Updating my Budapest guidebook is hard work. But the day is nearing an end. And the sun hanging heavy in the sky, the soreness in my feet, and the trickle of sweat down my back all conspire to inform me it’s Széchenyi time.
The Széchenyi Baths are Budapest’s ultimate thermal spa experience. Architecturally, the bath complex is grand: A century-old, yellow-and-stone masterpiece, with imperial colonnades and bronze horsemen and copper domes. But it’s also the most purely enjoyable of the city’s two dozen spas.
Inside the swanky lobby, a comically complicated menu of services rattles off three feet of options: Cheaper before noon or after 7, more on weekends, cabin vs. locker, a dizzying array of massages and pedicures and other treatments, and on and on. Many tourists — their spirits broken by too many choices — slump their shoulders, turn tail, and head home. But stand tough. Marching right up to the cashier, I tell them I want a swimming pool ticket with a cabin. And before I know it, I’m in my swim trunks and up to my earlobes in hundred-degree water — milky with minerals and steamy with geothermal heat.
Even just a few years ago, Széchenyi felt largely undiscovered by tourists. I must admit, these days it has become decidedly touristy. But the people-watching remains unsurpassed. I glance around the pool, squinting through the haze. Nearby, a trio of swarthy Frenchmen — reeking of cheap liquor — dare each other to hit on bathing beauties. A visiting American choir group bobs in a circle and sings pitchy harmonies. And over in the corner, a vigorously affectionate middle-aged couple appear to have completed foreplay.
Discreetly paddling to the far end of the pool, I find a pocket of locals ignoring the United Nations of outsiders who swirl around them. Speedo-clad little old men boast bulbous potbellies that hang precipitously over spindly legs, as if determined to defy the laws of physics. In a timeless scene, four graying elder statesmen huddle around a waterproof chessboard, offering suggestions, cheering, and jeering as they launch their attacks. Descending the stairs behind them is a young local couple — weary from a busy day’s work — who slip into the water’s luxurious embrace.
To delicate American sensibilities, this all may sound a little seedy…earthy…lurid, even. And maybe it is. But it’s also so very human. People have bodies. Some are pretty, and some are ugly. But one thing is universal: Hot water feels good. The Széchenyi Baths are a place where people of all shapes and sizes come to disrobe, check their inhibitions at the door, immerse themselves in thermal water, and simply have fun. The baths let you be a kid at the neighborhood swimming pool all over again…but with a dash of soothing hot-tub hedonism and a pinch of Old World class.
Beginning to sweat in the hot water, I ease myself out of the pool, and — instantly chilled by the twilight air — I scurry, soggy and barefoot, to the opposite end of the courtyard. I shiver as I pass the long lap pool, where swimmers ply Széchenyi’s coolest waters. Along the pool’s edge, stoic statues mark the swimmers’ progress, while overhead looms an empty grandstand.
The pool at the far end of the complex is like Goldilocks’ third little bear: not too hot, not too cold, juuust right. This is also the liveliest pool, with more jets, cascades, and a zone where miniature bubbles sputter up from big grates underfoot — like a seltzer foot massage that tickles its way up your legs.
In the center of this pool, a tiled whirlpool spins and spins. Once sucked into its steady flow, it’s hard to escape. Some people try to paddle against the current, but I enjoy just going limp and bumping my way around, like a ping pong ball in a turgid eddy. Drifting close to the outside wall comes with a boost of extra propulsion from the jets that keep the whole thing spinning. And then, suddenly, the whirlpool goes still. Across the rippling water, I hear jets and cascades elsewhere in the pool spurt to life. (In a very diplomatic spa tradition, the various whirlpools, waterfalls, and other features take turns.)
I’m finished with the whirlpool anyway. Braving the cool air once more, my waterlogged legs wobble me back to the warmest pool. I find a small — but thundering — waterfall, and park myself directly beneath it. Feeling the steaming cascade pound and pound and pound against my shoulders, I slip into a meditative trance, losing all track of time and place. It’s the opposite of water torture…it’s water bliss. It’s been a very long day, and a very long trip. And an evening spent in this water is just what the doctor ordered to recharge my batteries for my journey’s next leg.
Finally I glance up at the clock. The baths are closing in a half-hour. The sky has turned from hazy pink to deep purple to inky black. And I’m determined to stop by my favorite Budapest restaurant for a late dinner on the way home. Changed back into my street clothes, pulling grubby socks onto moist feet, I prepare myself for a jarring re-entry to the real world. But it’s comforting to know that the Széchenyi Baths will always be here. And anytime I’m in Budapest…you know where to find me.