Spa Hopping in Budapest – Round 1

Budapest_General-view-of-Royal-Palace

Arriving in the capitol of Hungary on a December morning, the grey, overcast skies and cold air greet you, and remind you that you are no longer in the mid-east but deep in the heart of Europe.  Any thoughts of sunshine, green lawns or trees, or flowers fade away.  The days are short, and darkness sets in at mid-afternoon.   It is no wonder then that thermal baths have taken front and center stage in Budapest’s long history.

 Apparently, the Romans who first built the city of Budapest, decided on this spot because of the thermal waters that are found all over the region.  Remnants of the Roman baths are hard to come by, but the city itself boasts 24 thermal spas that are open to the public.

Spa animals that we are, we set ourselves a goal of visiting one spa per day.  But which one to go to?  Ah, so many choices. How big? How historic? How many baths?  Rick Steve’s Budapest was a big help. We decided to take advantage of the coed policy on Sunday (all other days are single sex) at the Rudas Spa on the Buda side of the city. As you may know, the city of Buda pest is actually two cities: Buda and Pest with the Danube river running north/south through the city.  Our hotel is in Pest, as are most hotels, so we need to cross over the Danube on the Chain Bridge in the drizzle that accompanied us since arrival.  Having bought earlier in the day a 72 hour public transportation pass (3800 forints, allowing you to get on and off all modes of public transport – bus, train, tram) we decided to cut our walk short and hop a bus that seemed to be going in the right direction.  It was, but when we realized that we had arrived at our stop, we couldn’t figure out how to egress the bus, and overshot our stop by quite a bit.  After boarding a tram in the reverse direction, we eventually arrived at our destination, only to be met by a severe looking hostess who tried to convince us to purchase a combination ticket for the swimming pool and the baths so that we could enter immediately.  We were only interested at that point in the day (5 PM) in the baths, which entailed a 30 minute wait for a free changing “cabin”.  After paying (3200 forint each) we received plastic watches that allow entry into the spa, and into one’s personal cabin.  While waiting, we chatted with the folks on line and had a Hungarian draft beer (550 forint for a half litre – about $2!).

Finally we were allowed entry into the changing area,  whereupon, we realized that the two of us were assigned to one very small changing cabin more like a telephone booth.  Very small.  With the two of us in there neither of us could easily move without elbowing or kneeing the other.  We debated taking turns waiting outside, but decided to do it the Hungarian way, and so we did.  After mastering the art of changing in the cabin, we made our way to the spa, but not before checking to make sure that we had in fact understood that two people changed at once in these teeny, tiny cabins.  They did.

Rudas Spa

Rudas Spa

We made our way to the room containing the thermal spa on flip flops we had luckily remembered to bring and with our “borrowed” hotel towels that we had full intention to return.  (Renting a towel is an added expense).  The room that greeted us was Moorish in design, originally built in the 15th century,  with subdued lighting and a mist rising from the octagonal central pool in the middle of the room that was surrounded by four smaller pools in each corner of the room.  The central pool was 38 degrees Celsius, while the smaller ones ranged from a cool 28 C to a scalding 42C.  We gingerly made our way from pool to pool, eventually finding our comfort level matched in the 38 degree pool in the middle under a domed roof.  Looking around there were people of all ages, mostly couples, mostly speaking Hungarian, with perhaps a slight advantage for the under thirty crowd.  There was only one child in the entire complex.  After spending about 30 minutes moving from pool to pool we were ready for the plunge into the 10C freezing cold pool.  At least some of us were.  I was only able to make it in up to my knees, but there were several people fully immersed for several minutes.  Back to the warm pool for another set, until we were ready to rest in the quiet room on lounge beds.  Resting after thermal baths is both imperative, and perhaps the most enjoyable part of thermal bathing.  There is something about the chemicals in the water that afford one a natural “high” if you take the time to notice it.  Lying on the lounge bed, a lassitude takes over, and I float somewhere between imagination and sleep, savoring this feeling of deep and total relaxation.

After a quick, public shower, we return to our changing cabin, this time adopting our style of changing one at a time, bundling up to face the cold Budapest evening, where the misty drizzle of the afternoon has now turned into a bonafide rainfall.  Nothing that a hearty vegetable soup, and plate of Hungarian goulash won’t chase away.

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