I was feeling a little like Grace Kelly in this moment; by no means in looks (bar the blonde), just in momentary ambience and action. I was in a 1950esque wooden and woven cane locker room. The kind reminiscent of vintage Thonet Bentwood rocking chairs. I know this because my mum had two of them. I am in a locker room (öltözo) at the Rudas baths (Rudas fürdő) in Budapest, changing into swimwear. My mind’s view of my body dictates that I should be slipping into a tunic. In reality, I was putting on a bright pink bikini thanks to a frenzied rush through my wardrobe before leaving for my trip. Having not worn any bathing wear for some time, my wardrobe only provided ill-fitting numbers, or colours I had found fabulous in younger years. I had been provided a ‘bath sheet’ by the attendant, which felt more like a hospital gown — at least this pointed toward sterility. I wrapped it around me and it resembled a possessed kimono as I apprehensively exited the locker. A completely naked, middle-aged woman roamed past me. I averted my eyes to the ground out of courtesy but she seemed very nonchalant and relaxed. How refreshing.
The architecture of landlocked Budapest is a portrait of its history; cultural influences welcomed and imposed from neighbours and intruders. Its bath houses are no exception. The era of the Turkish empire laying primary influence on the Rudas and Király baths. The Hapsburg rule revealing its influence in the Art Nouveau Gellert baths and Baroque Széchenyi bathing complexes, and both neo Classicism and Ottoman design incorporated into the Irgalmasok Veli Bej construction. The Lukács baths reveal numerous influences including Moorish and contemporary architecture and the Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget on Margaret Island is a modern accompaniment to the bathing culture in Budapest.
Some countries strip back everything, like a rebellious juvenile, remiss in their actions, focused only on the flash and the modern. Then exposed, there is no regaining the culture lost. Buildings are demolished, customs dissipate, neighbourhoods vacate and traditions are forgotten. Not Budapest. Budapest is an addictive composite; archived and innovative. A celebration of ruin and the renewed. Finally achieving democracy in 1989, Hungary is now part of the European Union and a signatory to the Schengen treaty, welcoming its freedom of choice in the current political landscape and enduringly free from officious totalitarianism.
The Rudas baths are on the Buda side of Budapest just near the Erzsebet bridge on the bank of the Danube River. Rudas are the only baths (at the time of writing) that offer gender-specific days for bath access, a Turkish commonality. Tuesday is ladies’ day for the thermal pool (termál uszoda) room and so here I stand. My partner, Ben, and I were in Budapest on a Tuesday (well-planned but not planned at all). So, while I shuffled him off to do what he does best, take photos with tunnel vision, I took some precious 30 minutes to trial the highly touted thermal bathing experience on a cloudy but humid afternoon.
The process of getting to a locker room had been a little trying, but as with many things, once the awkward introductions are out of the way one becomes an old hat. Expectedly, it began with a transaction; unexpectedly it also began with a complex information board of access options. 3200 Hungarian Forint down, entry purchase complete. Magnetised plastic wrist tag received. I walked through the small turnstile by scanning my wrist tag. There were cloaks draped to block all further vision. There was steam. There were low volume voices. I was nervous. Potential naked locker room movie scene awaiting. Raincheck on my facial expression. Relief flowed in as a room full of picturesque changing lockers revealed itself sans any debauchery. I wasn’t in the mood for fumbling and figuring things out so I approached an attendant. I began interrogating a young lady attendant as to how it all works in the most elegant and clear English I could muster, which always just sounds hopelessly Australian. She wasn’t sure in which direction the thermal bath was. She wasn’t sure why the wrist scanners weren’t working on the current lockers. She wasn’t sure of much — it was her first day. My Murphy’s law in action, but she was lovely. She led me to another room full of lockers and showed me how to work my wrist scanner on the changeroom locks. Retrospectively, I learnt that there are wall-mounted machines on which you can scan your magnetic wrist bracelet and it notifies you of which locker number you have been assigned. Amongst confusion, hesitant expressions and some broken English, the thermal bath itself turned out to be right next to the locker room we were standing in. Fabulous. The place was beginning to present as a bit of a labyrinth.
I was feeling an overwhelming pariah state of being. Intruder syndrome. A pauper approaching aristocrats or someone rambling during a formal discourse. Yet, I was also not prepared for how enthralled I would be with this experience. I was cavillous in my mind on two counts: (1) in myself — it had been a while since I’d donned a bikini, and bathing attire really knows how to highlight all the bits you’ve let fall by the wayside. I had plunged headfirst into my own timeline of invading fault lines, sagginess, parts I could grab and overhangs I didn’t request. I like cusps, but sitting on the cusp of middle age I do not enjoy; (2) in the bathing practice in Budapest — while traditional, it seems baths in Budapest have become very ‘touristy’. En masse visitation tends to breed unavoidable cheapening, people mills, destruction and elements of chaos. I suppose I was expecting it to be, well, almost tacky, as some photos online actually look.
You step through a small trough of water to enter. The thongs (flip flops) on my feet suddenly feeling very crass in such a primal environment. Out of respect, I didn’t take any photos. Admittedly, I was itching to — to savour the moment on later occasions. I did feel a little out of place in my garish triangles, but it didn’t take me long to realise that anything goes here… in attire anyway. I was thankful to this female herd that there were no judgemental side glances, the kind that only females are capable of. At least none that I noticed. My peripheral vision is lacking, oftentimes absent. I’m too much in my own head. Ben is known to affectionately remind me to keep my “periphs” on.
There was a humble mineral odour, not particularly pleasant, but at least not sulfurous like rotten eggs in school playgrounds. But then, thermal baths are not going to smell like meringues baking. The steam from the water gave the room a stunning deep ambience. The ceiling was like an elegant inverted disco ball, minus all and any tackiness — a dome with various holes allowing colours to stream in, cutting through the steam. The centre octagonal pool is maintained at 36°C and encircled by eight hefty pillars and takes on a beautiful turquoise appearance. A nice accompaniment to the charcoal and ivory masonry of much of the rest of the room. No current Google images of this bath do it justice, but its awe doesn’t slap you when you enter. It seeps in gently.
There are four corner baths with water streaming out of spouts, creating serene layered flowing sounds. Each corner bath is a slightly different temperature, thankfully signed with fitting ancient-looking (and probably actually ancient) temperature signs, 28°C, 30°C, 32°C & 42°C. Thank the Lord, no tacky plastic signage. For a moment (literally, as I was acutely aware of the short time period I had to meet Ben), I absorbed the intricate stonework of the ceiling of the thermal bathing room. No doubt there is meaning and mathematics and geometries and genius tied to it all. In these ancient foundations, there always is.
Anything may go apparel-wise but there is clearly an underwritten etiquette here. People are at their most vulnerable when exposed, both literally and figuratively, in body and in mind. Keeping verbal interaction to a soft volume and moving with care so as to cause minimal disturbance is expected. A place to come and relax for the purpose of calm and health, losing full inhibition would be a no-no. There is a clear unspoken respect for the bathing tradition here. I like this. There are customs. A canonical dance, and I at this point in time was a complete novice. It is expected that you shower in the allocated shower area for hygiene purposes prior to entering the bath (my bad) and the bath ‘aprons’ (kötény) are meant for draping over your front while bathing and turned to cover your back and bum-side while sitting anywhere throughout the general rooms. All of this I learnt retrospectively.
I was floating and I felt naive. This is matron territory. The privilege lies in the permitted snapshot, the knowledge of the ritual and the tactile participation. Ironically, my 1+clothing entry into the room made me feel more of a tart than the nude dames standing and wading before me. The play of the colours and the echo of sound retained within the space are to enhance a meditative atmosphere. It works. I pondered on the practice of bathing. Usually a chore, obviously for the purpose of cleaning. Nice when you get the odd time to soak in a tub, more pleasant in a custom-made, Turkish-style palace, even more pleasant when the water is customised to your heat liking and feels rejuvenating. It’s worth appreciating that some come for a solitary soak and others partake in a social gathering. There is no biased skew either way, as is so often with public activities.
There is also a drinking hall channelling water from the springs of Hungária, Attila and Juventus, which I regrettably did not visit. The ‘thermal’ waters are reputedly rich in calcium, magnesium, hydrogen-carbonate, sodium, sulphate and fluoride. I was surprised to notice how serene my skin felt after exiting the baths, not to the touch (that was just normal), just lovely as the skin I carry on me. Very addictive. Admittedly, upon arrival in Budapest I felt a few droplets of envy at the stunning clarity of the skin of Hungarians, actually Europeans in general. Kudos to meat, potato, bread and beer? Either way, perhaps these waters really do magically cleanse internally and externally over time. I really need a thermal bath in my house. I was later to learn how popular balneotherapy is now becoming.
The hot springs located around Hungarian villages were first utilised by the Romans. The first baths established were located in Buda when it was a separate city from Pest. The baths drew the mineral rich, ‘thermal’ water from these hot springs dotted around the region. Most of the existing Roman baths survived the turbulence of the Turkish occupation in the late 1600s. The Turkish then introduced their own baths, ‘Hamam’, and laid their influence in the reconstruction of the Rudas baths. The bathing culture took off throughout Hungary in these times, was doused in the 18th century but revived again in the late 19th century. Rudas underwent a second renovation in the early 1800s. Hapsburg defeated the Turks in 1686. When the Turks left Hungary, they gave the Rudas baths to Buda as a gift. In the early 1900s, it also became a medical facility. Germany invaded Hungary as part of WWII, during which the building was significantly damaged. In the 1950s, the building was restored, including the addition of a full medical ward.
Like Budapest itself, the bathing culture in Budapest has withstood destruction and historical turbulence. Now existing as an inimitable combination of the traditional, the refurbished and the new. And like the baths themselves, the bathing attendees are a mix of foreigners, young innovative locals and traditional natives. Teething foreigners who forget soap, appropriate footwear and expected etiquette (forgive us, there is a language barrier). We are in awe and sometimes silent in apprehension. Young locals respecting tradition and health, who perhaps amicably wax lyrical on The Dow, their colleagues and which eatery or club to venture to that night, or even the rearing of children. Mixed amongst seasoned matrons and patriarchs, enduring Magyars, who I can only assume would now relaxingly gab about grandchildren, lace making, politics, sport, chess moves and family.
I believe I have lost just enough inhibition to move up a rank to a unisex bathing experience on my next visit to Budapest. I will ignore all scoffs from the many of you who willingly embraced this on your first visit. I still hold some trepidation — all the aqueous dallying, the body exposure, the ratio of skin cells to water, things tucked away in Lycra and loin cloth, the white, bronzed and red bodies. But then, I am infatuated with the raw humanness of it all and how the water makes my skin feel. People don’t attend the baths for voyeurism; well there may be a peek or two but hopefully minimal. I will embrace a co-gender day next time. I will visit multiple baths and maybe even become a regular bathing groupie. Who knows, by the time I am able to go back, I may be old enough to have completely let myself go and exist beyond caring. Although alone on this afternoon in the Rudas thermal bath, only witnessing and no interaction, I felt a kinship with the mavens with whom I bathed. I have unfinished business in Budapest.