Budapest Part 2 – Széchenyi Baths

I have to tell you I just wasn’t sure of this.

In spite of all my pretensions of being the hip Bangalore girl, prancing about in swim wear in front of thousands of people, was just not my thing. No, I was not entering the Miss India swim suit round. And yes, I still have the middle class Indian ‘body image’ issues which invite ridicule from the Cosmopolitan-reading, Sex and the City – fashionista in me. I do wear a swim suit when I go swimming in the pool (err change that to wading), but I always look for a robe or a towel the moment I am out of the pool. (I know, I know – its very uncool, but that’s a completely different post).

So, yes, this was extremely difficult for me, and one major reason why I chose to do it.  Of course, it also helped that I was really exhausted with all the walking I had done so far on the trip, and a thermal spa would really help those aching muscles, wouldn’t it? Besides I had one additional day in Budapest, and this was something I usually wouldn’t do – so what the heck!

So along with history and architecture, Budapest is also known for it’s thermal baths. (It’s also called the City of Baths). No, these are not like the modern spas in India, where we usually go looking for privacy and relaxation. These are traditional, communal baths that are fed by the water from thermal and medicinal water springs. There are more than 100 such thermal springs within the city. So yes, the decision made, my next question was – so which one do I go to?

With the whole “being conscious about my body” thing, I immediately looked for a place which had separate baths for both genders (in true Indian style). I did some research, and found that there were “males only” options for guys, but not really for women. The reviews for the “males only” spas were hilarious to stay the least. Anyway, I decided to give up on the internet, and ask the locals. My landlady voted for Széchenyi Baths and so did the tourism office next to my apartment. Széchenyi Baths (pronounced as Se-she-ni) was the largest and oldest bath is Budapest with 18 indoor pools out of which 15 are fed by thermal water springs. It also had two huge outdoor pools for those who wanted to soak up the sun.

I looked at the building doubtfully. Not only was I unsure about the bathing, this building definitely was not my idea of a thermal bath. It looked more like a palace, or well, at least a museum or art gallery.

My first look at the Szechenyi baths - Doesn't the building look like a palace?

My first look at the Szechenyi baths – Doesn’t the building look like a palace?

The building has a huge baroque dome, intricately carved pillars, a grandiose entrance, and a well-maintained but bland garden in front of it. So if you are already not intimidated, well hello – we have some spectacular architecture which would make you to turn back and run to the metro station, where you were earlier lost for 45 minutes. I straightened my spine and reminded myself of my new resolution this year – “you have to learn to conquer fear”; it of course helped that I am stingy, and that I had I had already paid for the day-long ticket and also booked a massage.

The grand entrance, the baroque dome, and the garden

The grand entrance, the baroque dome, and the garden

I walked in. This wasn’t so bad, I told myself. It was afternoon and there were not too many people in the lobby. Maybe I could manage. One of the staff members came forward, introduced herself, and very kindly explained how the day pass worked. So with a day pass, I was allowed full access to all the pools – indoor and outdoor, all day long. I was given a wrist band which looked more like a watch, but which functioned as an access card. Once I went inside, the wrist band would allow me access to a small cabin where I could change and leave my luggage. (There are options to take a cabin or a locker. The locker means that you could leave your stuff in the locker, but you would have to change in a public area. With the cabin option, you get a small wooden dressing area similar to the changing rooms in a garment shop.) Not knowing my history with maps, the poor guys also gave me a map which highlighted the entire layout of the building. Sigh!

About to enter the building, I realized that I hadn’t asked about swim suits. You see, me being me, I had forgotten to get my swim suit, and was now hoping to buy a new one. Okay, the prices were a bit over the top, but the bigger problem was that they mostly had bikinis, and if you have seen me, you really don’t want me to buy one. Looking at the prices of the 3 one-piece suits I found, I gave up on the idea, and inquired about renting a suit (Ugghh I know, but well, beggars can’t be choosers). Thankfully, they did have a facility for renting swimsuits and towels and I happily crossed the security gate using my wrist band. Feeling a lot more happier and confident, I followed the directions in the map to reach the rental counter.

And ran. All the way up.

Well, at the bottom of the stairs, it was the men’s changing room, and there were a whole set of men in various state of undressing, all happily chatting while I gaped at them like a deer caught in a spot light. I was now convinced that I had once again missed the directions, and had therefore gone to the wrong place. So leaving the map aside, I asked a staff member, only to be told that for once I had figured the map correctly. Yay! “Oh the rental counter is right past the men’s changing room”, she said innocently. I nodded and muttered my thanks.

It was alright actually. I retraced my steps, walked down the stairs, passed all those men without managing to gape, and finally reached the rental counter. After giving the security deposit, the guy at the counter handed over a very respectable black suit. Good one, but a size smaller I think. Still if the guy thought I was thin, I really couldn’t fault him, could I? Armed with a bigger one, I finally walked back, found my cabin, changed, took a deep breath and stepped out.


Walking into the open area at the center of the building, I realized how misled I was. There were 2 huge pools, actually maybe 3, and there were tons of people in them. A lot more of them were lounging on deck chairs, reading or listening to music as they sipped their beers. This was the moment of big truth. I put my bare feet on to the hot cement floor and walked right into the melee.

And nothing happened. Really. Nothing happened.

Nobody looked at me. Nobody moved from their seats. People still swam without looking up. Conversations continued.  Children played. Whatever I was expecting, this wasn’t it. Okay, so I was not thinking drum rolls, but I wasn’t expecting total indifference either. It was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I walked up and down and across, looking at the pools and the people and the architecture, and absorbed it all. While crowds and buildings are not usually my thing, there’s a delicious freedom in the anonymity of crowds. Nobody knew me, nobody was looking at me, and yet I was a part of this day, this scene, this moment – it was a good feeling. After exploring the outside pools, I thought it was high time I went to the main course – the 18 indoor thermal pools. I walked in and it was a different world. The building was obviously old, but well-maintained. Midst the high ceilings, intricate carvings, and long windows, there were a series of pools with varying sizes and water temperature. (The water temperature is mentioned on the walls) Each pool had seats around the edges along which people were soaking, relaxing, and sleeping in some cases.

One of the indoor pools (Pic - courtesy creative commons flick)

One of the indoor pools (Pic – courtesy creative commons flick)

I walked along the entire length of the building, suddenly completely unaware of my flimsy clothing, but wondering if there was an etiquette to getting into the pool. Well, if there was, maybe this was the time to learn. After a quick shower, I put my toes into one of the warm pools, and then slowly lowered myself into pool. Holding on to the hand rails, I walked to one of the corners, found a seat next to an old man and sat down. It was heaven. The water felt warm and languorous and soothing – was this really what I was scared of? This beautiful, floating feeling? The day had got much much better. I tried out three more pools, noticing that almost everybody was doing the same – spend time in one pool, get out, towel yourself, walk to the next, and soak again. Somewhere in the middle of my dreamy state, I suddenly remembered that I had booked a massage at 4 pm. I looked at the clock, saw 3.40, and was grateful there was enough time to find the massage rooms.

So I thought.

Since I had figured the map correctly once, It was incumbent that this time I should totally fail. I settled down to human interaction, and asked one of the staff members hanging out near the pools. Turns out she wasn’t really a staff member, but worked for one of the massage companies, but not the one where I had booked for my massage. She didn’t know where I was supposed to go, but she gave me a few possibilities. I tried following them, and again was hopelessly lost. After 10 mins I found another staff member, who happened to be more knowledgeable, and this time he gave me really precise directions. Thank God! Err, no. I swear followed his instructions word by word, but I was no where close to where I was supposed to be. Enough is enough, I told myself. I remembered the hubby’s words – “Stop. Make a mental layout. Think of which direction you came from. Think of markers close to you. Logically eliminate possibilities, and you will find the way.” Big words. But I gave it a go. I stepped out to the internal courtyard, looked carefully at the windows and pillars, closed my eyes, mentally retraced my path, peered at my map, and then started walking. Maybe there is something to the hubby’s logic? Because I came quite close to where I originally started. After a few twists and turns and an old fashioned staircase, I came up to this really posh, modern, well-designed reception. I silently thanked my stars and mentally did a hula dance in selecting such a nice massage place.

Wrong again. Apparently this was another company’s massage room, and no, they couldn’t interchange the vouchers.

By this time it was past 4 pm and I was on verge of tears and wondering if this massage was really worth all this stress. No, I wasn’t going to give up. I decided to go back all the way to the entrance and ask a staff member  to accompany me to the massage room. I bounded down the stairs, stubbed my toe in the process, and then ran all the way to the entrance lobby. I think this time people definitely looked. Well, if you see a harried looking ..err..large human being in a black swim suit, and a bright green towel running …gracefully..on those slippery floors, you would look, wouldn’t you? Anyway, I walked over to the lobby – in my swimsuit (and I am sooo proud of this) – and insisted that one of the staff members take me all the way to the massage rooms. It is to their credit that they didn’t blink at my weird request and that one of the girls actually took me to the room. It was the door right next to where I had started, next to where the first lady I had asked. Sigh!

Running around in these passages sure was fun! :D

Running around in these passages sure was fun! 😀 (pic courtesy Flickr creative commons

The rooms were functional and clean, but definitely not pretty or artistic. I was in no mood to complain; all I could do was tumble on to the table in exhaustion. The masseuse said hello and then settled down to silence. Only to break it a few minutes later as she rubbed my calves. “Chubby”, she said. Now what could you possibly say to that? I made some kind of noise and settled down to hurt silence. But the massage was quite quite good. It was soothing and…just right. Usually, I get pounded in Ayurveda messages, and with aromatherapy massages, the fragrance soothes me more than the actual massage. This was just right.

After the massage, I went back to all the pools and soaked myself all over again. Maybe I should do this more often I thought. At the end of every trip, schedule some TLC for the aching muscles. As I waved my arms in the water and played around, my muscles gently nodded their agreement. And so the day passed. At around 7 pm, I reluctantly pulled myself out of the water, changed, returned the wrist band and walked out of the spa. As I walked back to the station, I met this Indian couple with a child in a stroller. We were right next to the building, but like me, they obviously didn’t think that this could be the famous thermal bath. Like a veteran, I explained. It was too late for them – the spa is open till 10 pm, but they don’t allow new visitors after 6 pm.

I got lost again on the way back to the metro station. It’s a 5 min walk, but I spend half an hour. Oh well, if it got too tiring, I could come back again, couldn’t I? I was now a spa convert after all. 😀

 Also read:

Budapest part 1

The olympic size pool where people actually swam!

The olympic size pool where people actually swam!

10 comments for “Budapest Part 2 – Széchenyi Baths

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.