Marco and I came to Budapest stressed, rushed and exhausted. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened that way.
We ignored it, spending Friday and Saturday like good tourists, exploring the city and pushing our limits. Marco was carrying the stress in his back and in his constant headaches. My flat-soled shoes began to tear on the inside, causing the cushion to lump up under my arch. By Saturday afternoon I had a weird, severe foot cramp that caused a weird, severe limp. It didn’t matter if there was more to see, we knew something had to give.
There was just one option that combined the experience of Budapest with relaxation: the thermal baths.
Hungary’s thermal spring culture have existed for as long as its history. Thermal springs dot the landscape, covering over 80% of Hungary’s territory.
The Roman’s created the first spa culture when they settled in Aquincum, in today’s Óbuda, and remains of which can still be found in the hills today. But they weren’t the only ones. The Turks revived the culture when they ruled Hungary, adding multiple bathhouses and the architecture of others implies Roman, Greek, Turkish and Hungarian influences over the years.
With approximately 1,500 spas and 450 public baths, Budapest is appropriately called the “City of Spas.” We chose to go to the Széchenyi Baths based on amount of effort and location: We happened to be heading to that neighborhood and had already read much about them.
Built in 1881 Széchenyi is one of the oldest baths in Pest and the largest thermal bath in all of Europe. Today it has 18 pools, 15 of which are spring fed. I’ve never been to something similar and it was clear we didn’t know what we were doing, but as I limped from the locker room to the baths I didn’t care anymore.
Through a cloud of steam we entered the bath complex and took a look. People were draped over pool ledges, dreamily transferring pools or seemingly comatose in blissed-out naps. We chose a hot pool and, ignoring the strong sulfar smell that seemed to travel in a mist, sunk right in. My hands rose naturally, held up by the minerals in the water and my foot stopped seizing. Medicinal powers or not it felt damn good.
According to the Bath’s website, the hot spring that feeds the pools contains “a significant amount of fluoride and metabolic acid, along with calcium, magnesium, hydro-carbonate, sodium and sulphate” all of which are “effective to cure degenerative illnesses of joints, as well as chronic and semi-acute arthritis. It is also fit for orthopaedic and post-injury treatments.”
I know I know, I’m not injured or arthritic, but the relaxation and rejuvenation provided by the baths is certainly not reserved for just select degenerating groups. People of all ages transfered pools at ease, swimming laps in one, shrieking as they entered an ice bath or sighing with pleasure at the heat of another.
Though it was just April 21st, the outdoor pool area was alive and packed. People jammed together, laughing and bouncing off of each other as they spun around the pool in circles, pushed by an invisible current. Drunk adults laughed at their drunk friends and chess boards sat in the water, beckoning to be used. In Milan it was pouring down rain, there in Budapest we laid out on our towels to let the sun dry up our pruned skin.
There were many more sites to visit in the city, but in that moment it wasn’t about a to-do list, it was about the experience. We were in the only capital in the world with actual rivers of healing water running beneath its concrete – how could you pass that up?