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Destination: Hungary

Baths of Budapest : Finding rest and rejuvenation in a water world of thermal baths and spas

August 11, 1996|MARLENE MARTIN | Martin is a freelance writer based in Carmel

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Ah, Europe. Culture.

I was through the Polish half of a summer Fulbright. I had been lectured, toured, museumed and concerted. My brain synapses popped with learning. And a few buttons followed the synapses. I had a duty to absorb every aspect of the culture--including those that had been whipped-creamed or breaded and fried. I was definitely smarter. And plumper.

Then came Hungary. A brain synapse flashed. While in Hungary, do as the Hungarians do: Create a healthier me at a spa. Hungary is awash in thermal springs, the primary attraction at most of its hundred or more spas. Half a million cubic meters of water gush daily into basins that run the gamut from exquisite mosaic-tiled pools to natural lakes.

My baptism began at the Ministry of Industry and Trade in the Buda part of the city. (Buda--the city from the Danube west--and Pest--from the Danube east--were separate towns until 1873, when they amalgamated to form Budapest.)

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 25, 1996 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Budapest--Due to an editing error, the country above Hungary was misidentified in a map ("Baths of Budapest," Aug. 18, 1996). It is the Slovak Republic, not the Czech Republic.

With outdated factories, high unemployment and the World Bank breathing down its neck for loan repayment, this country is hungry for foreign visitors to put some meat on its economic bones. The book "Spas and Baths in Hungary," published by the Hungarian Baths Federation and the National Tourist Board, lists 95 spas throughout the countryside, and two dozen more in the capital. An ongoing legacy from socialist days is public access to thermal waters; visitors not staying in a spa hotel can purchase day-use passes for the facilities.

The former Soviet military guest house in Pest, where the Fulbright scholars lived, is a bit of a distance from the spas, the most attractive of which cluster in more upscale neighborhoods near the Danube. So I set off to negotiate Budapest public transportation. Fortunately the city buses, trams and underground are fast, clean and cheap. Budapest had the first electrified underground railway in Europe. However, directions are in Hungarian. With a book of transit tickets, I hopped aboard a No. 7 bus. Destination--the foot of Gellert Hill in Buda and the elegant Hotel Gellert, whose fabled springs have delighted visitors for 2,000 years. In Europe, taking the waters was a tradition already ancient when Jane Austen sent her heroines off to trendy spas.

While Hungarians are very friendly, with a language related only to Finnish and Estonian, they do not have the linguistic skills of, say, the Swiss. Nor is picking up a few Hungarian phrases a piece of strudel. "Goodbye," for example is viszontlatasra (pronounced vee-sohnt-lah-tahsh-run).

At last at the Hotel Gellert, whose art nouveau structure houses the Gellert baths, I was ready for some de-stressing. Dating from the early part of this century, the hotel's mosque-like towers and vaulted ceilings pay cultural tribute to the Ottoman empire whose citizens reverenced thermal waters. With its marble pilasters, Greco-Roman statues and mosaic-patterned walls, the Gellert hotel and spa is a treat for the eyes as well as for the body.

Which way was the hot water? The signs were in Hungarian. At last, I discovered a list of services I could soak up including chamomile steam--Peter Rabbit's mom would be pleased--salt vapor inhalations, radioactive (gasp!) water, hot mud packs, hot mineral baths, and a coed pool complete with a wave machine--a must for homesick surfers.

I signed up for a massage--about $15 for half an hour--and steamed off to the mineral baths, which are segregated by gender. Next I savored the delights of the large pool with its somewhat disconcerting wave machine and the impressive bronze lion that spouts water.

The gentle massage was not a California-type rearrangement of the muscles but, teamed with the pools and steam, it motivated me to seek more of the same in other locations.

Margaret Island is, well, an island in the Danube in the heart of the city. It's the Central Park of Budapest and home to several spas including the Palatinus Baths, where on a warm day thousands of hot folks frisk. Also on the island is the upscale Ramada Grand Hotel--billed by its management as the crown jewel of the international chain--with its uncrowded, pristine pools and expansive services.

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