I have heard all about Janos Valcz. I first spot him in the lavish lobby of the InterContinental Budapest, where the cacophony of myriad accents blends to a portentous buzz, the harbinger of good things to come, as when a symphony warms its instruments before a concert. He’s by the pastry counter, uniformed and formal, but using his hands with verve to give advice to tourists in search of activities. The hotel’s Chief Concierge, he’s an ambassador for this Hungarian city and for the grand Intercontinental hotel that leans heavy against the Danube, just beside the fabled Chain Bridge that links Pest to Buda. When I greet him, I tell him that my friends say he knows everything about this Pearl of the Danube, this city of spas—and he grins with a half a smile, sheepish, because he knows it’s true.
He’s willing to talk to me about coffeehouses, castles, and the famed Central Market. But I’ve got water on the brain. I’m in need of a spa—that is, a bath, in the Roman or Turkish vernacular. And Valcz has all the information I need. Perhaps I should quiz him, ask him a more difficult query. After all, it’s clear from the easy way he responds to questions that he’s a model concierge—a walking guidebook, an expert on all things Budapestian. Still, at this jet-lagged moment, only warm thermal baths excite me and Budapest, it seems, is awash with them.
Valcz tells me that over 31 thermal baths and aqua spas punctuate the city. These numerous hot springs ooze over 18 million gallons of mineral-rich water each day from deep within the earth. The heated hydration seeps through the rocky hills of Buda, concentrated mostly mid-Danube on Margaret Island, in Obuda near Gellert Hill, and on the Buda embankment near Margaret Bridge. The baths vary in size and style. Some are exceedingly fancy, others more utilitarian. Some were discovered, or at least developed by the Turks during their 16th century occupation of the region. They remain largely unchanged architecturally, charming with Ottoman élan. Others, exploited during the Belle Epoch boast wide outdoor spaces, evincing modern affectations in parklike settings. Of course, in accordance with the European tradition, a large number of the baths are open only to members of the same sex on alternative days and offer nude bathing. Others open from dawn to dusk, require swimsuits, and perform therapeutic treatments for ailments such as rheumatism or arthritis. Almost all of the baths propose massage for a reasonable price in a wing of cubicles aside the pools.
Divided into multiple pools and bathing areas, enveloped in a Neo-Baroque palatial structure, the healing waters emit a mist that curls around people’s faces and bodies as they bob, weave, and paddle through the water.
So many baths, so little time . . . but I choose to visit the Kiraly Baths first. It’s one of the most ancient, ensconced in a Turkish structure, complete with cupolas, Mudejar windows and arches. I arrive at dusk, the sky just dark enough to act as a canvas for the city light’s reflection on an inviting swirl of steam rising from the building—a mystical and timeless sight. The foyer, filled with senior citizens in sensible swimsuits and caps daunts me a bit, as does my attempt at a dialogue in Hungarian with the cashier. After some creative sign language, I sign up for soaking time and a thirty-minute massage. But before dipping into the pool, I manage to lock myself in my changing cubicle. A white-uniformed attendant rescues me, shaking her head a bit, and I scurry down the labyrinthine halls to discover the less humiliating arena of pools. Beneath the central cupola, the main bath, shaped like an octagon, awes. Never mind that most of the women are naked! Females of all shapes and sizes inhabit the pools; they’re posed in laughing groups of friends, seriously conversing duets, and meditative solo stances . . . Like a nomad, I wander from pool to pool, and then dry off in the broiling sauna.
When it’s time for my massage, I meander past the swimmers to a starkly lit hall that has the noise level of an elementary school cafeteria. Here, a gruff woman points to a table lined with a diminutive towel. Obligingly, I climb up and allow her to pound and knead me at will. After a while, I relax into her punches, but she stops abruptly, folds her arms, and nods at the door. Feeling like a naughty child freshly pummeled, I head to the cold plunge to continue my punishment.
The next day, I spend a glorious morning at the Central Market, Budapest’s largest fresh meat, vegetable, and herb market. An immense, multi-tiered, covered food hall, with a stunning roof of brightly colored Zsolnay tiles, this local institution caters to locals and tourists bent on a sensorial overload of gourmet delight. Besides meats and produce, the 180 or so stalls sell cheese, herbs, honey, meat, fish, produce, and Hungarian crafts, such as woodcarving and lace. I buy two types of paprika, both sweet and hot, and several kinds of piquant sausage.
In the afternoon, another bath calls. I take the subway a ways into Pest to the City Park section of town. Here, armed with swimsuit and towel, I explore the deepest and hottest springs in Budapest, Szechenyi Baths. Extremely popular with locals, these baths teem with soaking people of every age. Divided into multiple pools and bathing areas, enveloped in a Neo-Baroque palatial structure, the healing waters emit a mist that curls around people’s faces and bodies as they bob, weave, and paddle through the water. Divided into several outdoor pools (and some indoor ones,) Szechenyi is a sort of waterlogged lounge, a cocktail-free place to relax socially. Though some people take the waters alone, most swim with friends and family. In two corners of the largest pool, a winsome group of senior men donning swim caps play chess on a board that floats in the water. More active types take the healing waves in the Olympic-size lap pool, while others hang out in the waterfall and rapids section.
I leave Budapest without trying every bath. Valcz tells me it’s a reason to return—after all, I still have 29 to go. And you know what? I’ve already got my swimsuit packed.