I didn’t know much about Budapest before my recent trip to the capital city of Hungary. What I did know was Hungarian bathhouses were popular. I couldn’t miss out an the experience so I asked my the locals which bathhouse I should visit and all suggested I try Szechenyi Baths and Pool because it is the largest and most famous.
Located in City Park, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I entered the massive palace-like building. Inside was chaos. Pure chaos. Lines of people were everywhere with various ticketing windows and entrances. The signs were rarely in English, so trying to decipher what there was to do inside and how much it would cost me proved difficult. And then there are vendors: all selling their special spa features inside, from foot massages to full body to massages. I didn’t know where to turn. It took an hour before I discovered there is a private, quiet spa located on an upper floor of the building. If I booked a massage with the company, I would receive entrance, a private locker, fresh fruit plate, drinks, Wi-Fi and a lounge. Sold! I booked an appointment for the following day.
But chaos continued to ensue when I arrived. Szechenyi is a massive building and not all of the spa companies know each other. I tried to find someone who could help me reach the spa I was booked with and instead I wound up in a long line to purchase entrance into the baths. Fine. I’ll buy a ticket and get inside and figure it out. Big mistake!
Dressed in full winter attire, I entered a world of baths. Everywhere I walked there was water on white subway tiles and I am surrounded by men and women in bathing suits while I am in boots, a hat, long coat and scarf. I look like a fool. I am not sure where to go to find the spa, and every person fully dressed who looks like they may be able to help me doesn’t speak English and cannot help me. I spend an hour walking past swimming pools and hot tubs, completely lost and confused. When I do finally find someone who speaks English and knows the spa I am referring to, I beg her to walk me to it. She took me outside where I get my first glimpse at the geothermal pools, steam rising in the cold December air. I am thankful she walked me to the right place, as I never would have found it on my own. I am chided for being late and handed a towel and a robe and told to go down to the lockers. Because I came in on my own, they do not provide me with the tour, and they forget to show me to the private lockers. (I caught a glimpse later and they were private changing rooms in a quiet setting. Bummer I missed them!) Instead, I don’t know this, of course, and I joined the hordes in a fight for one of the last remaining lockers and changed in public.
When I arrived back at the spa, I did not have time to relax. It was my scheduled massage time. I entered a curtained area with a padded floor. My male masseuse asked me if I would like a hard, medium or soft massage and I elected for the hard; I had been traveling for a week and had a lot of kinks to get out. He told me to unrobe and lie down on the floor. There isn’t a blanket or a sheet or a towel and I am nude, so I asked how to cover up. He gave me a very small hand towel to place over my backside. “This is interesting,” I am thinking! But I got on the floor and reminded myself, he’s seen worse bodies than mine, I am sure.
Then I was introduced quite quickly to the difference between a traditional Swedish massage and a hard Hungarian massage. He straddled me and began rubbing and pounding on my body as if I were a piece of meat he was tenderizing. He pulled my limbs in various directions. He cracked my back, my fingers and my toes. He stretched me in ways I didn’t know my body could stretch. And he took long strokes down by back and over my butt and, dear lord, he must have laughed when I requested the hand towel because I was pretty much naked as a jay bird with a strong, Hungarian man on top of me. Whenever it hurt, it also felt so good that I was caught in the quick movements and moments thinking, “I’m not sure I like this. Wait, I think I do like this. Wow. That feels good. Ooh. Ouch. Wait, do I like this?” My mind was racing and before you know he flipped me over to face him and again it’s “dear lord, I’m naked with a strong, Hungarian on top of me.” I am sure that man saw every part of my body and he touched practically every part of me. Actually, it was so raw and unreal that I felt like I had done everything but have sex with my masseuse. And when it was over, he was up and out of there in a heartbeat, kind of like a one-night stand, with me left in a tizzy on the floor wondering what the hell just happened.
And it was amazing!
Thank goodness I booked the private spa because I needed a nap after that romp and climbed into a hammock and slept in the sun under the spa’s glass roof. (Inside feels like a greenhouse with palm plants lushly surrounding the lounge chairs and hammocks.) By time I woke, I was energized and ready to take a dip in the thermal pool. I left the sanctuary of the spa and emerged back into the chaos of the pools. Finding a door outside took some time, and again I was roaming past indoor pools and hot tubs before finding my way out. The sheer cold of December 31 hit my skin like the ice bucket challenge so I practically ran into the pool. And, Oh My God! It felt like heaven! Granted, there were hundreds of people surrounding me and bumping into me and it would have been nice to have been there when it was less crowded but after having my body beat into submission and then melting into a natural hot tub was one of the best ways to close out a year.
Szechenyi Spa Baths Budapest, www.spabudapest.hu
Hours: Outdoors and Steam, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thermal 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Prices: Daily ticket with a cabin and daily ticket with a locker are most common. Discounted admission is provided for visits in the morning between 6 and 8 a.m. and in the early evening from 5 to 7 p.m., when it is also less crowded.