Most travelers who pass through Budapest have a soak in one of the city’s thermal baths. In between seeing the sights or after partying all night in the ruin pubs, they stop by for an hour or so and then dash off to the next attraction before catching trains or buses to the next destination. They don’t have the time to sample the various waters and, after much luxuriating, designate a favorite. Because every bath is unique.
Gellért is the most famous and, therefore, most expensive. One small room is decorated in aqua blue Art Nouveau tiles and cherubs. The staff is unpleasant to the point of being comical. One visit was enough for me. Király is hidden away on a side street in Buda. You have to make an effort to find it. No photos are allowed of the interior. It was small and run down, but I whiled away more than a few afternoons here, soaking in the octagonal pool below the five hundred year old Turkish dome, hypnotized by the rays of sunlight that beamed down from above. But it wasn’t long before the decrepitude accelerated. The water became merely tepid and only a couple of the showers worked. However, there were more baths to be discovered. How could I choose a favorite if I hadn’t tried them all?
It was time to try Rudas, the other Turkish bath. It had just reopened after a renovation. Rudas is a large, clean version of Király. One of the tiny pools surrounding the octagonal pool was too hot even for me. The steam room is better described as a scald room. This place is not for sissies. I was not inspired to return until years later, not long before I left Budapest, when they introduced late night bathing from 10 PM until 4 AM.
Lukács is known as the bath for local intellectuals. Far too territorial for my taste. Narrow-eyed stares. You ain’t from around here. It’s the only bath I felt self-conscious at.
By the time I had chosen my bath, Széchenyi, I had learned the subtle art of taking the waters. I had my routine: warm outdoor pool, hot outdoor pool, sauna (the one downstairs was the best)/cold plunge/ice rub three times, chillout room for fifteen minutes. Finish up with the two hot indoor pools just above the sauna. Until the euphoria, but before the migraine. It was a fine line between the two.
As I perfected my routine, I learned the etiquette. One doesn’t stare too long at others. Voices are kept low and calm. After you come out of the sauna, rinse yourself off before jumping in the cold plunge pool. Public displays of affection are not only acceptable with couples, but expected. Thou shalt not take conspicuous photos of the people playing chess in the pool. Even though it’s an obligatory photo. Be subtle and use a zoom, if possible.
The ledges of the steps into the hot pool were the territory of the regulars. Some of these faces became familiar to me over the years. One gentleman, in particular, was there every single time that I went. Summer or winter. Morning, afternoon, or evening. Sun, rain, or snow. He sat on the stairs, his lower body submerged. His massive belly seemed to float upon the water. He joined in the chess matches or simply watched, spectacles low on his flat nose. Sometimes he would stroke his long, gray beard. He looked up only to bark at any naive tourist who dared approach with a camera or if he spotted someone else within his realm who did something of which he disapproved. He once yelled at some of my friends for giggling in the chillout room next to the sauna. He was reclining on a lounge chair and stuffing his face with some kind of creamy salad. Mayonnaise and other unidentifiable chunks were lodged in his beard.
I called him Le Crapaud, the Toad. Ruler of Széchenyi pond. On one of my husband’s rare soaks, I pointed him out. Le Crapaud had just come out of the indoor spa and was lumbering towards his customary spot. He stopped and swept his venerable gaze over the masses before him. It was the first time that I had seen him at his full height. I didn’t know that they made Speedos that large. He towered over the other bathers, an imposing and priestly presence. As if he had just descended from a mount with stone tablets.
My husband grimaced. “I’ve never seen anything like that. They are as big as grapefruit. That must hurt.”
I flicked my eyes back and forth a couple of times. It was my turn to grimace. Was there no end to this guy’s mystique? I regret that I never got a photo of him.
My favorite season at Széchenyi was winter. The summer crowds were long gone. A heavy mist hung over the hot outdoor pool, obscuring the other bathers. Snowflakes swirled overhead like frozen fireflies.
I began to avoid Széchenyi in the summer, unless we had visitors, because if you can only visit one bath, it should be Széchenyi. In spite of (or because of) Le Crapaud.
There are several seasonal open air baths in Budapest. Palatinus Strand, the most popular, is on Margit Island.
Bauhaus era design, flirting teenagers, a big retro slide, and food stands selling langos and other Hungarian snacks. It is a place full of nostalgia. My husband and I spent one scorching, lazy afternoon pool hopping, playing in the wave pool, and snoozing on the grass. I even went down the big slide. Twice.
Other open air baths can be found on the outskirts of the city. These are often quieter than Palatinus, because tourists don’t know about them and many of the locals go to Lake Balaton for the summer. Set in a large, wooded park, Romai Strand has battered changing cabanas that you can rent. Judging from the looks of surprise on the staff’s face when we asked for one, not many people rent them anymore. None of the pools are hot, and we made the mistake of going on a chilly, windy day. Romai boasts an assortment of slides. The red one was truly scary.
*These photos were taken with an I-don’t-care-if-it-gets-wet-or-stolen camera. Hence the bad quality.