The thermal baths of Budapest, legend has it, can mend everything: believers will tell you tales of healed hearts and wombs, even youthfulness preserved. I was once soaking next to an elegant lady of, I supposed, 55. We started trading life stories, and she told me that she'd survived a Nazi concentration camp, left Hungary for the United States after the war, and visits Budapest and its baths every year. I looked so amazed when she mentioned her forthcoming 75th birthday that she was delighted: "You see what the waters can do?" she said, laughing.
The baths' rejuvenative effect has something to do with traces of elements such as calcium, magnesium, and bromine. (The Hungarian beauty salon habit undoubtedly also helps -- on just about every block in Budapest, you can get your hair cut and your nails painted.) The mineralized water comes from 80 hillside hot springs in town. Romans and Turks built baths over the waters; by this century hot-tubbing was so ingrained in Hungarian life that the Communists had the sense to leave the bathhouses alone. Since "the changes," as locals call Communism's fall in 1989, three lavish new hotels have built Western-style spas over spring waters, so now you can choose your style of oasis.
Dipping into History
The town's dozen pre-war baths still have much to recommend them. Entry and massage cost a few dollars, and the architecture varies from Ottoman to Beaux-Arts to Art Nouveau. Wander the Széchenyi's maze of rooms, with mermaids and dolphins embossed on wall tiles, admire florid stained-glass ceilings at the Gellért, or float beneath the Király's pierced dome amid steamed-up beams of light.
You can watch Hungarians at their bliss, too. Pensioners frequent plainer bathhouses, like the Rác; the younger set prefers the Király and the Gellért. Even the staff seems to be having fun; you'll be briskly kneaded and slathered in hot soapy water, all while your attendant chats nonstop with colleagues pummeling other bodies in the room.
There are a few caveats about visiting the vintage baths. Schedules are tricky: some places alternate days for men and for women; some are always coed. Little English is spoken or written on signs, so it may not be easy to tell even the cashier what you want. A sign lists treatments with intriguing names like Ultrahang, but most are for national-health-care beneficiaries who arrive, prescriptions in hand, to undergo rehab. Just say "maw-sahdge," and you'll be given a few receipts. Your challenge lies in discerning which person to present the receipts to in the locker room and how to notify the massage department beside the pools that you're in the water, happily awaiting your rubdown. (You can't make an appointment; expect at least 20 minutes of downtime.)
A few tricks locals use to smooth spa visits: Wear flip-flops, because patches of the tile floors turn summer-asphalt hot. Bring towels, unless you don't mind drying off with a sheet. Carry everything you'll need for a bath, massage, and shower in a waterproof bag, so that you won't have to make any treks to your distant locker. Most important, don't forget some change to tip the massager (the equivalent of $1.50 will make her or him very happy) -- and if you bestow it beforehand, I've learned, you get a brilliant treatment.
The Modern Way to Plunge
The newer spas in town -- the Margitsziget, Hélia, and Aquincum -- require no such strategizing. They offer English-speaking staff, appointments with scientific-minded masseuses and masseurs in private booths, poolside cafés and lockers, even centrifuges for drying bathing suits. And all the pools are coed.
The 1979 Margitsziget does have some old-fashioned touches, such as groovy mushroom-shaped abstract sculpture. Wall signs suggest you soak no more than 20 minutes, but the crowd always ignores the advice. Most visitors here are Hungarian, and they are probably wealthy -- entry and massage cost about $30, nearly four times the rate at the old baths. The massage is well worth the splurge. Lajos Liszek, one of a team of six, specializes in slowly snaking up each limb, unraveling every kink as he goes. After a recent treatment I slid into a hot pool and, since the spa is set in an island park on the Danube, sat gazing dreamily at the woods long past my soak limit.
Located on the Danube's Pest bank, the Helia likewise opens onto parkland and has views of the jagged Buda hillscape. But aside from the dramatic vista -- and some Socialist housing blocks next door -- this spa could be in any well-heeled resort town. The staff plies you with fluffy towels; the showers sprout six heads, jet-streaming you from pate to calves. Powerful-fingered masseuse Anna Balkó knew to focus on my particularly thorny left shoulder, without my remembering to ask. At the pool, crowds range from frolicking Hungarian families to dozing German and Japanese businessmen. The only evidence that you're still in the wild East is the signage: it comes in Hungarian, German, English, and, surprisingly, Russian. The Russians have just started touring Hungary again, this time in search of business deals, and they often tag on extra days for spa visits.
The Aquincum is not quite as trend equipped as the Helia, nor are its views as lovely: the spa takes up the Aquincum hotel's atrium, so mostly you look at sky overhead or white walls. You can also study the jazzy crowd. I once soaked beside an Australian woman who lives in L.A. and had come to Budapest to help direct a TV commercial, and I've seen numerous movie-star look-alikes pass by. Masseur Csaba Nagy is a creative type as well: after untying all my body's other knots, he stretched my arms around in slow pinwheels. I lay there remembering my old ballerina dreams. When I at last headed home from the pool, a glamorous couple's two-year-old daughter saw fit to blow me a kiss good-bye.
EVE M. KAHN, formerly architecture critic of the Wall Street Journal, is now an editor at the Budapest Business Journal.