Széchenyi Thermal Baths

For a day that involved spending more than half of the time on the boat, there is a lot to fit in – too much for one post in fact. So this first post will concentrate on our morning trip to the thermal baths, and I’ll post a follow-up later when I’ve had a chance to go through the 250+ photographs I took of our afternoon cruise out of Budapest.

As per usual on these trips, I was awake early and got up to work on sorting through all of the previous day’s photos. A huge benefit of having the Royal Balcony Suite on this ship is that it has a pull-out divider tucked into the wall that allows us to close off the lounge area from the bedroom, meaning I am able to work early in the morning at the very generous desk space, with full lighting and internet access, without disturbing Vanessa.

For the first hour I got to look out from the lounge room window at the lights of Pest across the river from our mooring in Buda. Then at around 5:00 am there was movement outside the window, and suddenly the Scenic Jasper’s sister ship, the Scenic Crystal, glided into view, mooring right alongside us. This is one of the things about river cruising that they don’t really tell you in the glossy brochures, but that you have to be aware of from time to time, especially in a port as busy as Budapest – in some instances the ships may be moored as many as 4 or 5 deep alongside each other, with passengers from the outside boats having to traverse through the lobby of each of the shoreside boats to get to shore. Luckily for us we were shoreside, meaning that the trip to the coaches after breakfast was relatively simple, and by 9:30 am we were heading out into the Tuesday morning traffic for a brief tour of Budapest.

We first traversed our way along the Buda side of the river, passing churches and convents built into caves along the steep hillside, before crossing the river at the Margeret Bridge that connects to the Pest side via Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube River. After a whistlestop tour past some of the highlights of the Pest side, including the Hungarian State Opera House and Heroes’ Square, we were soon disembarking and making our way into the baths.

Entry to the baths involves a (needlessly) complex system of issuing every entrant with a plastic wrist-watch style entry key – a blue one for general entry and a yellow one for entry into a changing cabin where you can store your belongings securely. As we waited for what seemed an eternity for the ticket seller to work out with our cruise director Sim how many of each wrist watch was required for our group, we got a chance to admire the architecture of the main lobby.

Despite the classic Baroque appearance, the baths are actually just a little over 100 years old, having been constructed in Neo-Baroque style in 1909 and finally opened in 1913. They consist of 13 indoor pools and 3 outdoor pools that range in temperature from 18 degrees to 38 degrees Celsius.

Once we were eventually handed our watches, we headed upstairs to the cabin rooms and changed into our bathing suits. Inside the pool complex there are a number of pools in each room with the temperature and recommended soak time on the wall beside them. We took a dip in one of the warmer ones, before heading on to the main attraction – the outdoor pools.

It was a glorious sunny day outside with a temperature hovering around 21 degrees, so with the water temperature in the main pool at around 30 degrees Celsius, it was perfect. The baths are fed by an artesian spring of thermal waters that contain sulfate, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate and a significant amount of metaboric acid and fluoride – we had been warned that they can be quite smelly at times due to the sulfate, but we didn’t find that at all.

Unlike some of the public baths in Germany and Austria, Hungarians are a little more conservative and there are no displays of public nudity, although the occasional string bikini or budgie smuggler can be seen, often leaving little to the imagination. Vanessa tells me that while I was off collecting my camera from the cabin she did happen to spot an unfortunate young Hungarian lass whose pert bottom seemed to have eaten her entire bathing suit, and from the sounds of it there were plenty of the local boys who were willing to help her retrieve it. Alas, by the time I returned she seemed to have moved on, so I am unable to provide any photographic evidence.

After about an hour in the pool we decided to head outside to explore the beautiful parkland around the baths, before we needed to board the bus again. The outside of the baths complex is just as impressive as the interior, and sits within the City Park area that also boasts restaurants and kiosks, a circus and one of the oldest zoological parks in the world, Budapest Zoo. In fact the thermal water that first flows into the baths then continues its journey through pipes under the road and is used to provide water for the zoo’s hippo enclosure.

At the side of the baths we found a little café surrounded by beautiful beds of roses and impatiens, and we decided to stop for a drink to soak in some of the October sunshine. Ness and I were joined by Barbara, one of our fellow cruisers who is travelling solo, and who we met up with as part of the pre-cruise stay in Prague. Whilst the ladies opted for a glass of bubbles, I thought I’d be a bit more adventurous and try a locally produced beer that is made using wild raspberries – I’m glad I did as it is possibly the most perfectly-suited drink for a sunny day I have ever had – absolutely delicious!

After our drink we wandered around further into the main part of the park, where lots of locals were out enjoying the sun. We were particularly intrigued by one of the cafes that was surrounded by clear plastic pods. They turned out to be all-weather outdoor dining areas – what a great idea!

We paused briefly beside an ornamental lake where, with the aid of my polarised sunglasses I spotted several schools of very large fish, possibly roach, swimming around a sign that said in giant lettering ‘TILOS A HORGÁSZAT’ (Fishing is Prohibited).

After a thoroughly enjoyable morning in beautiful autumnal weather, eventually it was time to reboard the bus and head back across to Buda for lunch on the boat, followed by an afternoon cruise out of Budapest and on towards Vienna.