Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Winter Soak

When our friends told us we absolutely could not miss Budapest, one of their selling points were the Hungarian public baths. There is something about soaking in hot water that is irresistible to me (even if it means soaking with a bunch of strangers). Since we were in Turkey at the time, we skipped the Turkish hamams because we were looking forward to the ones in Budapest.

There are close to a thousand hot springs in the country of Hungary--it's no wonder the city is known for it's baths. The thermal baths in Hungary have a long history, beginning with the Roman baths which were used for therapeutic purposes and then developed by the Turks during Turkish occupation. Some Turkish bath houses in Budapest are still in operation today. There are also Hungarian baths from more recent times, influenced by the Hapsburgs.

We chose to visit Szechneyi Bath, partly because it's the biggest thermal bath in Budapest and mainly because it allows men and women to bathe together (there are some public baths in Budapest for men only and just recently they decided to modernize and reserved one day a week for women!).

We didn't really know what to expect, except a pool with hot water. When we approached the Szechneyi Bath, I almost kept walking right past it. It was too big and beautiful a building to go bathing in. But sure enough, this gorgeous neo-baroque piece of art surrounded by manicured lawns was the bath house. I felt like I was entering the doors of a royal estate, and the lobby was no less grand than the exterior. After buying a pass (about $10), we passed through an enormous locker room to the baths.

We found that the enormous mansion-like building had rooms and rooms (more like a maze) full of pools, all at different temperatures. Yuriy and I had a ball skipping from pool to pool, dipping our toes into the water, and only sitting in the hot ones. Each pool is clearly labeled with the temperature of the water (ranging from ice cold to burning hot), but degrees in Celsius still don't quite register in my head. This isn't your dinky neighoborhood YMCA. The baths are set in gorgeous tiled rooms with high ceilings, decorative arches, and woodwork.

But wait, that's not all. When you step outside, there are even more steaming pools in the courtyard! And with the frigid winter temperatures, I don't think a hot soak ever felt better. Fountains, statues, flowers.. the place is a beauty, and you can't help feeling like royalty.

Despite the beauty, I did have quite a few thoughts about what was swimming in the water that did not belong on my body. Sitting around in hot pools with sweaty strangers doesn't sound very appealing when you think too hard about it scientifically. But never mind that... oh the beauty!

We ended our stay at the bath house by cleansing our pores in the eucalyptus-scented sauna.

This is not one of those tourist activities that you go to see once, take a few snapshots, and never think about again. I have no doubt in my mind that my next trip to Budapest will include a trip to a local bath house. If you ever find yourself in Budapest, please go.

- Julia