Immersing yourself in local life in Budapest? You’ll want to visit the baths — social bath houses built right smack on top of the city’s many hot mineral springs.
I know, I know. Bath houses. In Atlanta — in most of America — “bath houses” exist, but the men who go there aren’t much interested in bathing. But America is not the world, and in many parts of the world — particularly those influenced by the Turks — bath houses are just that: steamy communal spaces where people bob around in hot mineral water for strictly therapeutic reasons.
In Budapest, modern bath houses welcome men and women (and potty-trained children, too, if you can bear thinking about the implications). In order to make more money, most Hungarian bath houses have abandoned the ancient practice of segregating the sexes, allowing several hundred tourists of every gender to bob shoulder to shoulder with other river cruise passengers at baths like Gellert and Czechenyi:
Photo from gellertspa.com, credited to DDanzig Photography
When we told acquaintances in Budapest we wanted a less crowded, more authentic, more local experience, they unanimously recommended Rudas (say “Roo-dash”) Baths. Built in the 1500’s during the Turkish occupation of Hungary, Rudas has added modern facilities, including a neo-Renaissance complex with a rooftop pool. But at its core, the five hundred year-old thermal baths remain.
If you go to Budapest, I want you to go to the baths. To make that easier for you, I want to share what I learned on our first visit.
First: know when to go. Unlike the other baths in Budapest, Rudas still (mostly) honors the idea of gender-segregated baths. They admit only men on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. They admit only women on Tuesdays.
You can do what the church leaders of my youth called “Mixed Bathing” (ah, the joys of fundamentalism!) on Saturday and Sunday. If you’re a Millennial, you might be interested in Friday and Saturday disco bath nights, when males and females splash around together under a frenetic light show. (When bathing is mixed, swimsuits are required.)
Image from www.budapestgyogyfurdoi.hu
Second: If you read about Rudas online, you will hear three things repeated over and over again:
1) The facility is spotlessly clean. (It is.)
2) The ancient thermal bath, with its domed ceiling punctuated with jewel-toned lenses, is dripping with authentic atmosphere. (It is.)
3) The menu of services is bewildering, the building is a confusing maze of twisty little passages all alike, and the staff is exceptionally rude. (All of this is true, too.)
We arrive prepared for all these things. After pushing our way through the tall glass doors, Clyde and I find ourselves in what might as well be the lobby of an upscale 1990’s-era YMCA. Ahead of us: a snack bar. To our left: a huge menu of services in English and Hungarian. To our right: a row of plexiglass ticket booths, each containing one of the sulkiest, most unfriendly people you’ll ever meet.
We take several minutes to peer at the menu, where every single service is both listed individually and in every possible combination with all the others. The result is a menu with dozens of options: thermal baths only; thermal baths with pool; thermal baths with pool and health facility; thermal baths with pool and health facility and twenty-minute water massage; thermal baths with pool and health facility and thirty-minute water massage; pool only; pool and health facility only — you get the idea.
To make matters worse, you have to decide, in advance, which services you want (and pay for them) before you enter. Once you enter, you can’t spontaneously sign up for a massage or pool access.
Suffice it to say that someone at Rudas would do well to go to the local McDonald’s and bone up on the marketing benefits of “combos.” But this would make the menu friendly to tourists — and, as you’ll learn quickly, being tourist-friendly is not part of Rudas’ corporate mission. So, to make things easier, I’ll narrow your choices down for you:
1) Thermal baths only. If you’re short on time or looking for something really unique, this is all you need. (About twelve bucks, and you can stay as long as you like.)
2) Thermal baths plus pool. If you want to do some regular swimming, this adds access to their perfectly mundane swimming pool. You’ll have to wear a bathing cap; if you don’t have one, they’ll sell you one for next to nothing. (About fifteen bucks.)
Rudas Pool. (Photo courtesy en.rudasfurdo.hu)
3) The “All-In” Ticket. This is their “go anywhere, do anything” package. It’s about twenty bucks.
If you’re in the mood for that kind of thing, a rough massage on a hard table alongside others getting the same treatment runs an additional twelve to twenty-one bucks, based on length. There are also “Luxury VIP Massages” in private rooms — and there’s no hanky-panky, no cheap champagne, and no lap dance involved, no matter how often you’ve seen that label applied to those activities in the States. These run about fifty bucks an hour.
Oh — you’ll also either want to bring towels, or rent them up front. (More on this later, heh heh heh. Foreshadowing!)
At the ticket booth, we meet a broad-faced, wide-bodied man in a too-tight white polo shirt. Between us is a thick wall of plexiglass with a radial pattern of air holes drilled into it; based on the glare he gives us as we approach him, my guess is that the plexiglass is for the customer’s protection.
We choose the thermal baths only. Without once making eye contact, he prices this, takes our money, gives us each a plastic watch with no face — a gizmo used to lock the lockers and control access to various parts of the baths.
Once through the small doorway, we’re in an antechamber with many signs and many arrows, all pointing in conflicting directions. A gleaming steel and glass elevator on the right catches our eye, and a promising sign there mentions changing rooms and other amenities. But on the left we can see a warren of tiny cabins — like department store changing rooms, but with polished wooden doors.
(Photo courtesy en.rudasfurdo.hu)
Which way do we go?
I walk back outside and ask Ticket Booth Man, “Which way do we go?”
The lobby is empty. There are no other patrons. From his response, though, you’d think I had pushed my way in front of a thousand other people and asked him to physically carry me to the thermal pools on his back. He points with one hand and waves me away with the other. “Left!” he hollers. “Left!”
After figuring out that our plastic watches operate the turnstile and admit us to the changing cabins (“Beep!”), we find ourselves with another decision: which cabin? We pick cabins 50 and 51, step inside, take off all our clothes, and put on the koteny — what online reviewers euphemistically call our “modesty garment.” It’s essentially a tiny apron, tied around the waist, with one thin, handkerchief-sized square of cotton to cover one’s more bulbous parts. There’s nothing in back besides a bow — leaving your best assets exposed for all to see.
Suitably dressed — or undressed — We try and try to lock the cabins with our bracelets. Nothing works. The locks keep flashing red. I look around and find a steward fast asleep on a stool in a corner. “Can you help with the lockers?”
My question startles him awake. “Yes! Yes!” He jumps up. He bypasses our lockers and takes us to a sensor — something that looks a bit like those time clocks factory workers punch in and out of — all but hidden on one wall.
He motions for Clyde hold his plastic wristwatch up to the plate for “long, long time.” Seconds pass. Finally, the LCD display flashes a cabin number: 15. It is not the one Clyde has used. I go through the routine, too, and get cabin 125.
We retrieve our things from the cabins we used and truck them to the cabins we are supposed to have used. Clyde has a pretty easy time of this. But my cabin’s number 125 … and the cabins run out at 80 or so. There simply isn’t a 125.
I go back to the man on the stool — who is, once again, napping. “Where is cabin 125?”
He looks at me like I’m a complete idiot. He points past all the cabins I can see. “Three rows down. Turn right. Take the hallway. Down the stairs. You will see.”
It’s a long journey — but I do find the cabin, stow my stuff, and lock it up. When I step out of the cabin, there’s Clyde, in his modesty garment, waiting for me, grinning.
From there, we figure the baths must be in the opposite direction of the entrance. There are many signs with many arrows pointing in many directions. Finally, we find a little passage into a shower room, where we’re expected to shower before entering the thermal pools. The water is hot, the showers have high pressure, and the process makes those thin, cotton modesty garments extra clingy.
(Photo courtesy en.rudasfurdo.hu)
We step through an arched entryway and into the dome — and suddenly, instantly, I realize all our effort getting here has been worth it.
(Photo courtesy en.rudasfurdo.hu)
Above us: the dome, held aloft by massive stone columns and studded with colored glass. Shafts of red, green, gold, and blue light shoot down into the gloom of a cavernous bathing vault that’s been welcoming bathers like us for more than five hundred years. This is not some faux-painted grotto in a Disney spa. This is the sort of atmosphere and texture no one can fake.
There is one large central pool, fed by a vaguely penis-shaped fountain perched on one edge. (No, I’m not kidding.) In the four corners of the room are four other pools of varying temperatures, from chilly to blisteringly hot.
Which brings us to the men in the room. There are perhaps twenty-five or thirty men here. (It would take twice that many, by the way, for the space to feel crowded.) The youngest men are in their twenties; the eldest are in their nineties.
Most of the men, though, are in their fifties and sixties — and most have clearly been coming here for years. The sleekest are two tourists, tall and thin. The largest may weigh four hundred pounds, with a great, lobed, sloping belly that doubles as his personal privacy garment. In between these extremes are men of every possible shape and size.
They know each other. They greet each other with European cheek-to-cheek kisses. They lounge around on the stone steps that descend into the central pool, talking business or shooting the breeze.
Their voices rise up and reverberate on the dome, changing the atmosphere. The room is neither tranquil nor sensual; instead, it’s social. The message is clear: this is a place to be yourself. No gawking. No attitude. No self-consciousness. No one welcomes us; no one resents us. We are just two more bodies becoming one with the water.
We slide into the steaming central pool step by step, the water rising up and enveloping us in slick, mineral warmth. The pool is chest deep, with the minerals imparting a surprising degree of buoyancy. For a while, we do as some others do, hopping around in lazy circles in the center of the pool. But after doing this a while, we follow the majority example: lounging on the wide stone steps, half-in and half-out of the water, alternately talking or dozing.
(Photo courtesy en.rudasfurdo.hu)
About half-way through our stay, two nervous-looking American guys — tall, lean, early twenties, with gym-toned bodies — enter the room. Their eyes are large as eggs. They use the palms of their hands to anchor their modesty garments in place. They move around the room with mincing little sideways steps, keeping their bare buttocks toward the bath’s outer walls.
They seem to both hope and fear that they will be the center of attention. When they are roundly ignored — the men here are not here to be gawked at, nor are they interested in gawking at others — the boys seem disappointed or offended. With time, though, they step into the water — and everything changes. They settle down. They relax. They blend in.
And this is the magic of the baths. With everyone mostly naked (or simply naked — many of the men just put their modesty garments aside once they’re soaked with water), a sort of physical democracy sets in. Yes, some men are fat. Yes, some men are skinny. But there is power in knowing that your body is neither the best nor the worst in the room — and that no one in the room cares where you fall along that spectrum. You are one with the water, and one with the men. It’s an oddly spiritual experience.
I don’t believe there’s anything like this at home — maybe nothing like it in America. To be such a Puritanical society — perhaps because we are such a Puritanical society — Americans are quick to sexualize everything. Could there ever be a space in, say, Atlanta, where men could go, just to relax and rejuvenate and talk and escape from standards and expectations? I’m talking about the kind of place you wouldn’t hesitate to go with friends — a place you might be eager to go, with no worries ever that the other people there have arrived with judgmental attitudes or the expectation of lewd behavior. I don’t know. I don’t think so. And that’s a loss — for our culture and for our men.
About two and a half hours later, when our fingers start to pucker, we decide it’s time to go. We shower again to remove the bath water — and then discover our second big mistake: when we bought our ticket, we didn’t rent towels. As a result, we pad around like dripping wet rats for several minutes, wondering exactly what we’re going to do.
Our salvation comes in the form of the “Relaxation Room” — a silent, sunlit space with twenty heated leather benches. You walk in. You lie down. You cast your sopping-wet privacy garment aside. After twenty minutes or so, you’re as dry as can be.
(Photo courtesy en.rudasfurdo.hu)
Back to the cabins. Back into clothes. Back on the street.
I feel years younger. That annoying knot of pain I carry at the base of my neck is gone. That nagging hot line of pain that usually runs along the arch of my right foot is gone. I feel better and more confident about my body in general.
Colors seem brighter; the breeze seems cooler. I’m in Budapest, and I’ve been to the baths.
You should set your fears and self-consciousness aside. You should bravely confront the rudest staff in the world. You should go to Budapest, baptize yourself in the steaming water, and emerge with a clearer soul.