BUDAPEST, Hungary – For thousands of years, people have flocked to natural hot springs for the therapeutic powers of their mineral-rich waters.
Magnesium, sulfates, chloride, hydrogen carbonates and calcium – by themselves and in combination – are said to treat conditions ranging from arthritis to skin infections.
On a recent trip to Budapest, where more than 100 thermal springs simmer beneath the city, the only relief my husband and I sought was from the heat.
Daily temperatures averaged in the upper 90s during our early June visit; it was a scorching 102.2 on the last day. Even with my tenuous knowledge of the metric system, I knew that the “39” flashing on a time and temperature sign wasn’t a good thing.
We went to three thermal spas in three days, “taking the waters” after long, hot hours of sightseeing in order to reap the most benefits from a restorative soak. It’s worth noting that as we explored the city, mostly on foot, we came across numerous fountains, reflecting pools and other water features where people and pets were welcome to cool off.
Our first night in Budapest, we headed for Gellert Baths. On the Buda side of the Danube River, it was a quick walk across the Liberty Bridge from our hotel in Pest.
We got lost trying to find our way in – the entrance is around the corner from the attached Hotel Gellert, both of which opened in 1918 although the springs there have been in use since the 13th century.
We got lost several times more within the labyrinth of hallways and rooms.
Poor signage and rare sightings of staff – who spoke little or no English – meant we were pretty much left to find our own way.
It wasn’t just us. Despite the many languages spoken by our fellow guests, seeing their puzzled expressions and hearing variations of “Huh?” said it all.
The weekend admission price was 10,200 Hungarian forints ($45.96) for the two of us, which included use of lockers in the single-sex locker rooms.
For less than another dollar per person, we could have rented small changing cabins. In hindsight, we definitely would have if we had a better grasp on the currency exchange rate.
At all three spas we visited, thermal bath guests were issued green and blue plastic buckle-on wristbands, resembling a watch, whose “timepiece” contains a computer chip that you press against sensors to unlock the lockers and cabins. They also are needed to activate the turnstile as you leave.
Tour books often highlight Gellert’s main indoor swimming pool, designed in neoclassical style. Décor throughout the complex is opulent and Old World, oozing with ornate mosaics and sculpture.
We walked from room to room, sampling some of the dozen pools, where water temperatures topped out at 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
We found relief from the heat in a small pool that was a chilly 15 degrees (59 F). Plunging from the hottest bath into the coldest, in quick succession, produced the stinging sensation of a full-body road rash.
Gellert also has an outdoor artificial wave pool, said to be among the first of its kind in the world.
Bathers of all shapes, sizes and ages either waded into the churning water at the shallow end or made a beeline for deeper water to jump into the growing swells. Within several minutes it was calm again and the crowd dissipated.
Searching the locker room for the showers before returning to our hotel, I found them in a dark corner. Curtainless and with ancient-looking plumbing, the ambience was more military barracks than world-renown spa.
Our destination the next day, a Monday, was Rudas Thermal Bath, which dates back to the 16th century and Ottoman control. The complex, also in Buda, is housed in an unremarkable-looking building near the Elizabeth Bridge.
We were greeted just inside the entrance by an attendant who held a large written “menu” of services and prices. We were there for the thermal baths, for which we were charged the weekend rate of 3,300 forints each ($29.56 total), instead of the daily rate of 3,000.
It was Whit Monday, or Pentecost Monday – a national holiday in Hungary, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt about being charged the higher price.
According to the Rudas website, only weekend hours are coed, and bathing suits are mandatory. Otherwise, Tuesdays are for women only and the rest of the days are exclusively for men.
There’s also a swimming pool, with a separate admission charge.
At Rudas, changing cabins in a common room are standard for thermal bath visitors. After receiving our green and blue “watches,” an attendant demonstrated how to apply them to a sensor that identifies which cabins are available, then accompanied us to our cabin to show how to open the door.
While visitors at Gellert openly carried their cellphones and traditional cameras and were constantly snapping pictures, photography is forbidden at Rudas. Frequent sightings of staff discouraged opportunities to attempt even a covert shot.
Five baths are housed in a Turkish-style room with an almost 33-foot domed ceiling, fitted with small hexagonal windows containing colorful glass. Narrow shafts of natural light, combining with steam rising from the baths, produced a mystical effect.
The largest pool, octagonal in shape and with waters of 36 C (96.8 F) degrees, occupies the center of the room. In the four corners are smaller, wedge-shaped pools, with water temperatures ranging from 28 C (82.4 F) to 42 C (107.6 F).
There are two saunas off the main room, with temperatures of 45 C (113 F) and 50 C (122 F) degrees. And around the corner is the cold-water pool, which accommodates only a couple of people.
With a bracing temperature of 13 C (55.4 F) degrees, we didn’t linger in there beyond the few seconds it took to scramble down the stairs and take a quick dunk. But we did do the hot-cold combination a few times.
Outdoor temperatures already were stifling on the morning of our final spa visit, to Szechenyi Baths and Swimming Pools in the northeastern part of Pest.
Our hotel sold transit tickets that enabled us to reach our destination via a combination of bus and subway. Tickets must be stamped in a machine to validate them before you ride; we encountered transit workers in the stations, on the metro cars and in the buses to ensure that you did.
Built between 1909 and 1913 in modern renaissance style, Szechenyi is located within Varosliget, a sprawling park that houses Budapest Zoo as well as Heroes Square, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.
The complex is huge, and as we entered the main ticket office we were met by a young woman. She talked us into buying myriad services – some of which may have been lost in translation, before leading us out the door and to another entrance.
Our admission fee bought us the use of cabins instead of lockers, a guided tour of the facilities by another young woman who spoke decent English, and entry into a shaded solarium where New Age music played softly in the background as we relaxed in gravity chairs, sipped healthy drinks and enjoyed fresh fruit plates served by an attendant.
A regular daily ticket, with cabin, is 4,600 forints or a little more than $20 each. We paid 12,990 forints – almost $57 each, which really didn’t register until we saw our credit card statement.
There were those green and blue bracelets again, and we also forked over a refundable deposit of 5,000 forints for two of the spa’s bright green towels, allowing us to save those we brought from the hotel for drying off after our showers.
There are 15 pools indoors, some of which are characterized as “medicinal” and at least one where we saw an exercise class in progress. The cooling pool is 20 C (68F) .
We spent most of our time in the outdoor pools.
There’s a 26-degree (78.8 F) swimming pool where the use of bathing caps by women is required and enforced. An activity pool with 30-degree (86 F) water features in-floor water jets, as well as a circular whirlpool area where bathers are swept along at a good clip.
In the 38-degree (100.4 F) thermal pool, there are wall jets and a fountain with sprays so powerful that my husband had to stand in front of me to keep me from floating away. Other people nearby were treading water, awaiting their turn for the incredible neck and spine massage that it provides.
It was a clear, sunny day and hanging out in water that was as hot as the air actually was refreshing.
Our guide had recommended spending no more than 20 minutes in the pools whose waters were hotter than our body temperatures. But we had our own system: When the pads of our fingers started wrinkling, it was time to get out.
If you go
The baths have souvenir shops that can equip you for your visit, but bringing your own bathing suit and flip-flops from home won’t break your luggage allowance. Also, grab a towel from your hotel room and the toiletries from your carry-on luggage if you plan to shower afterward.
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