GW Expat: Bathing in Budapest

BUDAPEST, Hungary

Every time I have visitors in town, a trip to one of Budapest’s many thermal baths is high on the list of things to do. Budapest has more than 100 thermal springs, which have been used for therapeutic purposes by both locals and visitors for more than 2,000 years. Not until the Turkish occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries did bathing complexes come into their own.

There are two main types of baths in the town- – the Turkish baths and the Hapsburg baths. It was to the former that Robbie, a GW student visiting from London, and I planned on going. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find my bathing suit anywhere in my apartment. After a very comprehensive search, a phone call to a visitor from last week established that it had disappeared in a windstorm while it was drying on the balcony rail.

“Why don’t you just wear your boxer briefs to the bath?” Robbie suggested. He said all the guys in Europe just wear Speedos anyway and that my briefs would just look like Euro trunks.

“I guess it’s better than nothing. I don’t know if they’ll like that though. Don’t you think people will find it a little weird that I’m walking into the baths in my underwear?”

“Come on, Dan, it’s worth a shot,” he said.

I figured he was probably right, so we headed out to the baths. When we got there, the lobby was filled with men waiting to get in. Rudas, the bath we had chosen to go to, is only co-ed on weekends. It was Friday, which was perhaps a little disappointing but surely an insignificant hurdle. I had been here once before on a co-ed day, and there was not anything particularly different about it. Or so I thought.

After a quick trip to the locker room to change, we hit the showers and followed the smell of sulfur to the baths. We arrived in the large, humid, dimly lit room, which is absolutely beautiful – nearly every architectural element is original from the 16th century, with the only updates being those necessary to keep the building from collapsing. There are a few areas where the original plumbing is exposed behind glass for those interested as much in the architecture as in the bathing experience.

There was something slightly more eye-catching about the interior of the bathhouse. Not only was it immediately obvious why the baths are men-only for most of the week, but my concerns about the potential inappropriateness of my “Euro trunks” were proven to be completely unfounded.

Almost every single man in the baths was clad in only a small loin cloth held on by a thin string tied right above the butt cheeks, which were freely displayed to the world. The loin cloths were also made of white cotton, which, when wet, is clearly useless. It was the first time I’ve ever felt overdressed at a swimming pool.

Despite the loincloths, we quickly fell into the ritual of the baths. This involves first a quick dip in the pool at the center of the room which is moderately warm and feels much like a comfortable bath at home. There are four more pools located in the corners of the room. The first of these is scalding hot, so hot that at first you do not expect to be able to stay in it for long, but eventually of course you don’t want to leave. After the hot pool, you run into the sauna, followed by a jump into ice-cold water. Once you have punished yourself enough, you cycle through three other pools, all kept at varying degrees of “cool.” Repeat once and you have the recipe for the start of a beautifully relaxed weekend. Oh, and they make a great hangover cure too.

Awkward loincloths aside, the baths are a fantastic experience and one of the treasures of Budapest. Maybe one day we could get something like that in America, but until then I think I will cram as much inexpensive spa time in as I can here.

-Daniel Doty is a junior majoring in international affairs. He is studying for the semester at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

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