Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Soaking up Budapest

By Kristina Alda | Prague Daily Monitor |
4 June 2009

To get a taste of the west you sometimes had to travel east in Normalisation-era Czechoslovakia. Compared to subdued Prague, Budapest in 1987 was a burst of colour, a motley array of signs and slogans on wide, busy streets, strangely delicious food and stalls selling dozens of flavours of ice-cream. Even a 7-year-old could feel the difference. It was there that I tasted my first hamburger. The city was so cosmopolitan, in fact, that its movie theatres showed American films such as Return of the Jedi and Easy Rider and toy stores carried Japanese Sanrio characters like Hello Kitty. Czechs travelled there to stock up on spicy sausages and green apple-scented cosmetics – a huge hit in the 80s – and records of western bands that were hard to come by in Prague shops.

Hungary's "goulash communism" clearly had its perks. While post-Prague Spring Czechoslovakia had developed into one of the most repressive regimes east of the Iron Curtain, Hungary saw a quiet gradual relaxation when it came to individual rights and economic policies. By the late 1980s, to Czechs at least, Hungary appeared almost like a small pocket of the west. That's why I was curious to go back for a visit, once again travelling with my parents and, this time around, my younger sister, Anna.

The Budapest that unfolded before us when we emerged from Keleti train station early on a Friday morning seemed quieter and more monochromatic, but then travelling is always a relative experience. It was 1 May, Labour Day. Pre-1989 Budapest streets would have been filled with pro-regime peace parades; on this day, people just seemed to be using the day off to sleep in. Hungry after a nearly 10-hour train ride, we used the first opportunity at hand to sample Hungary's famous desserts at the Gerbeaud café and confectionary on Vörösmarty square, which dates back to 1858. The winners: Túrós táska, a cottage-cheese filled pastry, and a wonderfully tart sour-cherry cake.

Besides the sweets and colourful boulevards, my strongest memories of 80s Budapest are tied to the vast spa complex on Margaret Island. It featured an intricate network of water slides, fountains and a pool with artificial waves. It was paradise. A little worse for the wear, the spa, as it turned out, is closed, its pools empty and filled with debris.

So instead we made our way to Széchenyi spa, located in Budapest's City Park. Founded in 1913, it was the first thermal bath in Pest. The interiors still retain the atmosphere of that era, with tiled corridors and wooden changing cabins. The pools have been upgraded, though, and feature a whirling corridor, where you can let yourself be carried along in the sweep of a swirling current, underwater bubbles and water beams that make for a very relaxing neck and back massage.

The spring water is rich in calcium, magnesium, sodium and sulphate, as well as fluoride, and is advertised as being good for arthritic joints. Drinking it is said to be good for gastric ulcers and kidney infections, among other ailments. You can spend hours, and evidently many do, playing marathon chess games while submerged in the warmer pools or sunning on the decks by the pool.

Such intense relaxation can be exhausting. Luckily Gundel Étterem, which dates back to 1894 and is one of the city's oldest restaurants, is right near the City Park. On the menu are regional specialities such as fogas, a perchlike fish that comes from Lake Balaton, served roasted or in a soup; crispy roast duck with cabbage; smoked goose livers so smooth they melt on the tongue; and chilled fruit soups.

Good food often whets the appetite for more, so the next morning we check out the Central Market Hall, Budapest's biggest indoor market. Taking a stroll through the 19th century hall would be a vegetarian's worst nightmare: garlands of sausages and salamis everywhere, stuffed sheeps' stomachs, piles of raw offal, smoked pig faces hung by the ears like masks waiting to be picked up by revellers for some grotesque masquerade ball. For those of the meat persuasion, though, it's a sensory feast, especially once you start sampling various sausages and comparing their relative spiciness and texture.

And then it's time to get back to the spas. Although Széchenyi is breathtaking, especially on a sunny day, if you have time for just one thermal bath while visiting Budapest, try Rudas. Located across the river from the market, Rudas is a Turkish bath built in the 16th century, when the region was occupied by the Turks. It's housed in an inconspicuous grubby building on a busy road that runs along the Danube. Inside, it takes a while to get used to the darkness. From the recently renovated changing area, you pass through a sky-lit corridor into a dark space with wet floors, moist walls and a domed ceiling supported by eight pillars that amplifies bathers' voices and distorts them into unintelligible echoes. The centrepiece of the room is an octagonal pool lit from above by shafts of light let in by circular openings in the ceiling. Some of them are filled with red, green, blue and yellow glass, so if you float on your back and look up, you see a kaleidoscope of colours.

In each corner of the room is a smaller pool that contains water of different temperatures. The hottest one is over 42C, the coldest 28C. In another room, there's also a 16C pool that feels heart-stoppingly cold after the womblike warmth of the octagonal pool in the main room. Along with two saunas (one dry, one steam), the different water temperatures help improve your circulation. The radioactive hot spring water also contains traces of sodium and sulphate and, like Széchenyi, is said to be beneficial for degenerative joint diseases.

We emerged hungry and radioactive, skin sticky with traces of sulphur, not quite prepared to return to Prague but more than ready for a nap on the overnight return train. Unlike two decades ago, there would be no border control to wake us up.

Kristina Alda is the Monitor's managing editor. She likes writing about buildings and public space.
You can reach her at kristina@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.