Testing the Waters: Gellert Baths, Budapest – Hungary, Europe

"1800" she writes in chalk, then strikes it with a straight line before smudging it away with the side of her fist. On the same spot of the wooden door, she writes "1645".
The locker room attendant has confirmed that I only have until 4:45 p.m. – one hour away, and only three hours since I flew into the Budapest airport – until the Gellert Baths closes. Apparently, only thick-waisted and not thick-headed, the sullen Magyar woman understands my question in English, but chooses not to elaborate in English. Answers don't come any easier moments before at the bath entrance, when I scan a long list of spa options. I decide on the thermal baths for 2900 Forint (US$15.00), but not before wasting precious minutes in the process.

Changing into my swimsuit, I leave the closet-thin room with unanswered questions for cabin etiquette; wondering whether the same woman will be outside to help me. Instead, a younger attendant – straight blond hair, straight expressionless face – answers my questioning, my jet lagged gaze with "Just remember 39. No key". With her chain of keys, she swiftly locks the cabin behind me and scribbles in chalk on the outside.

Unlike the majestic Art Nouveau lobby with its stained glass windows and elegant sculptures, the women’s locker rooms could be in any spa in any city – at least any spa that’s minimalist out of necessity, that looks almost every year its age, whose finest features betray themselves, the way that skylight’s beam emphasizes the greyness of the walls that much more. I move quickly, not knowing how to pace myself in this labyrinth of rooms. Skip the dry sauna. Shower quickly. Pass the massage room, where so many are waiting. Make my entrance into the large room that’s split into two pools of the mineral-rich thermal water; 36°C (96.8°F) on the left, 38°C (100.4°F) on the right.

Most women lounge around the edges; a few under the waterfall spouts; a few pairs chat under their breaths. Most are silent; some clothed in swimsuits, others not. Entering the hotter pool, my steps slow against the water, compelling my brain to do the same. I float on my back, looking up at the arched ceilings of grey mosaic designs – seemingly a missed attempt at the bold, golden mosaics my eyes have been accustomed to in neighboring western Europe. Or perhaps the minerals of the water have dulled the colors over the years.

Thankfully, the width of the pool spares me from the catwalk down the middle of the room, where bathers pass to the next room, where towels lay dropped on benches, where attendants of all ages and sizes lumber through the last hours of just another workday; their white uniforms a throwback to the years when a hospital stood on the same site. A mere tease from the monochromatic pool, greens and blues burst from wall mosaics in the next room.

Passing under the archway to see the individual showers up close, it would be easy for me to imagine that they were constructed during a time of prosperity in Budapest’s history. But in reality, the building was badly bombed in 1945; the original interior walls were rebuilt in the difficult years after the war. A wall of whiteness replaces the wall of colors, and asthmatic fog replaces breathable air as I open the door to the steam sauna’s 48°C (118.4°F) heat.

I inch down to the lower bench where I realize, as the air dissipates, a large crowd sits. Here in the social center for the royal and wealthy in the 1920’s and 30’s; socializing is the last thing on my mind as I settle into the physical catharsis and focus on the intermittent drips from the ceiling. No stewing like goulash for me. After 10 minutes, I take my turn opening the door to cooler air outside, where the 18°C (64°F) cold plunge pool awaits. With blood running hot, I sigh at two women blocking the pool entrance who squeal at a mere toe in the water. I pass them, taking each stair downwards without hesitation until my shoulders reach the water.

With 15 minutes left, it’s time to go coed.
I recognize the next area from every website that mentions the Gellert Spa; one of the few that allows photography. The indoor pool is especially photogenic. Its features are practical yet elegant; colorless yet flattering at every angle – from benched inlets dimpling the pool perimeter, grand columns framing the side, balconies accentuating the openness to the second floor, and a retractable, arched skylight adding a sunkiss on top.

In the pool, the coolness and motion are a refreshing change. Rich in both aesthetics and minerals, a swim in the indoor pool is the best of all worlds – relaxing, physical, curative. The calcium, magnesium, potassium and fluoride-rich waters are widely regarded in Hungary as a cure for everything; from arthritis to blood circulation problems. I leave the pool and join the bustle of the deck, where locker room doors swing open, people pass by in robes, and friends reconvene to finish an earlier conversation.

A few feet away is a semi-circular hot pool, the sight of so many people, including a group of men wrestling, sends me away without even testing the temperature. Wrapped in a towel that I brought from home – a better option than the bedsheet offered – I explore further. Past an attendant desk, to the upper locker room, beyond the lounge chairs along the upper balcony, out the doors; I find an area unrivaled in silence and openness – a breath of fresh air. On this cool October day, only a handful of people lounge on the promenade that overlooks the grand wave pool, where many must gather in the summer months.

On this same spot, how many more have congregated since the spring first started flowing 2,000 years ago. From Turks to Celts to Romans, some were attracted by the sermons of the healing hermit, Saint Ivan, while others came after hearing about it from friends or reading stories by Turkish travel writer Evliya Celebi.

A mere dip in the pool of history, my visit is short and nearly over.
I’m eager to refute the first attendant’s doubts; I return to the changing room at exactly 4:45 p.m., pausing absentmindedly to squeeze water from my shoulder-length hair onto the tiles and rubber padding underfoot. "Tsk," a reproach from behind. The skinniest of the attendants, with eyes as dull as her smoker's skin, mumbles something in Hungarian – impossible to translate literally, easy to translate in tone as "Why did you go and do something like that"?

As quickly as I walk away, comes her mop, swiveled across the spreading puddle. Too slow leaving the attendant, yet too quick returning to cabin #39, I pull jeans on over damp legs and fumble through belongings that seem to have expanded from the water to take over my tiny cabin. Outside at the hairdryer, my head askew, I notice the sign overhead. I take my chances, once again, and grab the attention of another attendant passing by. "Okay to smoke?" I ask, although I neither smoke nor really believe that to be the meaning of the sign. It’s a white circle with a red border, though no red line diagonally across, with a pipe at the center. Not a cigarette, but a pipe. Not outside, but in the women's locker room. “Tilos,” she says, her arm waving like a red line in front of her upturned hair and retro glasses. “No.” No surprise. Except for this; she smiles. Here at the source of Budapest’s magical waters, promoting physical and emotional wellness, it seems unquestionable: all is healed, in time, at the baths.

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