Never confuse Romania’s Bucharest with Hungary’s Budapest. The people there in those respective countries won’t be very fond of your silly mistake.
Besides the vaguely similar names, that’s where the likeness ends—Budapest is full of regal architecture, world renowned bath houses, and magnificent steel bridges that unify the two halves, Buda on the west and Pest on the east, of this vast municipality cut by a single river: the Danube River.
My simple train from Cluj in Romania, dropped me off smack-dab in the forefront of Budapest, my first foray in Hungary. I’m not a big city person, but I find myself fonder of the ones with easier access to everything. A Burger King here, a few pubs down the alley there, a movie cinema just across the street, and restaurants galore along the riverfront. As I walked to my reserved hostel, somewhere near the river on the Pest side (the best side), I took note of all the eateries I wanted to visit during my short week here. A fancy kabob shop here. An old-style pizza place there. McDonald’s McFlurries for later. Access to food would be no issue. It also doesn’t hurt that Hungary is on the low-cost side of the European spectrum.
My hostel was tucked away in a convergence where multiple alleyways met. Up a few flights of stairs and I was welcomed by a young receptionist and escorted to my 8-bed dorm. After settling in and washing the train stink away, I set my sights on food and brought it back to the hostel to enjoy while I researched what the musts are to do and see while here. All my fact-finding led me to one of the two major thermal baths in the city. To be completely honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what a thermal bath was. If you think about it, the word ‘thermal bath’ is a bit strange. Why on Earth would I want to go there. Another globetrotting friend of mine wrote to me saying that I must go to one and he recommended the one on the Buda side, the Gellért Thermal Bath.
Alright, I’ll give it a whirl.
But not yet. In my hostel, I met a few backpackers who I befriended over the next few days. They were a bit on the oddball side of the spectrum, but whatever. One of them added me on Facebook within seconds of meeting me. I’m always leery of those ones. Anyhow, Budapest is also famously known for its abundance of pubs and pub-crawls to go along with it. I couldn’t leave Budapest without experiencing that. I met another friend of mine at one of the most popular hangout spots in town, probably one of the coolest bars I have ever been to.
Besides the bar scene, Budapest is decked out in ornate architecture. From government monuments to the many museums, each one housed in man-made pre-modern European refinement. The statue on the Buda side led to impressive views of all of Budapest down below. I walked around for hours into the night, when the city lit up the river.
It took me almost to the end of the week before I finally gave in. I gotta go to one of these famous baths, as much as I really wasn’t feeling it. I chose the bath on the Pest side, Széchenyi Thermal Bath, because it was outdoors and less crowded than the other one, although a little farther. Nothing a cheap Uber couldn’t handle. I’d just have to sort out how to get back since I have no cellular data in this country.
Upon entering, I came prepared with my swimming trucks and my handy GoPro. I hope whoever is here won’t mind me taking photos while they took their baths.
I paid for my wristband and towel which granted me entrance into the facilities. Down the steps and into the changing rooms with electronic lockers I couldn’t figure out for the life of me without assistance. I washed up and headed outside to the giant baths. Now for those of you not in the know, it goes without saying that these giant baths aren’t necessarily ‘baths’. More so giant pools that come up just above your waist and of a moderately warm temperature. It’s purely for relaxation purposes.
The kicker was that I may have been the youngest person there. Everyone was elderly and ever so wrinkly and gray and loose.
All eyes were on me.
Why would this be an issue? It’s not…it’s just, you know…not quite what I was expecting. It’s all personal preference.
I nodded my head as I strolled by, as a friendly gesture to my fellow bathing patrons. I’m not sure why but it felt like they were staring into my soul. I’m used to foreigners…er…rather locals staring at me (the foreigner) in less polished nations, but C’MON, this is Europe! I find that Europeans aren’t as interested in tourists regardless of their outward exotic attributes. Maybe because I was the only male not wearing a speedo? I had on my swimming trunks that lengthened to just past the knees per usual; a totally American thing I’ve come to realize. Was I really the only tourist here? It seemed so from the bare looks of it, but I couldn’t know for certain. I will never forget the story a backpacker told me of an elderly woman, who shit herself while in a local swimming pool. It seeped out of her skivvies and streamed into, creating a liquidy trail as she swam around, unaware. It played in my head on repeat.
I pretty much waded through the pool…bath…whatever you call it and then to the other pool on the opposite end. It was more of the same, but this one was filled with a circle of laughing Golden Girls who looked like they were having a grand good time. Strangely, it made me happy to see that, while I dazed under the fountains with my GoPro. Joining them would have been a hoot.
I knew myself well. People spend an hour or more at the gym, but not me. I know that I will spend maybe 20 minutes max before I give in. I knew that I would spend less than an hour here. I clocked out at 30 minutes, from the time I walked into the facilities to the time I walked out. My gut instinct knew I wouldn’t care for it, and my gut was 100% correct. It was so-so. I’m sure if the circumstances were different, I would have enjoyed it more. Like, if I came with friends or if I went to the nightclub version of the bath. I heard the thermal bath on the Buda side turned their pool into a giant bath club, complete with a DJ, the flashy lights and plenty of booze. Come to think of it, THAT is what I should have done. Unfortunately this was my last full day in Budapest. I spent the past week here, exploring the sights, and meeting new people along the way. It was a solid week, really. A lot not really worth mentioning on here but still I felt the thermal baths were iconic enough to share with the world. I’m just simply not the “spa” kind of guy, and I knew that going in.
I packed my bags at the hostel the next day and set my sights on new countries. Let me just say…
The next five days were some of the most bizarre traveling experiences of my life!