I had heard all about the therapeutic benefits of the many baths in Budapest. After walking the streets exploring this fascinating city for a few days it was time to reward my aching legs and visit one.
Budapest rests on a network of warm thermal and cool mineral springs, and as a result there are many communal bathhouses, pools and spas. These are big tourist attractions, but unlike many tourist traps around the world (most of which I have been sucked into visiting) they are also popular with locals.
I decided the Gellert Baths was the place to go. It had been likened to “having a soak in a cathedral” and as I considered my body to be a temple (albeit one in ruins) it seemed like a perfect match. Upon walking inside the Art Nouveau building, I felt like I had stepped back in time. The 1920s perhaps. The building seemed to ooze class and grandeur. I half expected to be greeted by a man in a tuxedo with a glass of champagne and a stiff British accent, saying “come this way sir.”
Not finding any such character I headed to the entrance, purchased a ticket and went to the change rooms. Standing outside the changerooms was a man who had the physique of The Rock and the hair of Kim Kardashian. ” Wow, these baths really do work!” I thought as I approached. Such a chiselled physique and such luscious hair. In exchange for my ticket he handed me a small piece of cloth about the size of a handkerchief. At the end of this cloth was a string tie. Puzzled I took the handkerchief and went to change
There I saw men of all shapes and sizes. Most were naked. The ones who weren’t had the handkerchiefs tied around their waists, like an apron for the penis. The aprons barely covered their fronts and like a hospital gown left their backsides exposed. It was a bizarre sight. I felt I was in some strange club. Or a fraternity party. Eventually I disrobed and tied the little apron around my waist. It was marginally bigger than the fig leaf Adam wore in the Garden of Eden.
With my penis apron in place, I headed out to the baths. Due to the costumes (or lack thereof) the baths were male only. Surveying the scene, I felt like I was the only rookie as most of the bathers appeared to be locals. There were large groups of men chatting away, as if they were having a coffee. In fact if they were wearing more clothes and not submersed in water it could have been like any scene in a café.
After a few minutes I realized I had been staring at these semi naked (well 95% naked) men, and not wanting to get thrown out by Dwayne Kardashian I stepped into the 38-degree Celsius bath. It was instantly soothing as I plunged in. Unfortunately my apron became transparent as soon as it was wet and thus pretty irrelevant. I guess that’s why so many chose to go naked. Making my way past naked men in serious political discussion, naked men playing chess and naked men doing breaststroke I found a small corner of the bath under a fountain. I laid back and took in my surroundings.
It did indeed feel like I was taking a soak in a cathedral. (Well a cathedral full of naked guys). The springs that supply the baths have been flowing for 2000 years and over the years there has been royalty and aristocrats soaking in these waters. Soon the warm thermal water started to work its healing magic on my weary legs and I was feeling very relaxed. So relaxed that I decided to dispense with my apron.
I got an approving nod from the group opposite me- I was now one of them. I was now truly a local.