bathed twice in her life, once before her wedding night and again before her coronation.

When the Huns invaded they neglected the plumbing, and bathing in Budapest fell into one of its periodic declines. The Middle Ages was generally a time when Europeans and soap and water were strangers. Isabella of Castille was able to boast in her old age that she had only bathed twice in her life, once before her wedding night and again before her coronation.

It was the Turks who reintroduced serious bathing to Budapest. For them cleanliness really was next to godliness. They conquered the city in the 16th century and remained for over 150 years, plenty of time to build elaborate bathhouses and encourage the locals to join them for a hot soak. Three of Budapest’s most important bathhouses are Turkish buildings, and still in use: the Kiraly, the Racs, and the Rudas.

The following day I checked into the Gellert Baths, one of the city’s grandest creations. Opened in 1927, the building — there is an adjoining hotel — is an Art Nouveau masterpiece. The domes, the mosaics, the colored skylights, the statues of nymphs, the fountains trickling, the shafts of light slanting, the strange aqueous acoustics, all conspire to lull you into a kind of watery trance. There is the sense the world has slowed to half speed among the gentle murmur of voices and the soft lap of water. My thoughts drifted with the steam, going nowhere in particular. The Gellert was like one of those congenial cafes where you sit over your half empty cup watching the world go by. Except here the world was in bathing suits.

There were other things to see in Budapest — the Danube, the Royal Palace, the medieval streets of Buda, the crazed drinking habits of the descendants of the Huns — but an hour later, I had hardly stirred. The baths were becoming my drug, and I was becoming addicted.

It helped that the Gellert baths were mixed — the presence of women seemed to lighten the atmosphere — and I was happy to exchange the apron for a normal bathing suit. The next morning I set off for another mixed bathhouse, the Szechenyi Baths, perhaps the most famous, certainly the most photographed, in the city. I emerged from the Metro in the Varosliget, or the City Park. The grand yellow facade of the bathhouse loomed through the autumn trees, a palace of bathing, a multi-domed neo-baroque creation built at the beginning of the 20th century with the overblown architectural aspirations of the 19th.

In the two inside pools shafts of sunlight fell from high windows onto the bathers’ upturned faces. But most people were outside in the courtyard. Szerchenyi’s outdoor pools are to bathing what La Scala is to opera. This is bathing’s grandest setting, an amphitheatre of colonnades and statuary and terraces surrounding a central swimming pool and two large thermal pools. Here, even in the depths of winter, as snow settles in the crevices of the statues, ardent bathers are to be found in the steaming water.

I settled into the 100-degree pool, beneath the statue of a naked woman getting carried away with a swan, and felt the tension in my limbs uncoil. All around the pool other bathers lounged like hippos, only their head and shoulders protruding from the steaming water. Some read newspapers. One man was deep in a Russian novel. Another was smoking a pipe. A young couple lay entwined while at the far end an older couple seemed to be discussing their divorce. A group of men had gathered round two fellows playing chess on a floating board.

For the rest of us we gazed dreamily into the middle distance in the warm embrace of the waters. We might be strangers but we had found a curious communality. We were having a bath together, and it had come to seem the most natural thing in the world.

Travel Notes

Where to Stay: For location it is difficult to beat K+K Opera Hotel (+36 1 269 0222) — next to the opera house and one block from Andrassy utca, the centre of the best restaurant, bar and cafes district of Budapest. Two nights from $230. Or rent an apartment from $40 a night from one of many agencies; try www.budapestapartmentsincenter.com or call +36 30 830 6506.

Where to Eat: The best restaurant in town is Klassz almost opposite the opera house on 41 Andrassy utca. Try the duck breast with grilled foie gras, caramelised apple served with a delicate risotto at just over $10. They don’t take reservations.

Where to Drink: Budapest is full of grand central European coffee houses, all mirrors and gilt and aproned waiters. The Central (235 0599) in Karoly Mihaly utca and the Gerloczy (253 0953) in Gerloczy uta are both atmospheric places for a coffee and a pastry, or for a full meal. At the other end of the scale are the funky bars like Ellato at 2 Klauzal ter or the Siraly (957 2291) at 50 Kiraly utca, where the clientele is bohemian, friendly and young.

Getting Around: To rent a bike contact Budapest Bike at + 36 30 944 5533. You can also find them at the Szda cafe at 18 Wesselenyi Street. Standard bikes are about $15 a day. They also offer guided pub crawls, lasting about 4 hours, from about $30.

Further Information: Budapest, Eyewitness Travel (Dorling Kindersley, $25) is very good as is Budapest (Time Out Guides, $19.95)

The Bathhouses: Admission prices vary but are rarely more than $8. At most baths your ticket is usually checked as you leave and you are given a small refund if you have stayed less than a certain length of time. All offer a range of extra treatments, from massage to pedicure, for an extra fee. Visit www.spasbudapest.com for prices, hours and other info.

Stanley Stewart has written three award-winning travel books – Old Serpent Nile, Frontiers of Heaven, and In the Empire of Genghis Khan. He is also the recipient of numerous awards for his magazine and newspaper articles. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and now divides his time between Rome and Dorset.

[Photos: Flickr | Omar A.; schepop; schepop; awluter; Yuen-Ping aka YP]