Wednesday, 28 January 2009
When friends visit me from abroad, one of the places definitely on the list for an unmissable, real Budapest experience is the Gellért thermal bath complex.
It’s more pricey than most, but no other bath gives quite the same feeling of history, culture, unusual fun and sybaritic soaking all in one.
It’s also a good excuse to treat myself.
Despite living only one tram stop away, I restrict myself to the occasional Sunday afternoon wallow in the thermals and the sauna or, in summer, a refreshing splash in the wave pool followed by a vigorous foot massage.
The Gellért is the oldest Hungarian spa hotel.
The springs that supply the baths with hot healing waters have been flowing for at least 2,000 years.
Saint Iván, a healing hermit whose talents were known far and wide, once lived beside the Sáros fürdô (mud bath). He was one of the first naturopaths whose sermons and "miracles" attracted many sick people to the area.
Due to the great heat of the water gushing from the spring it was known as Purgatory, but later the name was changed to the more virtuous Bath of the Virgins.
The earliest reference to the existence of healing waters at this spot dates from the 13th century during the reign of King András II and in the Middle Ages a hospital stood on the site.
The Ottomans built baths here and they were mentioned at the time by Evliya Celebi, a well-known Turkish travel writer.
During the Turkish occupation (1541-1686) a grand bathing establishment stood on the site where the Gellért Hotel now stands.
After the Turks left a bath house was built with courtyards and plane trees for shade, but the mud baths were filled in to make way for the construction of Szabadság híd (Freedom Bridge).
In 1912 work began on a brand new spa hotel to be named Gellért after the hill behind it, down which the Venetian bishop-monk Szent Gellért was pushed in a barrel lined with nails by pagans in 1046.
The present building, with its glass dome, terraces, open-air pool and bathhouses, took six years to complete.
In the 1920s, the Gellért became the center of upmarket social life. In 1927, the open-air pool with artificial waves was constructed and, seven years later, the indoor thermal pools were added.
In 1927 Károly Gundel took over the restaurant.
This was a time of high society banquets for which Gundel created ever more delicious culinary inventions to delight visiting dignitaries from all over Europe.
All these elements helped to promote Budapest as an international spa city in the 1930s. Members of Europe’s royal families, artists, foreign politicians and millionaires all stayed within the Gellért’s elegant walls.
In January 1945 the hotel was bombed so badly that only its walls were left standing.
The curly Secessionist balconies and the oriental rounded turrets and towers of the exterior were restored, but the present interior furnishings are not faithful to the original plans.
However, both the hotel and the public swimming pools to this day retain the atmosphere of a more glamorous era.
Enjoy a coffee and cake in the hotel café after your wallowing and admire the stained glass windows halfway up the grand staircase.
The indoor and outdoor baths are supplied with water from a source deep within Gellért Hill. Its chalky, slightly acidic, hydrogen-carbonate, radioactive water contains many minerals.
The water surges from its source at a temperature of 43°C.
When you enter the grand Secessionist hall, lined with pink marble pillars, floral motifs on the walls and bronze curlicue decorations, you are faced with a range of facilities to choose from.
Move along and hand over your ticket on the right and follow the stairs down to a tiled subterranean passage way that leads past the outdoor pool.
Circular portholes offer a view of the swimmers’ legs and aging photos on the wall opposite show aspects of the hotel. Then up more stairs to the changing rooms.
There are also changing rooms with cabins on the level of the indoor pool, but upstairs is drier and warmer for changing.
Keep a hold of your ticket as the cloakroom attendant sometimes asks to see it.
She will secure your locker and give you an aluminum tag with a number on it that must be guarded safely.
On leaving, it is also a good idea to tip her, and also the masseuse, as you get a wonderful smile and special service next time. Inside, the 33 meter pool is the height of luxury.
Lined with marble columns and trailing plants, it resembles something from the heady days of the Roman Empire.
Its retractable glass roof is often opened in summer to let shafts of sunlight in on the hedonistic scene.
At one end is a thermal pool with hot jets of healing water spouting from statues.
Doors lead off at either side to the single sex Turkish thermal baths.
In the ladies’ section there are three thermal plunge pools of slightly differing temperatures, where naked women rise up out of the steam, revealing flesh in all shapes and sizes.
There is also a steam bath amongst the intricate designs of the blue and brown tiled walls.
The sauna comprises three largish rooms, each getting hotter and hotter until the third approaches something akin to Dante’s Inferno.
The women’s section also features changing rooms and showers.
The men’s section is arranged as a mirror image of the women’s on the right hand side, looking down from the thermal pool end.
These areas can be visited separately from the main pool for a slightly cheaper ticket.
Outside, there is a small thermal pool which is crowded full all summer long with visitors.
The elegant outdoor pool has chilly water, but temperatures rise on the hour when the fun wave pool cranks up into action for about 10 minutes.
Waves crash onto the very shallow far end and bodies fly in all different directions.
In summer a terrace buffet provides snacks, soft drinks and the ever popular bottles of beer from which some guests choose to slurp while in the thermal pool.
The Gellért also features a major treatment center and has salt baths, mud baths and inhalation rooms, all of which utilize the rich mineral waters gushing from Gellért Hill.
Gellért Medicinal Baths
Kelenhegyi út 2-4
October 1 - April 30
Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat-Sun 6am-5pm
Thermal pool hours:
October 1 - April 30
Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat-Sun 6am-2pm