Ahh, our free day lies before us with only our own agenda to think of. Perfect. Even though the morning dawned with a bit of a cloudy sky, the temperature was till warm enough that it wouldn’t interfere with our plans to walk the city and go to the baths. I knew before we came on this trip that Budapest was famous for its healing waters and beautiful public baths.
One of the reasons I enjoy group tours is that I can get a taste of the culture and the history of the people through the conversation of the tour guide. Our group guide Lorena is a charming woman, but her insight into the country is at the level of a Wiki search. She would offer a few tidbits but they weren’t at all connected. Our local tour guide Bernice had even less to offer, with some history and dates and names but no personal stories to flesh it all out. I really missed that.
GoAhead Tours offers the usual tour support, including luggage management (a really nice plus), transportation between airports and hotels, a few meals, and back-up trouble shooting if you really need it. The other thing that Go Ahead offers are group tours for a price. Usually the price is quite high for the convenience of what you get. It is similar to those excursions on cruise ships that can be so expensive. In Budapest, one of the “optional” tours was a day long cruise of the Danube and lunch in some remote estate with wine of course. With so few days in the city, I didn’t want to waste our time floating along the river looking at scenery. I wanted to walk the streets and look at buildings and signs and sit in street cafes and watch the people.
The other big thing I wanted to do in Budapest was experience the amazing thermal waters. Because of its location on limestone there are more than 100 thermal springs that feed the city’s famous bathhouses. The water emerges at 35 to 76 degrees C and was the source of a flourishing spa culture in the Roman Age. Buda and Pest were occupied by the Ottoman’s from 1541 to 1686 and the Turkish bathhouses prospered. Many of the spas of today are traditional Turkish baths. The spa list is long, but after reading about several, including the famous Gellert Baths, I knew that the beautiful Szechenyi Spa in City Park was the place I wanted to visit on this Sunday in Budapest
Melody and I slept in a bit and then had a leisurely breakfast with another couple, Joan and Frank from southern California, at the hotel buffet. We really enjoyed them throughout the trip. Sometimes the group dynamics of these tours can get a bit crazy, but this group was great. People were friendly and we could move from one couple or group of friends to another, sharing conversation and time with different people at different times. Melody was especially popular since she was the resident iPhone, Skype, and Wireless access guru for several folks.
We fired up the iPad for walking directions to city park and decided that taking the Szondi Utca (street) would be a great route to give us a taste of a different kind of downtown city neighborhood. The skies were a bit overcast and it was coolish, but not raining, and walking along Terez Korut in the daylight was fun. Things were still quiet on this Sunday morning, but the difference in energy between the main road and Szondi Utca was dramatic. The road narrowed and the buildings were older, with crumbling facades and black encrusted sandstone faces. It was just under 2 miles to the park where the baths were located.
The Szechenyi Bath was built in 1909 in City Park, and is the largest spa in Europe. It is a huge complex with gorgeous architecture, 3 outdoor pools, several saunas and steam rooms, and indoor spring fed pools of varying temperatures. Outside the entrance we bought cheap little Hungarian flip flops and then walked into one of the more amazing experiences of our trip. On entry, we paid our 3400 florints (about $14.90) and were given little plastic watches that were used to lock and unlock our rented “cabin” which was just a small changing room. It was nice to have a private place to dress and a safe space to store our belongings while we were in the baths.
We stayed there for hours, at least 4 I think, but I lost track of time. We slipped into the big pools first and thrilled at the warm water and views of all the baroque architecture and statuary. We also thrilled at some of the beautiful people and were happy to see lots of not beautiful people as well. Just as in the pictures, there were old men playing chess on big chess boards right in the water. We then went into the inside pools and wandered from building to building trying out each of the pools in turn. Of course, the cold pool was really cold after all that nice hot water, but once I got in it made my skin tingle when I got back out and into the hot water. So invigorating. I had to really work hard at convincing Melody she could do it, but once in she loved it too.
I know there were tourists there, but there were a lot of families and older kids (not many small ones), and it seemed that most of the language being spoken was Hungarian, not German or English as is the case where there are a lot of tourists. It was a completely healing experience, not only spiritually and emotionally, but physically! My knee was very happy about that whole thing after a couple of days of serious walking. We enjoyed our great lunch right there in the spa, having tomatoes and cucumbers with feta and some kind of phyllo pastry thingy with lots of veggies in it that was really good. And of course, beer. Good beer. Beer is cheaper than water just about everywhere in Eastern Europe.
Thoroughly relaxed we went back to our little cabin, and started the trek home via Andrassy Ut, the main thoroughfare that runs from City Park and Hero’s Square all the way to the Danube River and Parliament. Andrassy Way is lined with huge palatial homes that were once owned by the wealthy, but were confiscated by the Nazis, and then again during the Communist invasion, and then later turned into embassies. Our plan was to walk all of Andrassy to take in the fancy designer shops closer to the river, but instead we found ourselves intrigued by something called the House of Terror.
For the first time since arriving in Hungary, I began to understand how oppressed this nation has been and how awful its recent history. Over and over the Magyar people have been almost completely destroyed, only to rise again, still maintaining their culture and their language. The museum wasn’t anything like I expected. It told in stark detail the history of the Nazis in Budapest, the killing of the Jews, the oppression of the Soviet Gulag that replaced the Nazis when the Germans lost the war. It was sobering and troubling, but somehow I understood how the people seem to be unwilling to talk much about it. I at first thought the House of Terror was some kind of torture museum, and I was totally uninterested. I am so glad that we wandered past this sober building with the photos of dead Hungarians embedded all along the walls. In front of the building was a huge sculpture of heavy iron chains and poetry celebrating the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
In spite of the horrendous story, when I researched more Hungarian history, I read that even though 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the holocaust, the people of Budapest managed to save more than 60 percent of its Jewish Community. It is encouraging to see the transformational change in Hungary and Budapest that has happened since then and even more so since its entrance into the European Union in 2004. I am not quite sure of the politics, but even though both Hungary and the Czech Republic are part of the European Union, neither country has yet to adopt the Euro.
Hungarian history is hard to track, and as much as I read, I had a hard time retaining it. The first settlement was attributed to Celtic tribes and then during the first century AD the Romans built a fortification that eventually evolved into a town. The Huns were never associated with Hungary, in spite of the name. The Magyar (Hungarian) pagan horse-riding tribes arrived in 986 AD and the Christian Kingdom of SZt. Istvan (St Stephan) was established in the year 1000. St Stephan is now a national symbol of the country and the thousand year old crown that we saw in the Parliament yesterday was actually used by him. The Mongols showed up in 1200 or so, and then King Matthias (not sure what he was or how he got there!) brought the renaissance to Hungary.
Then in the mid 1500’s the Ottoman Empire showed up until the Habsburg Empire centered in Austria took over. The Ottoman and Austrian cultures still are a major part of life in Hungary. Hungary was almost autonomous for a short time after the defeat of the Habsburgs in the mid 1800’s and Buda, Pest, and Obuda were unified and the official city of Budapest was created in 1873 under the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Confused yet? Whew! I am exhausted trying to track this, and spent much of my time in Budapest trying to figure it out and haven’t even included the “dark ages” of World War I, the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Communists!
Air raids and a three-month siege towards the end World War II resulted in the death of more than 38,000 civilians and nearly complete destruction of much of the city. Is it no wonder that it is hard to get Hungarians to talk about their history? When I asked Bernice a question about the Communist Era and how it happened she was short and snippy with me, and I actually have no clue what she said. Somehow, though, understanding the history of a country helps me to understand the culture a bit, and to appreciate what I am seeing in a completely different way. Hopefully my “short version” will stick and as I look back at my experiences in Hungary.
After the intense and somewhat depressing visit to the House of Terror, we felt a change in the weather coming and decided that it was time to head back toward the hotel rather than continuing along Andrassy Way to the high end district. Instead we walked toward our hotel along the main east/west boulevard, past lots of little shops and cafes and chose one with nice tables outside where we could sit and people-watch. The cappuccino was outstanding and the pastries light and flaky. I have to say, I was totally spoiled by the coffees in Europe. Yum! We needed a little pick-up since I was getting a bit worn out and we still had our evening cruise waiting.
The evening cruise on the Danube in the rain was something I won’t ever forget. By the time we started walking the half mile or so to the piers the rain was coming down in full force. Our boat was just a nice size for a small dinner cruise, with a warm and lovely cabin protected from the rain. During the classic Hungarian dinner we slowly made our way up and down the river past the incredibly lit Parliament buildings and under the illuminated bridges, all glistening in the rain. Buda Castle shown on the hill above us, lit up like Christmas. I can only imagine what Christmas would be like in this city with all the beautiful lights. It was a fitting end to a wonderful day in one of the great cities of the world.
Many more photos from this lovely day in Budapest are online here.