As a Christmas gift, my ex-wife gave me (in late January) a book titled "1,000 places to visit before you die." Fearing the title may have been an omen, I immediately had my hands and the book tested for toxins. Finding none, I brought it along on this trip. In one section, it refers to Budapest as having once been considered the Paris of the East. On the strength of this reference, I decided to give it the once over again this morning.
While it is indisputably a grand city, having served not only as capital of the once mighty Astro-Hungarian empire (and home of the Hapsburgs) but also as a major commercial center of the Ottoman empire, it has simply fallen into disrepair over decades of neglect and state control. The buildings are still emperial in scale, and the overall image of the city is indeed quite muscular (in much the same way as Chicago), I just can't get past the dingy factor. That said, I struck out in search of the famed Hungarian-turkish baths.
Rather than going to the beautiful but touristy Spa Gellert (which is one of the places my book says you should go before your poisoned by your ex), I took drzzz's advice to check out a "real" Hungarian spa, the Spa Rudas Furdo, which is on the Buda side of town.
Upon arriving, I thought I had read the sign wrong; the place seemed like a hospital, with all the attendants in white, and people sitting around looking either like patients or relatives in a waiting room. But when I inquired, I found that it was indeed the place. For less than the price of the cigar I puffed yesterday I got all the water time I wanted and choice of a 15 or 30 minute massage. (Since I didn't clearly understand the attendant, and thought I had asked for 50 minutes, imagine my dismay when, after 15 minutes, the masseuse tapped me and said "finished." Only then did I realize "fiftee" didn't really mean 50.)
The first thing I marveled at was the one-ply loin-cloth the locker room attendant handed me. I couldn't imagine what this was supposed to cover; evidently, not much. Having stripped and tied it around my waist I proceeded into the shower area, en route to the main bath. Upon entering the main bathing room I noticed that all the bathers were men, wearing one-ply loin-cloths. After getting over the distress of the moment, I noticed four smaller baths/pools in each of the corners with a large main bath in the center, beneath an old dome. The entire structure is made of stone -- very old stone, very dark stone; and no light really gets through. While there are holes in the dome for natural light to penetrate, the holes are painted different colors (resembling a stained glass window), and not a lot of light gets through; but there's enough to see.
It really felt like stepping back into ancient Rome. It was at once a wonderment and an oddity -- truly old school, all us men in loin-cloths; truly communal. Then there was the odor; a faint one to be sure, but pungent enough to notice and consider. It was either the odor of a underground place perpetually filled with water, without natural light or ventilation and grown men frolicking about in one-ply loin-cloths, or the mixture of all these things plus the occasional "leak." But with all the toilets about I concluded that just couldn't be.
When I say the place is made entirely of stone, I mean real old stone. Think Roman Pantheon -- which is exactly what it resembled. As I stood beholding the sight, and recalling its Turkish origins I immediately recalled the scene from Lawrence of Arabis where Lawrence (Peter O'toole) was taken into custody and questioned/beaten by the Turks. Specifically, the part where the commanding officer, obviously taken by Lawrence's golden hair and fine features walks over and pinches one of his nipples. I combined that image with the Eastern European dietary preference for pig knuckle and thought "the first rube who even thinks about the old nipple pinch is gonna taste the American version of said knuckle sandwich!" In the words of the immortal Homey the Clown: "Homey don't play that!"
After that moment of trepidation passed I waded into the main bath, which was nice and warm. I eventually sampled the smaller pools, but they each contained water of different cooler degrees. The men hang about in groups of varying sizes, with few solos, but there were some. Many assume a kind of stooped position, resting their hands on their knees, as if bending to . . . (well, that's where the fleeting thought of leakage originated).
After enjoying the waters, I took some steam and, at my appointed time, went for the massage. There are massage tables throughout the spa, some in private rooms, some in a public area. Mine was in a room with three tables. When you lie down the masseuse pours hot water all over you then begins to soap you down. Where in the states the masseuses use oils, at the spas here they use good old Ivory soap. My guy had very strong hands and gave an excellent massage. I was totally bummed it was only "fitee" minutes.
After he rinsed off the soap with a warm water hose, I left and grabbed a one-ply towel (same fabric as the loin-cloth, and definitely not "thirsty") and went to one of several relaxation rooms. It was heaven; great way to relax.
After my spa experience concluded, I walked back across the bridge to Pest for morning coffee and cake at one of their most famous (according to the "before you die" book) confectioners, Gerbeaud -- which is literally just steps away from the Sofitel. Very elegant place with a couple of cute freuleins/fraus.
Now, after lunch, I'm heading off to the museum and look forward to evening, for tonight there is tango! I'll probably hit Castle Hill (another place to see before you die, as VR seems to agree) tommorrow.