Connoisseur of Waters

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*These photos were taken with an I-don’t-care-if-it-gets-wet-or-stolen camera. Hence the bad quality.

48 thoughts on “Connoisseur of Waters

  1. Quite the place and so beautiful! I love the surrounding art but even more so the sight of people comfortably playing chess and enjoying the day in it’s waters 🙂

  2. All that hot and cold stuff always feels like torture to me – I used to do the sauna thing after work at one time which always knocked me out. By mid-evening I could sleep standing up. I love the slides though!

    Fascinating post – Le Crapeau sounds grotesqeau 🙂 Really like that first image – tiltshifted? – ideal subject.

    • The first few times I did the hot and cold, it was really tough. Reminded me of the time I tried to swim in Lake Superior. Then I got used to it. I felt so good afterwards, and I fell asleep in the chillout room more than once. Luckily, Le Crapaud didn’t catch me. I can just imagine waking up with him standing above.

      The first image is tiltshift. 🙂

  3. You are one of my all-time favorite travel writers! I love the style and poetry, the sort of thing so much more common of adventurers of another era, writing home about exotic travels. Thank you for bringing the world to life with your words.

  4. Great post. I was lucky enough to visit Széchenyi Baths last June with a local who showed me the ropes. She was a regular so we tried so many baths. Such a great experience.

    • I’m not surrpised that you tried out the baths during your visit. Széchenyi is really the best one for a tourist, because it has so many different pools and saunas. Plus the architecture is beautiful.

  5. My dad loved thermal baths, this post brought so many memories, I love the photos they add character to your writing.

    • Thanks for the compliments on the photos. They are edited more than I like, because the jpg file quality is low. Where did your dad go to the baths? Mexico or Texas?

      • Mexico, he had a lot of places that he visited, he knew so where they were, some were places he visited, and some he just pass by before a trip. Now I will look for some here in Texas, they are so relaxing.

  6. The photo quality really suits the story. Love them. I didn’t know there was such an etiquette.
    As big as grapefruit? He must have been there for medicinal reasons. 🙂

    • Thanks, LD. My husband also thought that Le Crapaud must have been there for medicinal reasons. It’s very possible. Lots of the elderly regulars had their visits paid for by the social health system.

  7. Your photography is stunning – each has a story frozen in time. I really appreciated how you brought out the cultural and social significance and diversity of bathing. We are a communal species. What better place to play chess then in a thermal bath!

  8. Interesting that some of the elderly had their visits paid for by the social system. I think I should suggest that to our authorities! I find our thermal waters have a slightly unpleasant smell? (Enough to give me a headache) Did the Budapest spa water have a pleasant odour?

    • Hi Gallivanta,

      I’ve been in a few thermal waters in New Zealand (Rotorua and Taupo) and wow I still remember that smell. I got a massive headache from it. There’s only a slight odor of sulphur in the Budapest baths.

  9. The I-Don’t Care-camera photos are great Julie-love the history and cultural overview of these fascinating spots-but I am not sure I could see Americans “taking the waters” in quite the same way-

  10. Love, love, love Budapest. The photo of the swimmers playing chess in the water is beautiful.

  11. All the bath and pool hoping, perhaps reminds me a little of the surreal classic “The Swimmer”, which lacked the grandeur of such places as those in Budapest, but none the less carried varying social aspects to its linear traverse . Winter certainly seems resonate a sereneness over opting for a hectic Summer. The scribing of such a paragraph as…

    “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.”

    Can make for such an interesting way to open a story or chapter, dropping a reader right inside a moment in time. Thanks, Julie, for the tour of the social world and etiquette to Budapest bathes.

  12. I have yet to go to any of the baths. I tried to go to Rudas fürdő last year, but it still adheres to “gender days” for bath use. My friend and I were only allowed to swim in the pool/enjoy the sauna. Maybe one day?

    • It’s really a crime to live in BP and not go to a bath!! (Though I knew one other person who refused to go…he was too self-conscious) I highly recommend going to Rudas on Fri-Sat late night bathing, if those hours still exist and it’s still coed. Very unique atmosphere and it’s usually not busy at all.

      • I’m not really one to pamper myself. I do not even like baths at home – I get bored, aha. I will make an effort to do it… eventually. Public baths/pools/water parks kind of creep me out, but I suppose I have to get over it!

        • I understand your aversion to public baths, especially with characters like Le Crapaud hanging out there. Try to think of it in a therapeutic way and be sure to NOT go the day/night after they have a Cinetrip party there. I’ve heard some revolting things about those.

          • I have heard the horror stories. I actually know a few people who have BEEN to a couple of the Cinetrip parties…

  13. I went to one if Budapest’s city baths after the New Year’s celebration. It felt so good, and I remember that it was really cheap.

      • I’m currently in NorthCarolina, so that’d be a negative ghost rider. Buuuut, I’m about halfway between the coast and the mountains, given the time, inspiration and means water can be found. I’m kinda partial to the Dan River, as it flows somewhat near and is not very tumultuous, one can rent a tube or a canoe for the day and enjoy the sun, nature and cool mountain waters.

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