In 1934 Budapest was awarded the supreme title of ‘Spa City’ and three years later, the first International Balneological Congress was organised, and the seat of the International Balneological Association was established at the Gellért Thermal Baths in Budapest. The Congress explained this with the following statement:
“…no city can put forward a stronger claim to this than Budapest. Endowed by nature with a wonderful generosity of excellent thermal waters and unrivalled natural beauty; additionally, its high medical professionalism, the excellent equipment of its healing institutions, the high level of scientific research, makes Budapest the optimum choice for international affairs of balneology to be handled from here…”
Leaving the Castle District we crossed the Chain Bridge again and into Roosevelt Square on the Pest side of the Danube and walked about a kilometre to the Parliament building which dominates the river and stands proudly facing the castle on the opposite bank. We didn’t hang about for long because it was late afternoon by now and we wanted to return to the hotel for the health and wellbeing experience.
One of the main attractions of the Hotel was that attached are the famous Gellért baths, which although originally built as part of the hotel are now owned and run by the local council but with free admission to hotel guests. Michael Palin used the baths and made it all seem a bit confusing and a lot of trouble but I can confirm that there was no truth in that at all, the instructions were clear and all of his theatrical pacing of corridors looking for the lift was all contrived for effect.
He was right about the lift though, it is an old fashioned cage structure with doors that slide closed with a penitentiary like rattle and metallic thud and there is an old lady attendant who provides an admission card to the baths on the way down. Once inside the entrance hall we realised very quickly that this was not like your average council swimming baths. After changing we used the thermal baths that were a very incrementally agreeable 36˚ and 38˚ centigrade and housed in a room of marble pillars, colourful mosaic floors and pools of crystal blue water with alleged magical healing powers. There was an anorexic looking man with a pale pallor jogging limply around the room and I wondered for a moment or two if I was going to feel ten years younger just like all those old timers did in the film Cocoon.
I did feel good afterwards but not that good, I have to say! The eucalyptus steam room was totally relaxing but the plunge pool knocked the breath from me and necessitated a quick return to 38˚. Next door was the swimming pool with cream mosaic floor and sky blue tiled walls and a high glazed ceiling proving soft natural light. Budapest is famous for its thermal baths and these were busy with local people relaxing in the water after a day at work and we enjoyed the experience with them after five hours of walking up and down those hills around the city.
That evening we crossed the river again using the Liberty Bridge opposite the hotel. This is an iron bridge, three hundred and thirty three metres long and the top of its four masts are decorated with large bronze statues of the Turul, which in mythology gave rise to origin myth of the Magyars. Hungarians, or Magyars, are an ethnic group primarily associated with Hungary and were the main inhabitants of the early Kingdom and the word Magyar in the Hungarian language refers both to the ethnicity of the people and their language and that explains why the word appears prominently on Hungarian postage stamps and bank notes.
So far I had only found the Magyars of Budapest to be friendly and helpful but unfortunately before I had left I had read that this is the scamming capital of Europe and the people so distrustful that they would deceive and con you without a second thought. This was most unfortunate because we couldn’t shake the thought from our heads and found ourselves being distrustful of people in the street, restaurant bills and pretty much anything else that involved a cash transaction, which was unfair because at no time in Budapest did we feel threatened or in any sort of danger and I am left with the thought that the only thing that deceived me was all of that unreliable advice. It’s a horrible feeling to be so distrustful of everyone.
Down a small side street we discovered a small Hungarian restaurant and we enjoyed a reasonably priced meal and a bottle of red wine and after carefully checking our change (oh, the shame!) we wandered back to the hotel and as we crossed back over the bridge we were delighted to see that there was a clear sky full of bright stars and we hoped that this would mean a clear day tomorrow. It was much colder too with a north wind sweeping down from the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia and blowing sharply down the river as though someone had left the back door open. We weren’t dressed for this so we quickened our pace and was grateful of the warmth of the Gellért when we returned to the hotel.