Too many spas didn’t spoil my broth
Budapest is the only city in Europe where doctors prescribe playing chess in an outdoor spa as a health treatment. Here, 70 million litres of water, from 123 different springs, supply the spas daily. I’m reminded of this ambrosial fact as my well-organised buddy Louise jets off to this eclectic city for a well-deserved break: a trip I was meant to go on had I got my shit together in time. For ten years – when freelancing – I didn’t take holidays. I could never afford them and was constantly broke. However, I did roar “YES!” to as many press trips as I could. It was the only way to goo new places. There were ‘challenging’ property advertorials thrown into this gobetrotting emprise (will blog about greedy investors & culchie farmers sometime soon) and my truly bizarre arrest & deportation from America on Dublin airport soil (thanks euro-pinching Nan, if you’re still out there…I hope you pay for work visas these days). Still, I was privileged to visit some fabulous destinations in a squash of a few short years: Malta, Paris, Cape Verde, Madrid, Frankfurt, Dubai, a Royal Caribbean Mediterranean cruise. You *don’t get paid* for the ensuing aritcle (warning to journalism students!) but you *do* get spoilt silly for a few days out of time, which is a fantastic honour of sorts. Budapest still stands out.
At Széchenyi Thermal Bath in City Park, the largest public spa in Budapest, you will see businessmen taking a 20-minute dip before heading to work, university students at the end of the day, and every other hue of citizen and tourist in between. This is a country that is serious about its spas. Széchenyi has the deepest and hottest baths, with surface temperatures reaching 75 degrees. There are 27 pools in total and the biggest are outdoor – one is for swimming, another has water jets and aeration, and the third is for relaxing, to simply absorb the heat. The baths are rich in sodium, hydro carbonate-calcium-magnesium and sulphates, minerals that sore bones and achy backs dream of. I had a hip replacement operation at a silly young age and am plagued with stiffness, but felt like I could run 40 miles after just 20 minutes immersed in the warmest pool. It makes the shaggy dog story that is the Irish health system all the shaggier. I’ve thought about that fabulously soothing pool ever since. But what is truly astonishing about the spa treatments in Budapest is the prices.
For 3400 HUF (€11.59) – summer 2011 prices & currency is the Hungarian Forint – you can buy a daily pass to Széchenyi, which also has a range of saunas and steam rooms. Public baths are exceptionally cheap (compared with hotels) for treatments too, starting at 2800 HUF (€9.54) for a 20-min aromatherapy massage. We stayed at Margaret Island (Margistsziget), a green belt area in the middle of the Danube. Beauty treatments here start at around 2500 HUF (€8.52) for stuff like eyebrow tinting, while spa treatments start at 4000 HUF (€13.63) to scream the bikini line, rising to 12000 HUF (€40.89) for a lava stone treatment that lasts an hour. The thermal bath, swimming pools, sauna, infra-sauna, steam-cabin, aroma-cabin and solarium are all complimentary for hotel guests. The range of treatments at these hotel spas is truly jaw dropping; everything from shiatsu to oxygen inhalation, ergometry and carbonic baths to dental treatments and cosmetic surgery. I chose a ‘salt cave’ treatment simply because it sounded bizarre, but it has to be one of the most calming treatments I’ve ever had. You’re wrapped baba-style in a blanket and lifted back at an angle until securely nested. There’s nought to do except stare at the ceiling for the duration of the session. A womb-like sensation with a touch of Solaris thanks to the funky music & lighting. The cave is purpose built with rocks of salt from the Dead Sea, and helps with all kinds of ailments, from common or garden asthma to chronic catarrhal inflammation and ulcers.
All bedrooms at the 4* Margaret Island look out onto picturesque greenery and the river, and the grounds are home to a historic water tower, music fountain, mini zoo and Japanese gardens. OK so it also looks like a vulva from the air (look left now!), but I’d be careful not to mention this in a travel article. The island resort is cut off from traffic, despite being in the middle of the city. There’s plenty of thermal & spa hotels to choose from, starting from around €70 per night for a double room for two. Budapest itself is two cities in one. The Chain Bridge over the Danube links Buda to Pest. Until 1873, the royal palaces of Buda – on the hilly west bank of the river – overlooked the citizens of Pest – on the smooth plains of the east bank – where there are now lots of good shops. The main shopping areas are located in Pest’s City Centre. One of them is Váci Street (Váci utca), perhaps the most famous shopping street in Budapest. Designated as a pedestrian precinct, it runs from Vörösmarty Square to Vámház körút (Central Market Hall) featuring a large number of fashionable shops, restaurants and cafés. Castle Hill is home to many of Budapest’s most important monuments and museums, with hushed, cobbled lanes that are in striking contrast to the bustling streets down below.
We had dinner in Apetito, where we sampled Hungarian fine dining at its best (the website peculiarly describes the food as: ‘modern paintings hanging on the walls’). Menu included French veal tartar with trout caviar, served with cress and lavender seasoned egg salad. I chose red mullet fried in saffron oil, and a virgin celery sorbet. I lost track of the descriptive bedlam of my friend’s dishes after three glasses of [strong] wine, recommended by the in-house sommelier no less! Eating out in Budapest is genuinely a kick. There’s countless fantastic restaurants and cafés serving authentic Hungarian goulash, as well as ethnic restaurants like Karma in the heart of downtown. At the time of our visit, there was marrowbone beef soup with strawberry leaf on special, lamb trotters with pea purée and frizzled morels. Pescetarians like me are not short on options: charcoal-baked ginger-chili gambas (prawns) with avocado & mango purée, for example. Same goes for pesky vegetarians: tapas, pasta, noodles, curry. For dessert: plum pie from Szatmár with homemade lavender ice cream, vanilla floating island in a swing-top bottle with caramel crisps.
Music and theatre are enormously important to Hungarians – Budapest boasts more than 50 theatres within a square mile of the city centre – with tickets to shows available at very affordable prices. The city also has a rake of festivals on every year to celebrate spring, summer opera, ballet…a Jewish festival, international wine and champagne festival. Our guide told us it’s the only way all classes of people get to mix, with all the changes taking place in Budapest’s rapidly altering society. Hiring a history guide (€20 – €40) who can give the lowdown on the country’s bumpy past is a great way to get to grips with how much Hungary has transformed. During communism, you could fly to any other communist country for less than a euro, and plenty of people who lived in Budapest flew to Berlin to work on a daily basis. Perhaps the best place to start sightseeing is at the Citadella on Gellért Hill, or looking down from between the turrets of the famous Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda’s castle district. The city is packed with incredible buildings from all ages, even the drab 1970s. However, notable highlights include the Parliament Building, Matthias Church and the Citadel.
Matthias Church is the 19th century successor to Buda’s 13th century coronation church. It’s an important national shrine and a stunning example of neo-Gothic architecture. The dazzling Parliament Building, on the left bank of the Danube, is lined with 90 statues of great figures from Hungarian history. There are literally dozens of turrets, giving it a distinct fairytale appearance. Inside there’s ten courtyards and 29 staircases, and an elaborate heating system, whereby hot air gets sucked up through the chandeliers. Other must-see landmarks include Europe’s largest synagogue, the Szent István Basilica, the Buda Royal Palace and Heroes’ Square, a who’s who of Hungarian history (minus the poor old Habsburgs, whose statues have been removed and replaced). The transport system, built in the communist era, is a fast and inexpensive way to get to know the city. The metro, buses and trams all run regularly, and even taxis are cheap. Think: bite-size Berlin with a hint of Paris around the edges and a sprinkling of Moscow on top. Needless to say, I am still unabashedly available for press trips if Ireland ever gets back up off its arse, or if any wily travel editors stumble across this fantastically written travelogue and fancy trying me out for a free dinner. Cheers.