Anna Harrison enjoys Art Deco beauty and learns head nudity rules
It's always the first thing I want to know. Will I have to take my clothes off? Just thinking about visiting public baths in another country gives me a case of mild anxiety. So Budapest, the City of Spas, is enough to give me a twitchy eye.
One of the most famous is on the banks of the Danube beside the green Liberty Bridge. The imposing, turn-of-the-century building is emblazoned with capped letters: Gellert. It gets its name and thermal waters from the hill behind, after the saint who was martyred there — apparently stuffed in a barrel and sent over the edge.
The entrance is on the hill side of the building, under a carved arch of naked bathers, half draped in limestone linens. Inside, it opens up to a grand hall, with Grecian goddesses lit up in recesses, and people waiting on red-cushioned pews under a stained-glass dome ceiling. In a slightly confusing entry system, you pay for a locker ticket or a bit more for a cabin to change in, and get a waterproof wristband to get past the turnstiles and to lock your cubicle. To my relief, Gellert is unisex and everyone in the changing rooms is wearing togs. Armed with Jandals and a rented bathrobe, I step out to try to find the main pool.
It was the Romans, those lovers of water, who first built baths in the area using thermal springs bubbling up from beneath. Then, as various peoples invaded Hungary over the centuries, the baths' popularity rose and fell accordingly. But there were two periods when they really flourished.
In the 16th century, Ottoman occupiers built hammams with their telltale octagonal pools and cupola ceilings punched with tiny skylights. Some of the baths dating back to this period remain — the Veli Bej, Kiraly and Rudas, albeit renovated and with extra pools. In fact if you want to give nude bathing a go, Rudas is one of the few that retain single-sex days; you'll be given a loincloth or apron, but can put it aside to enjoy total freedom.
At the turn of the century, Budapest enjoyed an architectural renaissance with several building projects celebrating its millennium in 1896. Famous baths Szenchenyi and Gellert sprang up at this time too, with the latter opening in 1918. The Gellert Hotel and Bath, resplendent in Art Nouveau style, drew the rich and celebrated as well as those taking the waters to cure all manner of ailments.
As for the plebs, it took me a few laps around the changing rooms to find an exit, all the while trying not to look like a voyeur (there are maps, just get one). But then I stumbled across the main pool and it was beautiful. The cooler waters lapped a Roman-style colonnade, with a vaulted glass ceiling like a huge greenhouse. On the upper level, a few women peered over the balcony and others relaxed on loungers under palm trees. Eager to dip my toes into this Instagram paradise, I eased into the pool but was promptly told to get out — you can't swim in this one without a swimming cap. (Apparently it's head nudity you have to worry about.) The pools in the next room were more forgiving, with cap-less bathers luxuriating in 36C waters. Turquoise tiles lined the walls and fountains spouted healing waters and I could soak in the glamour of it all and forget myself. Outside too, even the modern-style wave pool was encased in mosaics and it's not hard to imagine the fashionable set of the 1920s preening in modest bathing suits on the sun terrace. The aesthetic of the whole place is stunning. And in absorbing the mineral waters, getting a massage or skin treatment, or even just socialising by the edge of the pool, it's impossible not to feel restored in this cathedral to health.
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