Hungary is blessed with a deep reserve of thermal waters under 70% of the country, and with 120 springs running beneath Budapest, the city has more thermal springs than any other capital in the world. Here’s what happened when I visited a few of them.
Gellert Baths – I’ve just wrapped up a really tough travel week that included a 12-hour un-air conditioned bus ride, an Airbnb with a bathroom so disgusting I couldn’t bring myself to shower in it for three days, and a 13-hour train ride without air conditioning –all in a row. So I’m ready for a spa day, to say the least. I booked a massage and pedicure in advance at the Gellert Baths because I’ve never been there before and I’ve heard they’re beautiful. I’m so excited that I get there two hours early so I can take my time soaking in the baths before my pampering begins, but when I get to the door I’m faced with a mob scene. About 500 people are at the two cashier windows at the entrance and there’s no semblance of order, just a mass of humanity. The annual Sziget Music Festival is in town this week, as are 400,000 attendees – most of whom are well under age 25. I get the sense that about 25% of them are at this bath house right now. I spend a few minutes trying to find a line to get into, but I quickly realize this is futile and shove my way up to the customer service desk just inside the entry. I introduce myself to a harried young man and tell him I have services booked. Apparently these are the magic words, and I feel myself being pulled to the front of the mob to the cashier window.
The cashier and I are yelling to be heard, and I pay for my massage and pedicure and get a ticket. I ask for a bracelet into the baths and learn that not only is the price not included with my services, but right now they’re so crowded that they’re not letting anyone else in. If I want to use the baths I have to get to the end of the line – no priority for me, even though I’ve just spent $100 more than anyone else in the mob. You gotta be kidding me.
The baths are located inside the Gellert Hotel, and the downside is that the hotel is on the Buda side of the Danube River, far from all the bars and restaurants on the Pest side. I make my way up to the expensive hotel bar to kill the next 90 minutes until it’s time for my pedicure.
The pedicure was amazing. After a month of traveling, my feet were thrilled to have a few kilos of calluses shaved off by a master with a scalpel. Unfortunately, though, they don’t offer polish as part of the service.
Next it was massage time, and this was no disappointment either. I get sent upstairs to a private massage room and the sizable Hungarian masseuse directs me to strip down and get on the table. Then she stands there while I get undressed. This is the first of several times on my travels that I’ll learn that the American sense of modesty is not shared elsewhere in the world. But she has amazing hands, and I quickly lose myself in relaxation.
When my massage is done the mob at the front door is gone, so I buy a ticket into the baths. I’m shown to a private, curtained changing area with a keyed locker. There’s still a big crowd inside the baths and it’s loud, so it’s not as relaxing as I hoped it would be. I also find the pools are not as hot as I like them. I make my way to the cold pool but as soon as I step in the attendant comes rushing up to wag his finger at me: apparently bathing caps are mandatory in here, and I don’t have one. I go back and forth from pool to pool, in one room and out another, back through the changing room and around again. It’s a bit of a maze and the signs aren’t very clear. After about an hour I realize this process is more stressful than relaxing so I leave to go home to shower and change for my fancy dinner at Aszu, my favorite restaurant in the world. I’m more relaxed than when I arrived, but overall I’m let down by the experience.
Note: I later learn that somewhere in the maze is an outdoor wave pool and I’m really disappointed that not once in all my circling around did I see a sign for it. www.gellertfurdo.hu
Miskolc-Tapolca Cave baths – My friend Kira arrives with a friend the next day and tells me they plan to go to the cave baths later in the week. I’ve heard of caves and I know of baths, but this is the first I’ve heard of them together. Count me in. It’s several hours away from Budapest, so we arrange to rent a car and split the cost. It’s been hovering between 38-40 degrees (around 100 F) for days, but the day of our road trip dawns cold and rainy and none of us are prepared for it. In fact, the temperature plummets to 16 (63 F) by afternoon, and all I have is shorts and a tank top. So by the time I drive us all the way out to Miskolc-Tapolca, 200 km away, we’re all ready for some hot soaking – especially after the 20-minute walk in the rain from where we have to park the car. While we’re walking we’re wondering where the cave comes from since the landscape is flat. We’re in for another disappointment. While it’s not the mob scene of 20-year-olds I found at Gellert, it is full of families with little kids. There are only about six pools, and it’s a fake cave. Following little kids through the tunnels from pool to pool gets old fast. Worse yet, the warmest pool is barely body temperature. After only 30 minutes we abandon hope and head back to Budapest. http://www.barlangfurdo.hu/
Kiraly Baths– Throughout our drive to Miskolc-Tapolca, Kira and Danny have been talking about how cool the Kiraly bath house was. Unlike Gellert, which is a Roman bath, Kiraly is Turkish style. It’s also one of the oldest bath houses in the city. After our cold, disappointing day, I’m in need of some heat, so after dropping off the rental car I take two trams in the rain over to the Buda side across from the Parliament Building. When I get there, though, there’s yellow hazard tape across the sidewalk and entrance. That’s odd, I think. I work my way around the building, and then the entire block, looking for an alternate entrance. No luck, and there’s no one around I can ask. So there I am, shivering in my shorts in the cold rain, when a couple walks up, steps over the hazard tape, and heads to the front door where there’s a sign in Hungarian. It’s closed, they tell me. Mechanical problems because of the big storm last night. No telling when it will re-open. So much for my daydreams of an hour on the hot marble stone Turkish baths are famous for. en.kiralyfurdo.hu
Szechenyi Bath – By now the absurdity of my day has me laughing out loud and has sparked my stubbornness. No way am I giving up on my hot bath, I think, and I head to the Metro toward Szechenyi Bath in Heroes Square. It’s a sure win, I’m certain, because I’ve been there before and fell in love with it. It was a Monday night in cold January, and local families were all gathered enjoying the wonderful baths while older men played chess in the outdoor pool. It was heavenly! There are well over a dozen indoor baths, plus three outdoor pools and a half-dozen steam rooms and saunas. Best yet, it’s gorgeous, with tall Roman marble columns decorating the bath rooms. What could possibly go wrong? I should have known better. For starters, when I got there, half of the facility was closed down, including the prettiest indoor part. No big deal, I thought, I’ll just use the rest. Unfortunately, all those Sziget Festival attendees had the same idea, and with only half the pools open, it was jam-packed. It was so crowded that I couldn’t find a seat in any of the saunas, and in the pools I was left to hover in the middle because all the wall spaces were already taken. Not my idea of a good time, so after standing in a sauna long enough to warm the chill in my bones I finally gave up and went back to my Airbnb to stand under a long, hot shower. www.szechenyifurdo.hu
Despite my unhappy experience, Budapest’s bath houses can be really wonderful – just don’t go during the week of the Sziget Music Festival. There are about a dozen in the city, each with its own style. Check out this link for specifics, including opening hours, prices, and additional services. http://www.bathsbudapest.com