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Immersed in steamy Budapest, city of spas

Széchenyi Spa in Budapest’s City Park, built in 1913, comprises 15 varying thermal pools. Széchenyi Spa in Budapest’s City Park, built in 1913, comprises 15 varying thermal pools. (KATHY SHORR FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Kathy Shorr
Globe Correspondent / December 11, 2011
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BUDAPEST - I don’t like taking baths. I prefer showers. But after years of watching foreign films and reading my share of Chekhov and Ford Madox Ford, I fantasized about visiting the traditional spas of Europe. On a trip to Hungary, I decided to check out some of the thermal baths and spas for which this capital city is famous.

Budapest is built on thermal springs and people have come here to drink and soak in its mineral-rich waters since Roman times. In the 1930s, a conference of 37 countries named Budapest the city with the world’s most healing waters. Among the minerals in those waters are calcium, magnesium, hydrogen carbonate, sulphate-chloride, carbonic acid, sodium, and fluoride. People still submerge themselves to relieve an array of maladies, from arthritis and skin conditions to gout and gastrointestinal problems - or just to relax. There is a strong social and communal element to the baths, which serve as a gathering place for both residents and visitors.

On a cold, rainy day, we headed to the Gellert Spa, perhaps the most famous of the city’s public baths. It opened in 1918 at the end of World War I as part of a grand, Art Nouveau-style hotel overlooking the Danube. The hotel is privately owned, but the spa is now operated by the city. We arrived with towels, flip-flops, and shampoo; paid for the digital bracelets that let us through the turnstile; and then split up (the thermal pools, saunas, and steam rooms are separated by gender).

The spa had the faded elegance I had imagined, with ornate tile work in shades of turquoise, terra cotta, and gold; curved wrought iron work; and overcast light filtering in through a curved-domed glass ceiling. But what I noticed most was the array of women: long-haired, bikini-clad ingenues, chatting in Hungarian; a pair of pale middle-aged Britons on vacation, trying out the 113-degree steam room and quickly overheating; older Hungarian women, usually alone, frequently naked, with deep wrinkles, folds of body fat, and somber expressions.

The Hungarians in particular seemed to have an endless tolerance for heat. I ducked in and out of the steam room for dips in the small cold-water pool nearby, and each time found the same woman lying prone on the bench, as if asleep. I got so nervous I actually poked her to make sure she hadn’t fainted. She didn’t appreciate it, but I felt better.

I checked in at a desk in the changing area for a massage. A no-nonsense woman, dressed in the hospital whites most of the staff wears, pointed to the stairs with a curt, “Up - go.’’ There a pair of masseuses sat side by side, waiting for clients, lighted cigarettes dangling from their fingers. A third, sturdy woman with short blond hair led me into a large, ward-like room, and motioned for me to climb onto a table near the door. She drew the curtain, poured moisturizing lotion onto her hands, and proceeded to rub and slap at double-time speed, whipping through the full-body massage in about 25 minutes, punctuated by a few English phrases: “head,’’ “up,’’ “down,’’ “sit,’’ and “over.’’

It was hardly the version of pampering one equates with spas. You are more likely to find that at one of the newer spas, like the Royal Spa at the five-star Corinthia Hotel. The entrance fees here are much higher than at the public baths, but free to hotel guests, who make up about 90 percent of the clientele. We had the place almost entirely to ourselves. In the calm of low lights, soft music, and lighted candles, a staff member handed out the complimentary plush robe, towel, and slippers. The spa lacks thermal mineral waters, but creates a modern variation on Art Nouveau style with stained glass skylights, graceful, curved iron railings, and tile work. I went for an Indian Ayurvadic massage with a tanned, wiry man named Kenneth, an American. Apart from using warm oils, his technique was a mystery to me, but it felt great.

From there we checked out the Kiraly Baths, one of the city’s oldest surviving thermal spas. The Turks built the Kiraly in the 1560s, when Hungary was part of the Ottoman Empire, and as you descend a long flight of stairs, you feel as if you are walking back through centuries. Through the steamy mist, we could barely make out the people sitting on the other side of the small thermal pool. The misty haze; the distinct scent of sulphur; the cave-like atmosphere, lighted only by small amber windows, a few dim bulbs, and tiny holes of daylight coming through the domed ceiling - all combine to give you the sense of what it must have been like here long before the advent of electricity.

Our last outing, to the Széchenyi Spa, coincided with National Spa Day. Entrance was half price for all, and that, combined with a brisk but spectacularly sunny day, gave it the atmosphere of a town-wide party. The Széchenyi, built in the City Park in 1913, is Europe’s largest bath. The palatial Neo-Baroque building alone is worth the price of admission. The glass mosaics and sculptures inside were done by some of the leading artists of the time. There are 15 thermal pools, which vary in temperature and mineral composition. We tried each one, then gravitated to the building’s courtyard, which houses three separate heated pools, open on even the coldest winter days.

Just as Hungarians seem able to withstand the hottest, steamiest rooms, they also do not appear to feel the cold. At least a hundred people stretched out on deck chairs around the outdoor pools, clad only in bathing suits. In the warmest pool (100.4 degrees) several men surrounded a waterproof chessboard, two playing and the rest watching every move. Another pool had an inner ring like an amusement park ride, with strong water jets.

Leaving the Széchenyi, we stopped for a souvenir at a small glassed-in stand where people were lined up holding empty plastic bottles. For 30 cents a liter, the attendant filled my bottle with warm tap water. I held my nose and drank. The water smelled strongly of sulphur and tasted almost as foul. After burping a few times, I left, feeling, if not cured, at least virtuous.

Kathy Shorr can be reached at kshorr@mail2.gis.net.

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If You Go

Information
www.spasbudapest.com
For most accurate information on all public baths, including the Gellert, Kiraly, and Széchenyi, including discounts and special offers.
Széchenyi Spa
Állatkerti korut 11 (in the City Park, on the Pest side)
011-36-1-363-3210
All-day ticket including locker $15 for outdoor pools, $15 for indoor pools; other packages and partial-day tickets available. Massages $10-$19 for 15-30 minutes.
Gellert Bath
Kelenhegyi útca 4, (bank of the Danube on the Buda side, close to the Szabadság or Liberty Bridge)
011-36-1-466-6166
Full-day ticket from $17.50 for use of facilities, free for hotel guests. Other packages and partial-day tickets available. Massage $14-$24 for 20-30 minutes, other treatments available.
Royal Spa at the Corinthia Hotel
Erzsebert korut 43
011-36-1-479-4650
www.corinthia.hu
Facilities $40, free for hotel guests; massages $60-$145, with a range of other treatments available.
Kiraly Baths
Fo utca 84, District II (Buda side, near the Széchenyi or Chain Bridge)
011-36-1-201-4392
Tue, Thu-Sat, men only; Mon, Wed, women only; Sun co-ed. From $10.50 for all-day ticket including changing facilities; cash only.