Budapest's opulent bath palaces are perfect places in which to immerse yourself in the Hungarian capital's art nouveau and neo-classical architecture. Keith Mundy dips a toe in.
'Never in the field of human bathing was so much offered to so many for so little,' might a Churchillian mayor say to promote Budapest, a city brimming with hot springs and the imagination to know what to do with them - plus the restraint to charge a pittance for their enjoyment. The baths of the Hungarian capital are a wonder to behold, an example of municipal munificence unmatched anywhere in the world. Citizens and visitors don't just get a good soak; they get palaces to do it in.
The Romans started it two millennia ago, when they were delighted to find hot mineral waters springing in abundance from the banks of the River Danube. However, when the marauding Magyars galloped here in 896AD and decided to stay, they didn't share the Romans' enthusiasm for bathing.
The Knights of St John, engaged in caring for the sick, used the medicinal waters in medieval times but it took the Turks, flooding into the city in the 16th century, to get a bathing culture going again. However, it was that long line of European rulers, the Hapsburgs, who built the opulent bathing complexes that grace today's Budapest.
The love of bathing and the magnificence of the baths themselves set Budapest apart from any other metropolis on the planet. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Szechenyi Baths, Europe's largest - and surely grandest - medicinal bathing complex, on the northern edge of the city centre.
A cobblestoned drive, clearly designed for the horse-and-carriage era, sweeps up to a great palace capped with three huge copper domes, sporting a lofty portico. Pay 2,800 forints (HK$125) at the box office - 'ticket window' is too inadequate a term for this - and you're in for a grand spectacle. The domed and colonnaded buildings are daubed in Hapsburg imperial yellow. They enclose an Olympic-sized swimming pool, featuring sculpted gods and goddesses lounging alongside, with a turquoise semi-circular hot pool at one extremity and another half-moon pool at the other. Inside the ornate vestibule, the high walls and soaring ceiling are alive with dazzling mosaic panels depicting classical bathing scenes and mythical heroes.
It's amazing - and there's more. All around are indoor hot and cold pools, power showers, saunas, steam baths and massage parlours, plus a cafe, a restaurant and bar, a gym, a health clinic and more. And you can spend all day here. The surroundings are also impressive: the whole thing is set amid the 100-hectare City Park, featuring gardens and lakes, a zoo and a gigantic fake castle.
Budapest is well endowed with thermal springs said to possess medicinal properties and it is these that supply its many baths. Most are publicly owned and are now managed by the Budapest Healing Baths and Hot Springs Company. Its website is extremely helpful, listing, in English, all the ailments that can be treated and the baths best suited to each.
The company's origins lie in the burgeoning of late 19th century and early 20th century Budapest, when the grand old baths such as Szechenyi and the Gellert were built. During four decades of communism, many modern bathing complexes around the city were constructed, and almost two decades of capitalism have brought improved functionality and service to all of them. Fifteen complexes now come under the company's control, five of them outdoor establishments operating only in summer, the Palatinus - on an island in the Danube - being the biggest and most popular.
For tourists, the most popular institution is the Gellert bathhouse. Its entrance hall is almost 100-metres long, lavishly tiled and illuminated through stained glass, with a great central rotunda. The thermal pools are treasures of Hungarian art nouveau, swathed in turquoise, green and yellow tiling. In the indoor swimming pool, art nouveau meets neo-classical as you swim between sculpted colonnades with balconied upper galleries - anticlockwise only, or you'll be severely scolded.
The Gellert Baths are an adjunct - though now owned and run by the municipal company - of the Hotel Gellert, a massive monument to art nouveau that was the city's high-society hub in the 1920s and 30s.
In contrast, the recently renovated Rudas thermal baths are a superb survivor of Turkish days, retaining classical features and Ottoman atmosphere. Built in stone beneath a dome with dozens of little star-shaped skylights, an octagonal central pool is surrounded by four corner pools of varying heat.
This is the strangest men's club you'll ever see. In London, businessmen lounge in leather chairs; in Budapest, they lounge in hot mineral waters. Their burbling and bellowing reverberate around the walls. One man is nonchalantly reading a newspaper in the main bath amid narrow shafts of sunlight. The overall effect is hypnotic.
A rudimentary modesty is practised here; you wear a little white linen apron over your particulars, though it's not compulsory, and the flimsy cloth is easy to lose.
In all the best baths, massage is available at extra cost. At the Gellert, the masseurs are accustomed to foreigners. My attendant resembles a heavyweight wrestler and subjects me to a thorough manhandling. The local method uses oils and applies deep and vigorous pressure. Like most good massages, you're not convinced it's a good idea until it's over.
No such doubts surround the decision to visit the baths of Budapest.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) offers codeshare flights with Malev Hungarian Airlines to Budapest. Danubius Hotel Gellert (tel: 36 1 889 5501; www.danubiushotels.com/gellert) is a classic grand hotel with free access to the Gellert Baths. The recently modernised Danubius Health Spa Resort Margitsziget (tel: 36 1 889 4700; www.danubiushotels.com/margitsziget) is on the same island as the Palatinus. For overviews of the baths, visit www.budapestinfo.hu/en/city_of_spas and www.spasbudapest.com.