The Baths of Budapest: Summer Warmth in Winter Chill
Budapest is one of the spa capitals of the world. With 118 natural geothermal springs in and around the city, it is a true urban “hotspot”, a fact little known to people outside of Europe. László, the man who had kindly rented his flat to me in the center city, had highly recommended a trip to the Széchenyi thermal bath, the largest such spring in Europe, a few Metro stops north of downtown.
I hadn’t planned on waiting until evening to visit the baths, but my body clock was still only about halfway across the Atlantic. I was waking up around noon because noon, where I was, amounted to six where I had recently come from. And four, where I was, amounted to nightfall. It seemed to me to be lunchtime when the sun was already dropping behind the hills of Buda. This was a bit of a disappointment to me but it turned out to be a stroke of fabulous luck.
Prior to leaving the apartment I had the unusual experience of packing a bag with beach towels, pool shoes and a bathing suit in the middle of a large city in the dead of winter. I had studied some information about the baths, but I felt a little ridiculous, a little like the guy who keeps clicking on the “win $1 million instantly” link every time he sees it in his email. For me, the idea that I might be outside bathing in blissful warmth on a subfreezing winter night in the center of Europe seemed equally as Quixotic as the instant million dollars. However, László’s advice had so far been golden, so I took him at his word.
About six stops north of Ferenciek tere on the Metro line was the Széchenyi fürdö station, which was actually only a few steps from the neo-baroque building complex which surrounds the spring. Though seeming to date from antiquity, this facility was built only in 1913 and the outdoor pools opened in 1927, which in Budapest terms is like the day before yesterday.
I paid some unfathomable sum of umpteen thousand Forints to enter the facilities, but I think this gargantuan figure only amounted to the equivalent of about fourteen dollars. I was really anxious to take my clothes off in front of all these pasty white foreigners and flaunt my bronzed chunks of overfed American flesh. I was given what looked like a space age watch, a thing around the wrist with no digits or hands. I didn’t want to seem any stupider than I had to, so I accepted the outer space gift with an unquestioning nod, as though I was an expert at knowing how to use it.
I descended to a locker room in the catacombs beneath the building, and observed a lot of predominantly naked Euro-style experts using the wristbands to lock their belongings into the small lockers. I guessed that some microchip in the watch communicated with a chip inside the locking mechanism. The experts were pressing the buttons shut with their wristbands and I copied them. I ripped my clothes off like a porn star and CHA-CHING! my wristband did the trick.
When I emerged into the raw air of the evening by the outdoor pools my blubbery southern American flesh shook with goose bumps. I was wearing swimming trunks and pool shoes and icicles were forming in my nostrils. When I saw all the frolicking multinational tourists dunking and capering in the waters I was sure they were all fools. I was prepared to turn around, take the subway back to town, and wring László’s neck. What did he mistake me for, a polar bear?
A Russian woman saw me and immediately recognized my pathetic American-ness and said to me in English, “Come on in, you’ll love it!”
She wiggled her tail and led me to believe I might be seeing more of it if I followed her advice. I threw off my pool shoes, shook the ice chunks out from between my toes and headed straight for her tail. When I got in I lost track of her and never saw her again but it didn’t matter to me. IT WAS THE WARMTH OF HEAVEN! Heat straight from the earth’s core!
A sign said the water was about 91 degrees. Actually, it didn’t say that at all. It said something in Celsius which I immediately translated to 91. Mostly naked girls were frolicking everywhere. Mesmerized by the surrounding architecture, the rising steam, and the torch-like glow of lights, I imagined that I was Emperor Caligula at the center of a totally debauched orgy. It was wild! Girls outside in bikinis in the middle of December in Hungary! What a place!
I swam around with several of these girls in the furious jet streams of water that were shooting through the floors and sides of the pools. Sometimes lighter girls would get caught up in one of these jets and be hurled against me like bugs against a windshield. By the time I’d swum in that pool for half an hour I needed a squeegee to scrape their remains off of me.
I began to fear I might be facing a rash of unwanted paternity suits if I stayed in that warm sin-bath, so I crawled out of the pool, immediately became a frozen hunk of meat, and waddled to another pool where the temperature was said to be about 82. This seemed Arctic to me after the Caligula experience, and it didn’t matter anyway because as soon as I got in an official barked at me because I didn’t have a swim cap on.
I didn’t need to be told that twice, so I re-froze myself, walked a little further to a third pool and read a sobering message on a sign. This one was so hot it might cause brain damage, impotence, constipation and a heart attack if one stayed in it more than 30 minutes. The temperature here was said to be about 97F. As soon as I soaked myself in there for a while I realized the real excitement was back there in Pool Number One, where there was a PARR-TAY going on. But by now it was nearly nine o’clock and the crowds were withdrawing from the pools in anticipation of closing time.
There was a Norwegian steam room inside, of whose oven-like heat I partook for a few minutes, and several small indoor pools which didn’t compare to the mystique of the outdoors. I realized it was time for me to put my clothes on again and return to cold reality.
On the subway back to town I kept seeing images in my mind of the rising mists in the black night, the sensation of freedom and timelessness, the mischievous hint of Roman grandeur, for the Romans had been the first to enjoy the thermal heat of the springs of this locale 2000 years ago. It was an experience at once romantic, fascinating, exotic and soothing.
© 2015 James Crawford