Taking the Waters

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One of the highlights of our time in amazing Budapest was the entire day of Wednesday, which included renting bikes and “taking the waters” at Széchényi public baths. The bikes were a welcome mode of transport for both of us, as our feet were majorly tired from two long days of walking around the city. We first biked through the city center (much of which is equipped with very efficient bike lanes) out to Heroes Square and then backtracked to an indoor fruit and vegetable market where we bought the makings of a fabulous picnic lunch (ham, bread, nectarines & an assortment of pickled things).

We ate our lunch on Margaret Island, which is a beautiful, car-less park in the middle of the Danube. We found a great spot next to a fountain that was spouting in time to classical music (a mini Bellagio, if you will). It was a lovely spot made all the better with some very interesting people watching. There was a very tan man in a Speedo who was sunning himself, cooling off in the fountain and — my favorite part — tending to an elaborate system of keeping his beverages cool. He had rigged up what was basically a homemade fishing pole to which he would attach a bottle of juice where the bait would normally go. He would hoist this over his shoulder, carry it over to the fountain, and leave it there with the bottle sitting in the water to keep cool. Then, every ten minutes or so he would return to get the drink, bring it back to his towel, and transfer another beverage back to the fountain. He managed to keep himself quite busy — and us quite entertained — with this whole process.

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And then … the baths …

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect during our visit to the Hungarian baths, but it ended up being a very memorable and enjoyable way to spend the afternoon. Although there are some tourists who stop by this bath, it is still widely used by the locals, so it felt authentically Hungarian. The building itself is quite grand — with beautiful gardens and an impressive entryway. Once we figured out how to buy our tickets, we were guided toward the changing cabins. Upon entering this area, we were greeted by one of the many bath attendants. These chaps wear short white shorts and a white smock-ish top. Picture Chris Kattan’s Mango from SNL minus the gold sequins and fuschia. The first attendant we encountered directed us toward the towel rental desk and then up a flight of stairs to the collection of changing cabins. When I first heard “changing cabin,” I pictured a lovely poolside cabana, but this was more of an indoor locker room with rows of small, curtained rooms that barely fit two people. Anyway, once at the top of the stairs, another attendant greeted us and led us to our cabin where we changed into our suits. After changing, you again flag down the attendant, who locks your cabin and gives you a bracelet to wear to prove it’s your cabin when you return. So it’s a bit of an elaborate process, but it all went off without a hitch.

Then, you make your way down to the baths. There are two main areas that make up the baths: an indoor collection of warm and cold thermal pools, and an outdoor collection of three swimming pools. We headed outdoors first, where our first stop was the warm “relaxation” pool. Imagine a huge swimming pool that is slightly cooler in temperature than your average hot tub — and is full of all ages and body types just floating around and taking in the therapeutic waters. It makes for phenomenal people watching and it really quite relaxing after three days of fairly aggressive walking and biking. There are also chess tables set up along the walls of the relaxation pools, where groups of mostly older men were gathered for quite significant periods of time.

Next to the relaxation pool is the swimming/laps pool. This was closed during our visit, so we didn’t see it in use. And finally you have the cool water fun pool. This is where most of the kids were splashing around and having fun. There is a current pool in the center, as well as several areas with giant jets. So the whole place adds up to this interesting mix of water park and relaxation spa. And it is set in this grand, ornate yellow building with balconies and hanging flowers. It’s quite an experience.

After enjoying the outdoor pools, we went back inside to sit in some of the thermal pools, which range from 20 degrees to 38 degrees celsius. Some of the pools appear almost green, which they say comes from the minerals naturally present in Hungary’s underground springs and are supposedly beneficial for treating arthritis and other maladies, which contributes to the popularity of the baths. One of my favorite scenes was that of a water aerobics class going on in one of the indoor pools. There must have been 20 or so 60-something women in this pool — all in brightly colored swimsuits, bikinis and swimcaps — holding these mildewy-looking foam dumbbells and doing full-on water aerobics.

We enjoyed this whole scene and experience for about two hours before rinsing off, changing back into our street clothes, and hopping on our bikes to return to our neighborhood. We finished the day off with showers and dinner at the awesome outdoor beer garden across the street from our apartment. All in all, a great day!

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