Saturday, 9 February 2013

Day 277 – Bathing in Budapest. (Hungary)

We had finally made it to Budapest on our designated arrival date of December 23rd. For the past month or so we’d been in such a huge rush and unfortunately toured the Balkans very quickly for the sake of this deadline, but we wanted to have Christmas somewhere where we could make it special, and with Tom Unkles’ family in Budapest seemed like a fantastic option.

Budapest is a beautiful city and covered in snow and Christmas lights it really is like something out of a fairytale. On the evening that we arrived, Christmas markets were dotted around the city, selling their array of Christmas decorations, sweets, hot food and drinks, souvenirs, hats, jewellery, other bits and pieces and most importantly gluhwein (mulled wine). With steaming cups of delicious gluhwein in hand we meandered around the temporary wooden structures, taking in the quaintness of the very European style Christmas market.

I feel a general sense of bafflement, indignation and mild disdain towards the worldwide obsession with roasted chestnut stands which never seem to actually have any customers. (Who eats roasted chestnuts? I don’t think I’ve ever stopped at one of those roadside stands and purchased a roasted chestnut, and as far as I’m aware I don’t know anybody that has. Why are there so many if nobody ever buys them? Do people actually buy them? Who are these people?) But somehow the tail-coated, top-hatted slender man roasting chestnuts on an old-fashioned steel stove in front of the opera house in Budapest, even made me feel warm and festive.

For Hungarians Christmas Eve is the big day, which we were aware of, but hadn’t quite prepared for. Stupidly we assumed that while some things might be closed, a lot wouldn’t, and we found ourselves with nowhere to buy groceries, drinks or the frustratingly last-minute Christmas presents we had all inevitably left until now to think of. We’ve been through so many cheap countries where we could have bought myriads of cool stuff for really cheap, but of course we waited until everything was closed in the most expensive city we’ve visited on this trip (except Melbourne, Adelaide and Darwin). We have a fun present giving “tradition” that has developed over the trip whereby we take it in turns to intermittently give presents to each other. It started off with silly gifts such as Tunkles giving Ben a small jar of lobster paste in Darwin and Denner giving Tunkles a pink sunhat from Boracay in the Philippines, but in time has become a way in which we help each other to collect the souvenirs that we want but can’t justify buying for ourselves. Why hadn’t we just saved some of the recent gifts from this system for Christmas and avoided this unfortunate situation where no-one had presents for anyone else? Alas, we found what we could, paid the horrendous prices and actually ended up with a fairly good selection.

We had a lovely meal with some relatives of Tom Unkles on Christmas Eve night, and spent Christmas Day afternoon with some other relatives who took us ice-skating. We had intended to cook ourselves a nice Christmas Day meal where we would each contribute something from our own family traditions, but of course every single supermarket in the city was closed so we ended up with Subway. Even McDonald’s was closed.

Most things were still closed on Boxing Day, but this was the day we had designated to going to the famous Széchenyi Baths. We caught the metro which makes evacuation noises and flashes intense light displays at every stop, and got out at the station named after the Baths. Making our way around the vast Roman building to the entrance where we discovered that despite the fact that according to the website it was open, even this was closed today. Disappointedly we circled the building anyway, observing the architecture itself, checking all the doors and gates just in case one was open, and feeling sorry for ourselves at having missed this delightful experience. At the far end though we heard some peculiar noises coming from some piping and wondered “could this be the sound of people, a lot of people, inside the Baths?” We continued on and the noises got louder until we had covered almost the entire perimeter of the building and came to another entrance, this one of which was definitely open and buzzing with bathers.

We paid our small fortune (3,550 Florins ($15.50) per person) and donned the allocated rubber bracelet which somehow magically knows exactly how much you’ve paid and which areas you’re allowed into. Avoiding the Thai massage spruikers reminded us of a previous time on this trip – the difference being that these Thai massages were priced at €50 per 30 minutes instead of the €1 or €2 per hour we became accustomed to in and around Thailand.

From the indoor entrance foyer and change rooms, we came to the courtyard in the centre of the building and found ourselves face to face with the magnificent open-air baths, adorned with a selection of Roman statues, some majestically looking over the bathing proceedings, some issuing water from various body parts. With the outside air temperature at around the 0°C mark, the 38°C water was steaming ferociously, hovering over the baths in a sort of heavenly cloud. We stored our towels in a corner and ran on tip-toes across the chilly brick floor to the edge of the water where we immersed ourselves in the warmth, relieved to be out of the cold. Despite the fact that the place was heaving with old men playing chess (yep – right there in the water), couples, families, groups of youngsters, tourists and locals, the thick fog of steam served as a mythical wall between each group of bathers. Over the noise of the ancient Roman water features you could hear a faint buzz of sound from everyone else, but surrounded by endless wisps of white it felt as if you were there all by yourself. And as you moved through the water there was the occasional couple acting as if they really were in a private room.

As we reached the end of our visit it began raining, which is an incredible sensation when submerged in hot, steamy water. It made us think about how remarkable the experience would be if it was snowing.

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