Wednesday, August 24, 2011

budapest: three days, three baths

you want to soak yourself blissful? then you must first pay with your patience.

although our visit to budapest spanned five days, we only had three full ones to fill and our number one priority was the thermal baths scattered across what is now our favorite city (i'm sure that will change with the next city we visit). we've read many times about the vexing check-in process to the different baths and considered it a rite of passage, one happily accepted by us. but, being the unbelievably intelligent creatures we know that we are, we also thought "come on, how hard could it be?" we were so wrong. michelle put it best when she turned to me and said "it's like your worst day at the DMV all conducted in an incomprehensible foreign language." throw in a hot and bothered cashier held over from the communist era and your visit is complete! and you haven't even as much looked at a tub of water yet.

each bath had a slightly different process but all had a huge board of prices (in hungarian, of course) offering baths (swimming, thermal), massages, medicinal treatments, lobotomies (our hungarian is quite sketchy) and the rental of bathing suits and towels. before we left vienna, michelle said "be sure not to forget your bathing suit." well, needless to say, i am now the proud owner of some very roomy, very used and very hungarian swimming trunks. all the baths now are using what's called the "proxy band," a small chip embedded in a wristwatch type thing that lets you in to certain areas, opens a locker (some work, some don't) or cabin (good luck figuring out which one you paid for) and identifies you across all the services offered. once past all of that, you're home free to soak away your issues and, trust me on this, you now need it. and it's worth every forint you have.

budapest is lucky enough to sit on a large number of mineral-rich thermal springs. there are two most commonly known baths in budapest to the western tourist, the szechenyi baths (see rick steves, everyone else has) and the gellert baths, the art-deco marvel at the foot of the liberty bridge. however, because of a fantastic tip from a friend of a friend (thanks sara!) we added the rudas baths to our list and placed it at the top. the main baths are under a domed, 450 year old ottoman structure with tiny star-shaped, stained glass-filled holes in the ceiling that cast shafts of shifting light into the main pool as the sun moves across the sky. we'd been walking all over berlin, some trails in bavaria and austria, and all over vienna, so by the time we hit the rudas baths we were ready to give ourselves over. yes, please! words can't describe just how charming we found this place. truly a great find.

szechenyi and gellert were completely different in vibe from rudas and from each other. szechenyi was a water play land with at least ten or twelve different temperature thermal pools inside, ranging from kind of hot to very cold, and three huge pools outside ranging from kind of warm to kind of warm. but the setting, my god the setting. first, the place is huge, and it's housed in a slightly crumbling and beautifully worn down neo-baroque, "sisi yellow" building. gellert is housed in an art deco hotel built between 1912 and 1918 (i think) and, although we thought the place was on the sillier end of the baths spectrum, we thoroughly enjoyed where we were. no complaints possible when you're surrounded by sumptuous architecture, over the top dramatic statues, men in loin cloths (not kidding, in the segregated men's section, those without bathing suits were given loin cloths and those who wore them, wore them proudly). 

are you going to budapest? go to these baths, go to all of them, you won't regret it. were we to rate them, rudas gets top billing for history, for the range of water temperature, for the mystique.

bonus photo: some badass magyars. arpad, considered the founder of the hungarian nation, and his six chieftains. these are the dudes that started it all.

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