on August 29, 2010
With an average winter temperature that spends plenty of time shivering in the minuses, Budapestians and visitors need somewhere to warm up, and Hungary’s capital boasts half a dozen popular thermal baths, of which the Széchenyi baths (three years off their hundredth birthday) are perhaps the most appealing. Housed in an elegant baroque building within Budapest’s World-Heritage City Park, and situated at the northern end of the city’s likewise-accoladed yellow Metro line*, the baths are both visually impressive and more convenient, in some aspects, than other options, allowing male and female visitors to use the same facilities at the same time (the Kiraly baths, for example, have separate days for each sex), and staying open from 6am-10pm. Leave Line One of the Metro at Széchenyi fürdő (320 Forint/around £1 per journey), which drops you right outside the Baths. Inside, three booths sell tickets, and two entrances lead to the changing rooms (oddly, contrary to signage, they’re not gender-specific, leading to a communal area of cubicles – the first of many confusions before getting near any water). Price lists are mounted on the walls, presenting what seems an excessive amount of options (how many ways are there to take a bath?) in Hungarian, German and (partially) English. Don’t expect the outstandingly arsey assistants to be any help either, but it’s not too problematic to get a ticket; the main decision is whether you want a cabin to get changed and store your things in (3600 Forint), or a locker (3000 Forint) – in which case there are male and female changing rooms available. If you stay for less than two hours, ask at the counters as you leave – you’re supposed to get a partial refund, although this may depend on the mood of the employee.If you’ve chosen the cabin option, you’ll get a little electronic-watch gadget which unlocks your individual cubicle, and is used if you want to hire a towel (around 1500 Forint, of which 1200 is a deposit). Take ten minutes to try and find the towel-hire place, then ask someone and get directed to a cupboard on the right-hand side of the antechamber. A final curiosity; there are two towel-hire options – one is a pretty expensive fluffy towel, the other, cheaper option is a large bedsheet. Which is strange, and about as absorbent as, well - a bedsheet.After you’ve made it through all that and negotiated the maze of cabins and lockers, you’ll come out into the indoor baths, a series of pools of varying shapes and sizes with temperatures marked on the walls. There’s plenty of choice here – chances are you won’t try half the pools, and a nice range of saunas too, which themselves range from agreeable, pleasant aromatherapy rooms (50 C) to scorching, surface-of-the-sun furnaces which I found physically impossible to enter (85 C). More often than not, a seriously chilly plunge pool is located just round the corner from the saunas for some extremes of temperature which leave you, once the shock’s subsided, supremely relaxed.Arguably the main attraction of the Baths is outside (there's a door hidden away at each end of the indoor rooms); a complex of external pools and lounging areas where the famous chess players do their thing whilst slowly cooking themselves. In the centre, a more serious swimming pool breaks up two hot pools, the second of which is filled with fountains - above and below water - a jacuzzi and a whirlpool which flings you around with some force. In all honestly, these weren’t the most pleasant parts of the baths in summer, where the air and sun are already hot enough that the contrast with the warm waters are lost. I’m told these pools are blissful in winter, however, and I’m planning a more seasonally-appropriate return.The Széchenyi baths, then, should be considered an essential part of a Budapest city-break. Located in an interesting, attractive part of the city with the imposing Heroes’ Square nearby, the myriad options and conventions of the baths may take a bit of hacking through, but it’s all part of the fun, and you’re rewarded with a perfect way to let the exertions and bustle of the city float away. Plus a snazzy rapids-type-thing for when you’ve had enough of that.*Watch Kontroll (2003) for a David Lynch-esque take on the Budapest Metro. Weird and wonderful.
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