Our second morning in Hungary started off very sunny and bright and that day was going to culminate with us heading to one of Budapest’s thermal baths for a very relaxing afternoon, a big steamy kiss of life to the mind and heart that is. We were in the city of spas after all and that was essential to get some physical evidence of that. Of course every place has something extraordinary to offer, it is all about how far you have to go in search for it. There was this steaming hot something dating back to the Ottoman rule here in Budapest that definitely added to a variety of things that tourists flock here for. In combination with the taste of goulash generously seasoned with red-hot paprika, the steam I was going to feel land elegantly on my skin would contribute to the magic of the flavour of Hungary that was in progress in my mind and heart.
We had another German-style breakfast at the cozy café with a distinct modern feel and some more news from Italy that we saw being watched by two male Italian friends and I was wondering what it felt like for them to see this tragedy caused by the recent earthquake unfolding in their beautiful country. In some ways their response must have been different from mine. We were in no rush that morning and could size up the streets surrounding our hotel, take a moment to look into the motionless but piercingly emotional eyes of the statues that found their permanent residence on all those graceful facades that were broadcasting a breath of Austria to the curious me.
We walked to the adjacent Elizabeth Bridge and could watch the sleepy yet sun-kissed Danube filling with boats carrying a few early birds. A few more grand buildings were stretching on our left and I could hear the sounds of waltz reverberating in my ears. It was nice to get a more intimate encounter with Budapest’s bridges now as we were making our way past the white Elizabeth Bridge to the green Liberty Bridge that we were to cross to get to the Art-Nouveau Gellert Spa that opened in 1918.
I could see it at a distance and on par with the emerald green Gellert Hill it looked like a setting for a futuristic film. I love the feeling that standing on a bridge gives me – seemingly rockety, perceivably free, free to observe the city stretching in front of my enchanted vision. In a way I loved having no view of the Parliament from where I was standing but only the Buda Castle on my left, there just seemed a bit too much domination for me.
I felt like pausing for a tiny moment to imagine I was in that music video I had watched the night before my departure. The walk seemed very short and pleasurable and we reached the hotel that radiated a graceful hint of the old-time Europe that we could get in touch with in nostalgic films.
Of course as someone who didn’t frequent baths, I was a bit nervous about how things were going to work out, where to drop off our things, etc. The lobby of the hotel with a magnificent cupola in the centre took my mind off these anxieties as I felt I was in a movie this time round.
We followed the queue, got our microchipped keys and eventually got inside the spa area to get changed first. Everything was pretty well organized so there was no hustle at all. We got stuck in a queue to rent a swimming-suit for my sister with a bunch of Italians that seemed to be frequent guests here as the signs here were translated into Italian as well. They certainly have more authority to compare the experience they were about to get with others they must have had back home. Do there have to be Italians whenever anything sensual is involved…? I was feeling the anticipation for something of this nature building up as water grants us this primeval yet uplifting feeling we get when we feel it touch our skin to produce a range of sensations. You really take to the whole experience like a duck to water as you go along and become less and less aware of walking around surrounded by a large number of half-naked bodies. There must have been something ancient and Roman about this scene, could that be something Italians gravitated to at the end of the day…? Here at the Gellert Baths it’s not just about the water that feels amazing as it comes in gentle contact with your skin, but it is the interior that lends the experience the opulent Ottoman feel. The walls, the statues, the mosaic flooring and the way they alternated as we went from one pool to another kept us focusing on nothing more than this particular gem of Budapest. A subtle smell of chlorine didn’t get much in the way of my mind and heart interpreting what I saw as sweetly romantic and sensually intimate as there were a few couples enjoying their getaway here. That must have been a nice choice as water has a certain bonding and spell-binding power as well. I was rejoicing and simply loving the atoms and molecules in my body relaxing into a serene calmness I could distinctively sense going down my limbs whenever I got out of another pool. The one with the water kept at the soothing and comforting 36.6 C0 seemed to be most popular but we didn’t mind it being crowded. That was another opportunity for people-watching and speculating about where someone might be from just to turn it down a bit the moment another someone close by started speaking the same language as you. It was funny to see those seemed male visitors who were really worried about getting their freshly styled hair messed up with the water – something I would’ve never seen back home. As the water temperatures changed from one room to another, the feeling of being relaxed and invincible to any stress was so intense. I felt mine being cut into by knives that seemed to be piercing into my skin as I dipped into a cold small pool where I didn’t get much time on my own. To give a newly emerging sensation another twist, I got into a room with steam straight afterwards. Experimenting with one’s sensations turns out to be such an enticing game to play. Time does fly by when you are having fun and we decided we would round off our soothing afternoon by visiting an outdoor wave pool this place is famous for. The fact that there were too many people in there trying to get on top of waves that kept appearing from time to time seemed a bit of an issue now. But being inside this water under the endlessly sunny sky of Budapest showing its refined yet proud Art Nouveau side was marvelous and we might have been wise for choosing to have Budapest seem as a sensual resort to us that afternoon. We didn’t seem to want to change back into our clothes before leaving.
A few final photos in the imposing hotel lobby later, we bid farewell to the steamy Gellert baths and stepped outside to take a very relaxed walk along the Liberty Bridge again and get a few perspectives on it standing close to the Gellert hill. Even though there were signs that seemed to warn against trying to climb the top of the bridge, some people were trying a bit too hard for a few perfect photos. Rebellious nature in progress!
A few marvelous late afternoon views of the Danube later, we headed to the Great Hall Market, which was a very engaging object from the architectural perspective as well. What I’ve been learning through the course of my travels is that it is absolutely essential to experience markets to get a virtual or at least a mental taste of a new land. The market building had a certain Ottoman flavour and I imagined handfuls of the typical Hungarian paprika generously sprinkled all over it. It wasn’t long after we entered that we saw this product in abundance of packages on sale everywhere we could see. It was rather chaotic and full of things for tourists to take photos of. Tourism brings in great profits but what it obviously takes away is the authenticity of places and turns them into a sort of artificial showrooms. Too many people have been let on the “secret” of how to experience authenticity and that is what is almost gone as a result… It was actually great to walk here without thinking of what food to buy and what to cook with but just let your mind and heart do the work for you producing an idea of the taste of Hungary. After the steamy few hours at the Gellert Baths, what we needed badly was something to use to recharge our batteries with and we headed to the upper level where there seemed to be lots of places to eat. A typical eating experience here appeared to be more about filling your stomach with substantial food and you could expect the process to get a bit messy as well. Goulash, potatoes, a typical local sausage and a glass of beer were to happily fill my stomach in this quite rural setting that had black and white photos of senior Hungarian women dressed in national costumes going about their daily routine in what looked like a Hungarian village. In a way they reminded me of our “babushkas” that are hard-working, excessively caring, intrusive – either or all of these. But at the same time I should admit there was something “foreign” about those Hungarian ladies for me as I was staring at their faces eating my food. On my right I could watch a group of elderly tourists being given a very entertaining cooking class by one of the employees whose limited command of English didn’t stand much in the way of everyone having fun. It seemed a bit like a circus show but can anyone think of a better way to let people experience authenticity…? The goulash we had the previous night seemed a bit tastier than the one I was having but it was still good. We did some souvenir shopping afterwards, of course. The rural feel was still here as I saw lots of dolls wearing bright national costumes among stripes of paprika. For the moment Hungary and Bulgaria seemed to have something in common to me – that might have been the shared communist past or was there something more that dated back much longer…? That was another question my mind posed for me to try to ponder and possibly to work out someday. A Budapest-themed jar of paprika for Mum had just been bought – we could leave now.
As we had plans to go on a Danube cruise in the evening, we decided to take a walk along the entire Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy út) full of the Neo-Renaissance buildings, to get to the famous Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere) with the imposing statue complex featuring important figures in the country’s past. What it looked like in pictures rendered a Soviet feel with this vast space dominated by a massive statue shooting into the boundless celestial vacuum. Power and control paralyzing the view… We gave up on reaching the place without missing our late-night cruise. We passed by a few backstreets being looked at by some rough-looking male workers enjoying their break. It would be too much to refer that to the Soviet era, of course. But the way they looked reminded me of home…
As we started making our way to the Danube embankment, we couldn’t help finding ourselves in a street adjacent to our hotel. It didn’t quite make sense why we hadn’t got round to exploring those places that were really close by. Travellers can sometimes take pains to venture out a bit too far. A quite extraordinary fountain caught my eye. We sat in front of it watching pages of a massive book being turned by sprays of water…
I just loved this little corner and the feeling of little and simple happiness it was giving. There was something else waiting to fascinate me as we kept walking down this beautiful street – I knew that was where we were having our late-night dinner. Budapest didn’t seem too rich in male beauty (should I blame the communist past for that as well? Probably not!), but a waiter at a place across the road that I felt I was far enough from to take picture of was quite nice and I had no idea why he happened to catch my eye being so far. We had some time on our hands to pay a visit to the famous Café Gerbeaud launched by a confectionary dynasty in the late 19th century. I ordered a wonderful icecream topped with waffles and caramel and a coffee here. It was another quintisential European experience to be sitting here people-watching and sipping on my coffee. We agreed it hadn’t been anything extraordinary but we can say we have been to this legendary European coffeehouse and even got a peak into the imposing interior. We passed by a few more restaurants on our way to the Danube that featured a few more nice waiters. We succeeded in buying our cruise tickets and had to hang around before our boat was ready to be boarded. It was 10 p.m. and Budapest started radiated rays of spectacular nocturnal beauty that myself as a night person was explicitly drawn to. There was a group of typically vocal and assertive Americans on board and before the tour started, I thought I had heard everything about how their first day in Budapest had been. The views of the Buda Castle with the funicular we had seen the day before were the starting point of the tour and I couldn’t wait to see the Parliament majestically sparkling its night lights on my right and I had a dim recollection of my feelings in the run up to seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. It wasn’t obviously going to be my first time seeing it after two days in Budapest, but I hadn’t seen it exposed to me like this yet. It didn’t disappoint when it forced itself into our enchanted views! It had one of the Americans in awe when they said “I can’t believe Hungarians could have made this!” “Why not?”, I thought. The feeling of global supremacy Americans might show is sometimes irritating. All nations have had something to contribute to the world and Hungarians had the Parliament to show off of course. A bit further the boat turned back to enable us to get a view of the same attractions from another angle. The audioguide seemed a bit repetitive, but I loved the night and me being embracing it with my heart and mind.
About an hour later we got off the boat to walk back in the direction of “our” street where we were to have our dinner. The riverside was lined up with posh restaurants with folk music being played by people in bright national costumes. The view got me thinking about the red-hot paprika again. It was surprising to find the two Italian friends from our hotel posing for photos against the Danube in a crowd of other tourists. We finished the night with a few shots of pálinka at the low-key place with the handsome waiter that seemed to be frequented by locals. English wasn’t understood much, but miraculously we ended up getting what we ordered after both the handsome waiter and his colleague had had a discussion about what it could have been we wanted. The place was cheap and again not touristy at all, and I thought we were genuinely lucky to wrap up the day that started off really steamy here next to a few locals. Cheers to that! We had no trouble falling asleep back at the hotel. Our final full day in Budapest was one sleep away…