Budapest is the epicenter of a region blessed with an abundance of naturally occurring hot springs. Couple this with nearly two centuries of Turkish occupation and a fervent belief by the locals in the curative powers of mineral waters and voilà – Budapest, a city which boasts more thermal baths than any other in Europe. A few weeks ago, I blogged about our passions and an intent to focus our time, and consequently this blog, around these passions – one of which is thermal baths and spas. With that as our catalyst, three weekends ago we inaugurated Thermal Bath Sunday, a logical partnership of passion with opportunity. Sunday morning we sample one of the few dozen baths in the city, generally accompanied by a predominately local, pensioner clientele. This isn’t a spa experience but rather a therapeutic one, with a decidedly therapeutic feel. The curative powers of any individual bath are determined by the unique mineral mix of that particular spring. Were I Hungarian, these Sunday jaunts might be prescribed by a doctor and covered under my medical insurance. (But I’m not, so they aren’t).
Pat’s love of the baths and spas predates mine. He embraced the spa culture in Bratislava, a city we called home for 18 months; an enchanting town with a Germanic influenced, clothing optional tolerance. When Pat joined the neighborhood work out center, little did he realize – though he quickly caught on – that the saunas inside the center were coed and forbade bathing suits (“Julie, I can’t wear my suit. I would be breaking the rules.”) Everyone is allocated a sheet for modesty, and as a modest American Pat griped his a bit intently – at least on those times when I joined him. The locals use the sheets to their fancy; as a modest wrap, a pad to sit on, or – in the case of one man – a fan to disburse the steam created when he tossed freezing cold water on the piping hot lava rocks. The man proceeded to fling the sheet around his head like a cowboy swinging his lariat; shoulders heaving, hips twirling and little bits frantically jostling about to the rhythm. As his wife giggled, we shook our heads as yet another innocent venture turned unpredictably awry. Yet, as I jotted down our list of passions a few weeks ago, I was not surprised when Pat called out, “Don’t forget spas and thermal baths.”
The baths are one manifestation of pushing ourselves into a “no excuse” zone. As we approach the halfway point of our two year assignment in Budapest, we can’t afford to fritter away time. I have not visited a bath in a year, a sad fact which feels akin to living in Brussels and not trying the chocolate or France and not tasting the wine. Yet for all this self motivation and flagellation, I still cower at the thought of trying new experiences. I fixate on everything which can go wrong, reverting to a middle schooler on my first day of class. On the outside I swagger, while on the inside I melt into a pile of doubt – all the while beseeching myself “Act like you know what you are doing.” In the case of baths, tourist books warn of the confusing process. If Rick Steves wandered about the baths in a daze, what hope do I have?
Enough. With my flip flops, bathing suit, towel and cash firmly in hand (I have read there are thieves in the baths. I left my Timex and credit cards safely back in our apartment), we set off across Margit Bridge to the Buda side of the Danube. The Király bath was built in 1565, a gift from the Turks. It seems only fair if you are going to conquer and occupy a city for a couple of centuries, you can at least leave behind a few nice baths; along with a plethora of kebab shops, Zoltans and Attilas. For a total of forty dollars, we could spend the day at the baths (although we stay about three hours) with an abbreviated massage packaged into the deal. The Király baths feel ancient, authentic, Hungarian. I completely immersed myself into the experience. Perhaps I succumb too readily to suggestion, but as we walked home, my perpetually sore neck did feel a bit less creaky.
Thermal Bath Sundays have exceeded my most optimistic hopes. My joints are improving, my skin is soft and I have a new found confidence to try the next set of adventures. The tourist warnings of confusion and thieves are – so far – highly over hyped. Each bath accommodates tourists, especially if you keep your English simple and netted to only the critical details. A cabin is provided to secure your possessions. It turns out, no one has perished from the baths (save a few heart attack victims, no doubt, given the age demographic and belief that jumping into ice cold water on the heels of the steam sauna is a good idea).
Our life abroad – and more specifically the quality of our life abroad – relies on confidence, fearlessness and the realization that, just like middle school, no one really cares what I do. Everyone is too immersed in their own angst and insecurities to worry about mine. Adventures nearly always turn out better than we hoped. Each time this happens, we are emboldened to try something new and more complicated. Occasionally we board a train to Moscow when we are trying to go to Bratislava. Even then, we get off at the first stop, make our way back to the train station, laugh our fannies off, and drink wine with friends while awaiting the next train. The bottom line, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we shake our heads, sometimes we nearly cry. It all turns out in the end and this fate conspires to push us along. This week, we are kicking off Ruin Pub Thursdays. I can’t wait. What can possibly go wrong with that?
Categories: Insiders Budapest