European literature of the 19th century was crammed with sanitariums. The lovelorn heroes of Turgenev’s and Lermontov’s novels were forever creeping up and down the corridors, seducing frail, young countesses.
They declared their passion while taking the water cure in Baden-Baden or walking moodily about the garden in the film, ‘Last Year in Marienbad.’
Pale Hollywood heroines would divulge unrequited loves while dying of consumption in the rarefied air of the Swiss Alps as they pined away under a rug on the veranda.
Visegrád sanitarium is one of five remaining institutes in Hungary.
The others are at Parád, Sopron, Balatonfüred and Kékes, each specialising in treating different parts of the body. Patients come to Visegrád to convalesce after a serious illness or operation, usually connected with the digestive tract, although nervous complaints and psychosomatic problems can also be treated.
Some patients return year after year with chronic internal problems and treat the centre like a home away from home. Head nurse Sándorné Rácz says, “We receive patients like a long-lost family member. I see our dear patients returning again and again.
Around 35 percent ask specifically to come here.”
Bathed in sunlight, Visegrád certainly looks idyllic.
It sits on the side of a hill overlooking the Danube Bend, a 200-bed care centre surrounded by a flower garden.
In the shade of blossoming chestnut trees patients sit, chatting or reading, or, as Rácz says, they, “Stare out into the big void and contemplate life.
It is a peaceful place where people can relax and switch off. Many patients have nervous problems or are chronically depressed.”
Inside, the walls are a soothing pale green and there is a smell of boiled potatoes and disinfectant.
Patients sit in the corridors, dressed in track suits.
Dr. Ferenc Kocsis, senior consultant, says, “It is important that patients take an active part in their own rehabilitation in healing surroundings.
Relaxation is an important part, but they should not lie around in bed all day if they can get up.“
The sanitarium stresses the important of complete rehabilitation, both physical and spiritual.
There is a psychiatrist to look after the emotional recovery and a mysterious closed door marked “Human Politics Department.”
Patients can also visit the on-site hairdresser or dentist for confidence boosting.
A little church stands on the sanitarium grounds.
It is heated in winter to make praying more comfortable.
The Miklós Horthy Sanitarium – as it was then known – opened in 1929.
It became a state sanitarium under the control of the Ministry of Health in 1950 before it was taken over by Budapest local government a year later.
Patients are sent here from Budapest and the surrounding area.
A minibus service ships patients twice a day from Batthyány tér.
“Residence and treatment at the sanitarium is free for Hungarian citizens with a blue health insurance card,” says Péter Fodor, the financial director.
Patients stay in a three- or four-bed room, but for a daily fee of Ft900 they can have a single or twin room with a separate shower, toilet, colour television and refrigerator.
Married couples can even receive treatment together and stay in a twin-bedded, albeit fairly spartan, room.
Fodor says, “There are 12 in-hospital doctors and a further eight specialists; X-ray operators, dentists.
There are 69 nurses, which is the optimum staff number for 200 patients.
The yearly budget is Ft160 million, which comes from the Social Insurance.”
In the corridor between the wards stand three huge jars of mineral water – bitter water, alkaline hydrogen carbonate medicinal water and something called Glauber salty water.
Underneath is a big urn of chamomile tea. Patients can dip in at leisure.
Strangely for a health institute, smoking is allowed outside and many bare chested ‘bácsi’s sit in the sun playing cards in a cloud of ‘Multifilter.’
The sanitarium takes a pragmatic view that many have nervous or psychosomatic problems and they cannot be forced to give up smoking for the period of their three-week stay.
Swimming is possible in the Lepence thermal pool nearby, although a pool is also being dug for balneotherapy – physiotherapy in water for those with locomotive and other disorders who are not strong enough to exercise on dry land.
Relationships which sometimes develop between patients are not encouraged.
Nurse Rácz says, “Unfortunately, although the patients may have stomach problems, their emotions are still working fine.”
Matron Rácz is terrifyingly friendly and overenthusiastic.
She says, “We get severely depressed people coming here, but they all cheer up and smile back at me after three days and if not, well I just don’t say hello anymore.”
She greets everyone as she walks around, saying “Szia!” or “Puszi!” She says, “We are a big family here. There are no barriers, patients can come and go as they like.
All we ask is that they are in their rooms for two hours in the morning when the doctors visit.
It is like paradise here. We take the patients on day trips to Esztergom and Mogyoróhegy.
Next Monday, we are holding a cabaret evening in the social hut. One of our patients can play old nostalgic songs on the piano. We have musical evenings and joke competitions.”
At lunch time, most patients are in the spacious canteen.
Dr. Kocsis said the average patient age was 45, but most seem to be pensioners.
The lunch is tasty and all staff eat there, too, which is reassuring, although there is something ghoulish about eating fried liver in a gastro-intestinal hospital.
In the cool dark-green atmosphere of the day-room there is an aquarium, a television showing English-language classes on ceefax and lots of plants.
Through the window you can watch middle-aged ladies strolling past in curlers from the 1950s.
Two sisters, Bözsi and Rózsika, sit on a bench in the flower garden. Both in their 70s, they have come here many times with a frightening list of complaints.
The sanitarium now arranges for them to come at the same time and share a room.
Bözsi was on Margit Bridge when it blew up in 1945.
The average length of stay is 21 days. Dr. Kocsis says, “Many patients have chronic illnesses and need at least three weeks’ break. We work on the basis that we want to make people fit enough to return to work.
As they come back again and again, we need to establish a good relationship between the patient and the sensible doctor.”
Many hospitals in the countryside are facing bankruptcy and many resorts, like Hévíz, have had to be privatised.
The government intends to overhaul and restructure the health care programme in the autumn and health care institutes will be nervously looking over their shoulder.
Kocsis says, “I am an optimist. I am quite old and I have seen many changes.
The future now lies in Bokros’s hands.”
Home on the hill heals Hungarians’ ills
Lucy Mallows visits an oasis of peace where Budapest’s old and sick while away their hours.
Published in Budapest Week, June 1 -7 1995
Photographs: Katalin Széphegyi
A series of articles on the undiscovered, yet sadly fast-disappearing features of Budapest - a city of neon signs, presszó bars, secret cemeteries, hidden water reservoirs, changing far too swiftly into yet another homogenous mall-packed European metropolis. More than 20 years' research by a Hungarian-speaking author into the hidden heart of the city. Catch it now before it's too late.