In 1934 Budapest was awarded the supreme title of ‘Spa City’ and three years later, the first International Balneological Congress was organised and the headquarters of the International Balneological Association was established at the Gellért Thermal Baths in Budapest. The Congress explained this decision with the following statement:
“…no city can put forward a stronger claim to this than Budapest. Endowed by nature with a wonderful generosity of excellent thermal waters and unrivalled natural beauty; additionally, its high medical professionalism, the excellent equipment of its healing institutions, the high level of scientific research, makes Budapest the optimum choice for international affairs of balneology to be handled from here…”
One of the main attractions of the Hotel was that attached are the famous Gellért baths, which although originally built as part of the hotel are now owned and run by the local council but with free admission to hotel guests. Michael Palin used the baths and made it all seem a bit confusing and a lot of trouble but I can confirm that there was no truth in that at all, the instructions were clear and all of his theatrical pacing of corridors looking for the lift was all contrived for effect.
The entrance to the baths used to be via an old-fashioned cage elevator with doors that slammed closed with a penitentiary like rattle and metallic thud and there was an old lady attendant who provided an admission card to the baths on the way down, it was still like this on our first visit in 2007 but that has all been modernised now, which is a shame, and entrance is directly through the hotel and into a modern reception area.
This was very straight forward but then it did get confusing with corridors and stairways that eventually led to a locker room and then more corridors and stairways that led to the swimming pool.
After changing we used the thermal baths that were a very incrementally agreeable 36˚ and 38˚ centigrade and housed in a room of soaring marble pillars, colourful mosaic floors and pools of crystal blue water with alleged magical healing powers. There was an anorexic looking man with a pale pallor jogging limply around the room and I wondered for a moment or two if I was going to feel ten years younger just like all those old timers did in the film Cocoon.
I did feel good afterwards but not that good, I have to say! The eucalyptus steam room was totally relaxing but the plunge pool knocked the breath from me and necessitated a hasty return to 38˚. Next door was the swimming pool with cream mosaic floor and sky blue tiled walls and a high glazed ceiling proving soft natural light. Budapest is famous for its thermal baths and these were busy with local people relaxing in the water after a day at work and we enjoyed the experience with them after five hours of walking up and down those hills around the city.
I am not a great one for swimming pools and spas I have to admit and I am definitely not one for treatments. Kim and Margaret went for a punishing massage, Sue and Christine stayed a while longer to swim, Mike went to the railway station to do some sightseeing and I went back to the room for a beer.
I am a great one for bars however and when Mike returned and invited me to the cheap pub around the corner I didn’t take a lot of convincing so wandered around for a couple of pre dinner drinks.
For our final night we were returning to the Greek restaurant. I had to concede that the Taverna Dionysos was a splendid place with a good menu and excellent food. I would have liked to say that we found an ethnic Hungarian restaurant that was its equal but sadly I can’t so for a second time in three nights we sat down to a traditional Greek meal.
After our meal it was still quite early so instead of going directly back to the hotel we walked along a busy main road and looked for somewhere for a final Budapest drink. It was turning colder with a north wind sweeping down from the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia and blowing sharply down the river as though someone had left the back door open. We weren’t dressed for this so we quickened our pace and was grateful of the warmth of a modern bar full of young people where we had that final drink before returning to the Hotel Gellért. It was a real shame that this was our final night!
The following morning we made our purchases at the indoor market, had a last slice of cake at the hotel and then made our way back to the airport on the metro and the shuttle bus.
I have to confess that Budapest was an absolute revelation, I had not been expecting anything so grand, it was easily as good as Vienna and in my opinion much better than Prague, the scale of the city eclipses Bratislava and Ljubljana and I liked it as well as any other I have visited.