Bridget Gleeson Travel Writer

In hot water

Yesterday I floated in the waters of Budapest’s thermal spas.

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Yes, the system is confusing if you don’t know Hungarian – and yes, the older gentlemen are satisfyingly rotund in their tiny swimsuits.

(And the younger men? They’re on the prowl. It’s kind of a pick-up scene, which is something no one ever tells you. But I’ll get to that part later.)

But first, a practical note: you’ve probably heard that the historic baths of Budapest can be difficult to navigate. They are.

Check out this sign. The most confusing part about this isn’t even the language: it’s the fact that the only parts we think we understand – the male/female symbols – don’t mean what you think. My assigned locker number, #145, appeared to fall on the ‘male’ side of the locker area. The nearby desk attendant didn’t speak any language other than Hungarian, and she was far from friendly. I stared at this sign for a long time trying to figure out whether I could go to my locker without encountering a bunch of naked men.

But instead of just saying ‘it’s confusing’ and leaving it at that, let’s demystify the process – because none of us are probably going to learn Hungarian anytime soon. I visited two public baths, Szechenyi and Gellert. What follows is mostly based on the former, but the same principles seem to hold across the city’s spas.

So you enter the lobby and get in line to buy a little ticket for the service you want. This alone can be daunting. The good news is that entrances now feature signs in other languages, usually English and German. But what’s on this menu? What is ‘Aroma relax, wet and powder massage?’ Unless you’re braver than me, keep it simple. Ask for ‘Mixed thermal steam with locker usage.’

They give you something plastic that looks like a wristwatch. Put it on right away; it will allow you passage through turnstiles and access to different parts of the spa. Go to your locker; forget the male/female signs. You can change in the little rooms, but none of them have locks, and they’re used by men and women alike… so disrobe at your own risk.

Leave your valuables; just put on your flip-flops, grab a towel and hit the baths. Indoors, with the cavernous atmosphere and ornate tile, it feels like you’re bathing inside a church.

Outside, it feels like a huge swimming pool with warm water.

Here’s the thing: the whole idea is just to soak in the water for a long time. There’s nothing really to do. So if you’re there with friends, it’s great.

If you’re there alone, you’re just sort of left with your own thoughts. You end up staring at the endless parade of bodies, all shapes and sizes, and overhearing other people’s conversations – not that you necessarily understand their languages.

But this is when you realize the place is kind of a pick-up scene. It’s the perfect place to scope people out, then make a subtle move – some of these guys seem to be innocently floating in the water, but they’re actually ready to pounce. It’s not like a restaurant, where you’re separated from the object of your interest by space and chairs and tables, or a bar, where you can use a cocktail as a prop. This is a big, watery communal space where everyone is only partially clothed – and rules of personal space are different.

When I first arrived at the baths, I felt very much on display as I got into one of the indoor pools – thanks to the elegant staircase leading into the water, there’s no way not to make a grand entrance. I felt eyes on me. The same thing happened with other girls getting into the water. I couldn’t help but look around at others, too – it’s fascinating people-watching. I realized that a pair of twentysomething Hungarian guys were trying to float gradually closer to me. ‘This is awkward,’ I thought. Normally, if I don’t want to interact with someone who’s approaching me, I turn to a socially acceptable escape – but here I didn’t have anywhere to look, anyone to talk to, any food or drink to distract myself with. Shortly after, in one of the outdoor pools, a good-looking German guy lowered himself into the water right next to me. An hour later, after striking up a conversation (in my choice of languages: German? Hungarian? English?) he was trying to convince me to join him for drinks that night at the open-air bars on Margaret Island. (‘Drinks? No, dinner? Both?’ he asked.)

I didn’t go. But after all the attention in the baths, I have to admit I was feeling pretty great about myself. As I walked out, I noticed all the older Hungarian men around me playing chess, laughing and soaking in the water, proudly showing off their round-bellied physiques in tiny Speedos. Clearly I wasn’t the only person who felt great.

They say the thermal waters have special powers – I believe it.