Last of three parts
The city of Budapest sits atop more than a hundred thermal springs. An early Celtic settlement in the area was named Ak-Ink ("abundant waters"). When the Romans arrived, they renamed the settlement Aquincum and built several extensive baths. In the 16th century, the Turks added their steam baths, and about a dozen historic bath sites remain in operation today.
In this, our second visit to Budapest, we stayed at the Grand Hotel Margitsziget, which sits on an island in the Danube between the cities of Buda and Pest. The island itself is the result of thermal spring waters pushing their way to the surface, thus providing the area with a multitude of thermal and medicinal water spas.
The island is the home of both the classic Grand Hotel (1879) and the contemporary Thermal Hotel (1979), a vast public outdoor pool complex, along with the Hungarian Olympic Swimming Federation complex.
The Margitsziget spa is undergoing total refurbishing. To date, the swimming pool, showers, changing rooms, steam bath, saunas and aromatherapy room (low steam with a difference) have taken on the look of a hedonist’s dream. To come are new facilities for medical, dental, massage, underwater massage, mud pack, ultrasound and other treatments too numerous to mention. The physical training room will contain the latest and best conditioning equipment available in Europe and the United States.
The showpiece of the complex is three thermal pools filled with medicinal waters. The hot pool water is kept at 38 degrees Centigrade (100.4 Fahrenheit), and you are limited to 15 minutes' exposure. The medium pool is 34 to 36 degrees C. (about 93 to 97 F.), and the warm pool, 32 degrees C. (86.6 F.).
The spa is known for its thermal traction treatment that involves the patient by the head in a medium pool, thereby loosening the spine and providing neurological relief. All treatments are under the direction of a physician.
Comparison spa-hopping
We visited the Helia Hotel in Pest to compare its spa facilities and programs. This hotel is also on the banks of the Danube and much more accessible to public transport than the island hotels. It has three major pools for soaking and a rather small physical conditioning room.
The pools are arranged similarly to those of the Margitsziget, but the ambience is not as open and luxurious. While most of the same services are offered, they do not seem to be of the same scope at the Helia due to the more cramped quarters and thus a higher use density.
We also visited the Hotel Gellert (1928) and attached public baths (1918). One enters the spa complex from a side street, paying the appropriate fees to the two cashiers at the entrance. The facilities and treatments are posted on four-foot lists, with an English translation on one wall.
Even with the translation, however, one needs the assistance of a spa habitué to understand just what is entailed. The complex has four primary venues: a unisex indoor swimming pool; men’s thermal spa, massage etc.; women’s thermal spa, massage etc.; and the outdoor facilities.
Swimming in the unisex and outdoor pools requires suitable bathing attire. The indoor pool is one of the most elegant, classic swimming areas imaginable. It has mosaic tile frescoes, Florentine balconies, sculptured marble columns and glass accents that all take swimmers back in time to century-ago excesses. The outdoor pools extend out from the grand deck, an ocean of water in the main pool, where Europe’s first wave machine is turned on for 10 minutes every hour on the hour during the summer.
It is in the public spa pools, however, where one is really transported back in time. Access to the complex is via a set of creaky wooden stairs that come out on a balcony of changing rooms with cots and lockers. A roving attendant leads you to an open cubicle and hands you a square of bleached muslin with a thong. Unless you prefer the constraints of a bathing suit, you put your clothes and accessories in the locker and tie the apron in front of your privates.
When you step out of the cubicle, the attendant returns and locks the locker, giving you an aluminum tag which somehow signifies that your possessions are secure. You then attach the tag to your thong and take the stairs back down to the main floor for a shower before entering the pools area.
I had a good time playing with the shower controls until I figured out you had to push in on the knob before twisting. This action activates the instant electric water heater in the shower head, allowing cold water to enter and hot water to come out.
In the pool area were two pools: hot (38 C/100.4 F) and warm (34 C/93.2 F). Each is about 25 to 30 feet square. There are benches along two sides, the stairway along another, and a large lion’s head spouting thermal water on the fourth. The entire area is mosaic tile and stone carvings. Three spouts come out of the lion’s mouth, and there is a pecking order to standing under the flow.
Foam, steam and back to reality
Past the pools were the massage room and the Turkish bath. In the massage room were half dozen stainless steel benches and a masseur. The masseur spread some foam on the patient for lubrication and began his routine. You could contract for a massage of 15, 30 or 60 minutes.
I never saw the Turkish bath — the steam was too thick. The room appeared to be about 15 feet square, with benches on one wall. The floor had a wooden grate to protect your feet and mosaic tile surfaces. I decided it was smart to turn my apron around and sit on it in the bath, given the hot surface of the bench.
When you are ready to return to the real world, you take a final shower and exchange your apron for a towel. Then you climb back up stairs and signal for the attendant to open your locker, hand over your aluminum disk, don your clothes and exit.
According to my wife, the women’s baths are similar except the women receive a slightly larger apron, which is almost triangular. She says the dowagers were evident with their jewelry, and the younger women were conspicuous by their attempts at modesty. I can only imagine.
After taking the waters, I highly recommend a stop at the drink bar for an excellent Hungarian beer or other liquid. Beer is relatively new to Hungary, and the populace has taken to it with a vengeance. The local brew is very light — a surprise to me, given the German, Dutch and Scandinavian tendency toward strong and bitter brews.
Soaking in thermal waters for an hour or so a day can definitely be habit forming. And that's without even getting into the daily massages, mud packs, underwater jet massage, ultrasound and other treatments. For them all, you can't beat Budapest.


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