Széchenyi Fürdö: A Hungarian Bath Experience, Part Two

Miss Part 1? Read it here.

We entered in the indoor portion of the baths, separate rooms filled with pools of different, very specific temperatures, and of various shapes…and with people of interesting tastes in bathing suits. I quickly scanned the crowd, searching for a familiar face. Not seeing anyone, we flip-flopped outside and played, “who -can-find-our-friends-first?” (a riveting game, I tell you), and, of course, I lost.

Where’s Waldo?

I shed my flip-flops, stepping gingerly on the wet cement with the only the outsides of my feet, applying the faulty logic that if I walk this way, foot fungus will be averted. I continued my awkward, penguin-like walk until I reached the edge of the water and attempted a graceful, swan-like glide into the water. Ahem, “graceful”.

The water was quite warm, too warm for such a hot day. I watched the sunblock I had carefully applied earlier form unctuous pools on the surface of the water. As I treaded the water, I thought back to fifth grade swimming lessons, where we learned different ways to tread water and little 12 year-old me imagined, in my worst case scenario mindset, how I would use these techniques when I was stranded in the middle of the cold ocean after the ship I was on sank (I swear I’m not dramatic). I tried scissor-kicking, the egg beater, and doggie paddle, before admitting defeat.

The mineral baths…clientele representative of those whom I saw on my visit. (source)

We headed to the much-cooler indoor pools, selecting a mineral filled bath that made my skin tingle. There was no need to tread water here; I happily stood, flat-footed, like a normal member of society. We were clumped in the center of the pool, feeling a bit like the center of attention on the dance floor. Being the center of attention was the absolute last thing I wanted in this situation, so I was relieved when someone quipped: “Anyone up for the sauna?”

Wanting to try it, I fell in rank as we marched over to the steam-filled inferno. And was it ever an inferno. Dark wooden benches lined the sides of the small room, as a smoking, charcoal pit-like oven spewed hot steam. Almost immediately I was hit with what felt like a hot, wet rag. I tried to breathe, but the hot air burned my mouth and lungs, a slow tingle I desperately tried to fight. My skin wasted no time in turning on the faucet, as streams of sweat ran down my body. I had the feeling I was being steamed alive. This was nothing like the relaxing sauna I’d experienced in the U.S.; it was like comparing a mile to a marathon.

Just as I felt I couldn’t take it anymore, one of the girls headed out, and I scurried after. I was instructed to jump into a shockingly cold pool of water and feel my “heart jump” from the sudden change in temperature. Yes, just what I wanted, a self-induced heart attack! Instead, I eased myself into the frigid pool, sinking up to my neck before calling it a day.

I spent the next hour flitting from pool to pool, feeling like Goldilocks as I deemed the pool “too hot” or “too cold,” before settling on a “just right” 34C. As I hung by the edge of the pool, I people watched, observing the Hungarians in their natural element. “You’ve got to go in this sauna,” my friend prodded, “It has menthol in it!” I hesitated, as I was pretty sure I wanted to continue living after today and not be steamed to death, but the menthol did sound intriguing. Besides, my favorite chap stick was the tingly mint kind, and the sauna would surely be the same thing, right? I assured myself with this heuristic and confidently nodded my head.

“Here goes nothing,” I thought as I pulled open the door and was greeted by warm, minty mist. Huh, it wasn’t terrible. It reminded me of standing in a mist of my favorite peppermint tea, albeit surrounded by strange people that I could barely make out through the fog. Apparently my tolerance for saunas is quite low, as I twiddled my thumbs waiting for my friend to be finished. My sinuses were sufficiently cleared, and I felt awkward standing in the middle of a foggy room, so I stepped out and into the vestibule, which held showers to rinse off. I quickly twirled under the showerhead, toweled off, and headed back to the locker room. A private changing room and dry outfit later, I stepped out the door from my Hungarian bath christening.

The lemon-yellow entrance/exit to the baths

“That was fun, ” I thought, not regretting my decision. My skin felt significantly softer and refreshed. I could see myself doing this regularly, minus the first sauna and plus some gym time. As the bright afternoon sun created abstract art on the sidewalk through the trees, I smiled and thought, “This is the life.”

And I’m happy to report, three weeks later, not a spot of foot fungus to be found. Must have been all that precarious walking on the sides of my feet.

Have you ever visited a bath?
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Széchenyi Fürdő: A Hungarian Bath Experience, Part 1

Thermal baths.

I looked up from the Budapest thermal baths’ website and rolled the idea around in my mind, already filled with horrible images of clothing-optional areas and the foot fungus I’d potentially contract from sharing the wet, bacteria-breeding bath floors, not to mention the fact that this required me to wear a bathing suit in public.

“Nope,” I quickly decided. “Not for me. Maybe I’ll just get a massage or something…” I immediately retracted my statement when I found out that my American modesty was no match for the Hungarians’ lack thereof on the massage table.

Still, it seemed like I was being urged left and right to go. “Oh, you’re going to Budapest? You must visit the baths and the ruin bars. So cool.” I smiled weakly, still imagining the anti-fungal creams I’d be soon purchasing at the pharmacy. Soon it became a non-question. My trepidations stood against the enthusiasm of the others, a David vs. Goliath where Goliath won. Like it or not, we were going, foot fungus and all.

A few days later I begrudgingly packed my bag for the baths, slumping around and dropping each item, flip-flops, sunblock, towel, bathing suit, in slow motion into the bag. I was not especially looking forward to the changing rooms, after reading a particularly harrowing experience involving old women and the lack of a private changing room. I played out all the worst case scenarios in my head as I ticked away stop after stop on the subway, whose somber, industrial screechings stood in as the soundtrack to my impending doom. (Was I being too dramatic? Let’s not answer that…)

The train jerked to a halt and spewed garbled Hungarian, indicating the stop. Listening for something that resembled “Széchenyi Fürdő” (the Széchenyi baths), I was unsatisfied with what sounded like “shechosngoidgiu-do” and looked out into the station. Yes, this was it. I took a breath and stepped off the train, bravely, walking my plank.

Aerial view of the baths (source)

For 3,550 florints (or the equivalent of 10 euro…or the equivalent of $15 USD), I was handed a clothes hanger and a plastic watch-like apparatus that resembled one I may have gotten as a child. I marched into the changing rooms, prepared for the worst, but when I saw separate, private changing rooms, the waters of my fear receded a bit. Whew.

I placed my things in a locker and used the watch to lock it, by pressing it on and into a button on the locker. “Fancy,” I thought to myself. Things were already looking up.

I rejoined my friend, and we set off to find our other friends, located somewhere in the labyrinth of the baths.

to be continued