Budapest, like many other Central/Eastern European cities has a variegated history—from its establishment as a Celt village, to a Roman settlement, to a Magyar (Hungarians) tribe’s kingdom, on to Turkish rule, followed by Hapsburg, Nazi, and Communist. While I witnessed and learned much about the city during a guided tour, my favorite part of the trip to Budapest was a visit to the Széchenyi (say-chen-yee) thermal baths.
The Széchenyi baths were established as a permanent bathhouse in 1913 and use the water from two thermal springs. The building itself is beautiful, built in a Neo-Baroque style with series of columns superficially supporting the copper domed roofs. They have over fifteen thermal pools in the building’s large complex, but my favorite was the large outdoor pool.
I visited the baths at night and the soft, golden glow of the streetlamp style lights reflected off the canary yellow building. The steam encouraged an air of mystery and seduction that people in tiny bathing suits did not need, but certainly appreciated. The turquoise-by-day water was now muted cerulean blue under the quiet night sky.
Day and night the bath is filled with a menagerie of locals and tourists of all ages and offers some of the best people watching I have ever seen in Europe.
Children (and adult tourists) play in a “whirlpool” whose artificially strong current constantly knocks you off your feet. There are elderly men testing their mental endurance in games of chess while sitting in the warm waters. Teenagers and adults alike smooch and have no problem with public displays of affection. There are women wearing swim caps doing small laps in the less crowded areas and of course, there are the land dwellers reading books and newspapers along the water’s edge.
Things at Széchenyi have not always been so relaxing. During WWI the complex came upon hard economic times and made no profit. WWII was worse and during one of the worst sieges of the war, one-fifth of the baths were damaged and after the war the buildings fell in to ruin under Soviet rule, having no funds to maintain it.
These days, the most frightening thing the baths see are the hairy, overweight Magyars sporting itsy, bitsy, teeny-tiny Speedos.