If you leave Budapest without soaking in a Hungarian thermal bath, you have cheated yourself of a memorable experience. Last visit, I found myself floating naked in a body-temperature pool under a 500-year old Ottoman dome pierced by jewel-colored glass “eyes”. The Rudas (ROO-das) bath experience left me as relaxed as I’ve ever been in my life, I have to say.
The Turkish bath experience is all about regulating body temperature and that means moving from pool to pool, from 28 degrees Celsius (hot) to 42º (darned hot). If that doesn’t do it, bathers can try the sauna or steam rooms at 50º and 72º (161º Fahrenheit); nobody stays very long, of course, but you can pull a rope, dump a bucket of cold water on your head and go back for more. Since a 2005 renovation, Tuesday is now a women-only day; other weekdays, it’s still a man’s world. Nudity is the norm on single-sex days, but don’t let bashfulness stop you from this iconic experience. Weekends are co-ed, require swimsuits, and feature a different ambiance. Rick Steves’ Budapest book has detailed instructions, but the staff is very used to tourists and is extremely reassuring. If I lived in Budapest, I’d be there every Tuesday!
The cliché says “poke a hole in the ground in Budapest and a hot spring will bubble up.” The Romans discovered Hungary’s hot springs two millennia ago and built the first baths, while the Ottomans ruled Hungary from 1541-1699 and built their own baths in turn, several of which remain. These two paragons of public bathing left a magnificent tradition of public baths in Central Europe. But I first discovered a love for public baths in Turkey itself. We had fetched up in a small town and it happened to be the once a week “women-only” day, apparently the norm in Turkish baths. I entered another world; radio blasting, cigarette smoking and what could only be raucous trash talking. The older women were naked as the day they were born but the younger ones wore swimsuits. The sturdy masseuse rubbed off more layers of skin than I knew I had and flopped me around on the marble bench like a rag doll. But the interior was lit by the same jewel-colored glass tiles embedded in the ancient dome overhead as in Budapest and again, I left as relaxed as I’d ever been.
I worked at an international school in Russia for two years, the birthplace of one of the world’s other great public bathing traditions, the banya, or sauna. In Soviet days few workers had separate bathrooms at home and Russians got clean at their local bath house. In a country with vast birch forests and long snowy winters, the banya experience came to feature heat, pointy felt hats to control overheating, flogging yourself or others with birch twigs (venik) to increase circulation, and a roll in the snow. Heavenly. A few shots of vodka with zakuski (snacks) and bathers went home restored and ready for the rigors of the Russian winter. In Moscow either try the touristy and luxurious Sandunovskiye baths, ask at your hotel for their personal favorite (and much cheaper) local banya or better yet, see if you can arrange an outing to experience a countryside banya, particularly in winter.
Japan is another culture which has perfected the art of public bathing. Chaperoning a school trip, I was lucky enough to visit Kyushu island, which is so dense with hot springs that our home stay family in the onsen (hot spring) town of Beppu simply dug a hole for a soaking tub just inside the front foyer, tiled it, added cold water, and there’s your hot tub. But back to Budapest for two other world-class thermal baths or fürdö, more Western and a bit less daunting than the Rudas: the gigantic Szecheyni complex and the beautiful and luxurious Art Nouveau Gellert Baths. Both are co-ed and require swimsuits, except in a few areas. The Szecheyni reminds me of a big municipal pool except with saunas, steam rooms, pools of various temperatures and golden Classical architecture.
One thing you only find in a Hungarian thermal bath is beefy citizens playing chess in the water. The Gellert furdö has all of this, plus an outdoor wave pool (summer only) which will toss you around mightily. The indoor pool is very posh looking and flanked by Greek columns. The Gellert might be the place for a massage, rounding out the complete Hungarian spa experience.
Hungarians think so highly of their thermal baths that doctors can prescribe state-supported treatment for “degenerative and orthopedic conditions” and prevention of “premature aging of the body.” Tourists can obtain the same benefits, of course, for a fee. But no matter which Budapest thermal bath you choose, be sure to invest the time and money in this experience. The memory will warm you just like the hot water.
Written by Guest Contributor Kathy Fritts for EuropeUpClose.com Kathy Fritts is a retired school librarian who has lived and worked in six different countries. Now she travels for fun and writes to educate and encourage readers to take a chance and enrich their lives by traveling.