Having just a couple of hours to spend getting to know and admire Budapest, I had naturally decided to spend the entire time visiting one of its thermal baths. It was an interesting experience…
I opted for the famous Széchenyi Baths, a huge complex of saunas, baths, and sulphur pools. The entrance hall is as grand as you’d expect
with ornate plasterwork and statues everywhere
but my goodness, they have a thing or to to learn about communication. There are almost no signs, and none of the routing is intuitive in the slightest, so it was a miracle I ended up anywhere near the changing rooms.
And here the fun begins. There are lockers, but they have no keys, so you get changed, bung your clothes in the locker, and then start looking for an attendant, while keeping an eye on the group of thickset Hungarian lads who you just know have got you marked as a stupid rich tourist whose money is now in the (still open) locker.
There is no attendant, so you wait for one to appear. Five minutes pass. It’s getting cold; the changing rooms are on a draughty corridor underground and the prospect of actually getting a hot bath seems to be receding by the minute. Maybe you should be somewhere else? But that would mean getting ripped by the lads for sure. When a man in white trousers and shirt does appear, your initial euphoria is immediately quenched: it’s clear from the start that he wants to have nothing to do with you. Ever.
I’d been warned that Hungarians are a pessimistic lot and usually looked taciturn, but this was actually scary. The man’s facial expressions and body language were saying just one thing: I will ignore you completely, and if you try to attract my attention, I might decide to kill you with one well-placed blow to the side of the neck.
However, I had no choice – I had a good camera and some money in that locker. I hazarded a gesture in his direction. He scowled and grunted. “I close.”
Well, he was there, and the baths were open till late. I prayed that he meant that he would close my locker when I was ready.
“Ah yes, well – I’m ready.”
He turned on me with a look of fury. “I close!”
This was going to be tricky. I would somehow have to juggle with his anger, his impatience, his incomprehension and and his xenophobia.
“Yes, thank you, I’m done. I’m ready. My clothes are in the locker… would you close it, please?” I gave him what I hoped would be a placating smile.
Now he was really furious. His face contorted with rage. I was clearly going to die. Here, in Budapest. It was all going to end here, on this cold and filthy tiled floor. Like a morgue, I suddenly realized. Why had I not learned the Hungarian for ‘please’? Or for that matter, for ‘please don’t kill me?’ He leaned towards me threateningly and shouted. “I close! I close!”
“Yes, yes, you close… you close! Good! Dobro! You close now, please? Look, my clothes are in the locker…” I pointed, still babbling. The lads were laughing openly now. Jesus, what would it take to get this done? Surely he had seen that I was in my swimming trunks?
Perhaps he thought I’d suffered enough, but to my relief he grunted, pushed past me, wrote something with chalk on the inside of the door, and gave me a numbered aluminium tag to wear. I was going to be allowed to live, after all. I stumbled up the stairs towards the light…
OK, obviously I stole this photo before getting changed – I’m not the kind of dude who takes a camera to the sauna, right? So you’ll just have to take my word for it from now on. Well, I can quote:
“The Széchenyi is one of the biggest bathing complexes anywhere in Europe, whose hot spring – both the city’s hottest and deepest – was discovered in 1879. The neo-baroque building containing the thermal baths dates from 1913.”
It was fantastic – a maze of different pools at different temperatures, inside and outside, large and small, some malodorous and green with sulphur. The main outside pools were deliciously hot and most people congregated there. Groups of men floated around waterproof chess games, young couples cuddled and kissed discreetly and passionately, kids ran around as kids will, and numerous old people were quite obviously fast asleep. Perhaps they lived there in the winter months?
I went to find a sauna. It was down at cellar level (closer to the spring?) and wasn’t that hot, so I spent 20 minutes there very comfortably. Then it was out, through a freezing shower and back to the pool. Night had fallen, which lent the whole scene an even more surreal aura. I floated around with everyone else – you don’t actually swim there, just kind of drift slowly around like seaweed – and got chatting with some English speakers, who turned out to be Romanian/Hungarian and Greek/Turkish film-makers, just back from making a documentary about an old woman’s spartan life and simple philosophy in the Carpathian mountains of Romania.
So I got out and got dressed, and stole this photo before I left…
…and the film-makers took me out to a great restaurant, and gave me a bed for the night, but that’s another story. 🙂