First published Dec 30th 2012.
The gentle but icy breeze wafted the swirling mist, revealing teasing glimpses of ochre-painted Neo-Baroque buildings. Hazy figures dropped lower and submerged themselves in the warmth that enveloped them in defiance of the freezing air and the snow that covered the courtyard.
No, this is not the opening scene of a second rate cold-war spy novel set in one of Central Europe’s capital cities. This is the scene at the Széchenyi Thermal Baths in Budapest’s City Park on a freezing, late December day. There is something surreal about basking in steaming hot water surrounded by the remains of the previous day’s snowfall with Winter nipping at your ears at the same time as sweat forms on your face. At the same time, it is undeniably relaxing to lie back, let the warm water envelop you and look up into the cold winter sky and let your imagination transport you back to the glory days of this bath complex, when it would have welcomed the hoi-polloi of the latter days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who would have come to bathe in the mineral rich waters as treatment for whatever ailed them, or simply to pose at one of the places to be seen.
The Neo-Baroque late 19th / early 20th century splendour is fading now, the paint peeling and stonework crumbling as the fiscal realities of one of the European countries hardest hit by the mid-Noughties financial crash start to bite, meaning the maintenance and restoration of fine buildings have to play second fiddle to keeping a struggling economy afloat. Perhaps the financial troubles are one of the reasons this place is so popular and so busy even on a bitter Christmas Eve morning. What better place can there be to wallow and let your troubles drift away with the steam rising from the large outdoor pools.
3500 – 4000 forints (dependent on the day of the week and time of day) get you access to the large complex consisting of a dozen indoor pools of varying temperatures and mineral contents as well as three large outdoor pools. There are also saunas set at different temperatures, cold plunge pools and the opportunity to work up a sweat in a fully equipped gym or be mangled into relaxation with a massage. The three outdoor pools provide three different experiences. The centre pool, the coolest is for swimming. Another, the massage pool, has a collection of water jets that can be used to buffet away aches and pains or simply the cares of the day. The largest and hottest is the most popular. As warm as a foam bath, this is the place just to soak, then lie back and let the world disappear into the steam that surrounds you. The challenge is walking between the pools in air temperatures just above freezing: no doubt being chilled to the bone in an instant is good for the soul, but it’s not so good for your sanity. It does, though, make you appreciate the warm waters even more. Either way, a couple of hours enjoying the facilities at the Széchenyi Thermal Baths is a fantastic way to start or end a day of sightseeing in Budapest; whatever the weather.
Photos kindly provided by Ildi Suri.