Budapest Baths

Embracing the Danube from the castle atop ‘the hills of Buda’ to the Jewish Quarter in the ‘plains of Pest’, you can feel the quiet grandeur and power of this former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Having experienced the move to EU modernity in Poland and Vilna, I wondered if I’d recognize Budapest from my second visit ten years ago.  While I spotted a Starbucks today, the city is still  renovating  and repairing  buildings exhausted by the last seventy years, toilets require payment to the attendants  , and tram/metro exits are secured by diligent employees checking tickets for validation.   I haven’t noticed the hip fashionable vibe that filled Poland and even Vilna.   Mostly my travel weary body hoped that one part of this city had kept its identity:  the thermal baths.

Shortly after arriving, I grabbed my bathing suit which I brought for the pool you see , I walked past the Doheny Synagogue, past the fall tinged trees of Andrassey Street showing Budapest in all its glory till I arrived at the park hosting the bath house.

Bounding the steps to the front door I was stopped at the entrance by a crowd of women waiting to pay.  Being an arrogant American, I couldn’t believe signs were not in English.  Being an impatient New Yorker, I didn’t want to wait.   I found another entrance that got me in  quickly though a bit dazed as my memory failed me about where to go and what to do next.  One bored woman pointed me down a flight of stairs.

Traveling light, a swimsuit is a minimalist’s ‘must have’ for the baths in fall.  Once suited I delved into the sunshine of the outdoor pool.  Heaven!  Blending into the culture here means relaxing on the side and grabbing a bubbling burst of thermal water being released from the pool floor.  Success was mine till it was time for me to try the other baths.  Somehow that thick terry robe that others were tightly wrapped in didn’t quite make the cut into my  suitcase.  Let’s just say it was a cold run from the outdoor pool to the sauna and the indoor pools.

There is a lot to be said for a culture that makes a family outing to medicinal baths.  It seems to be a time to be together and with little or no outside distractions or frills.  I know my brother Owen said that the best part of going to Mexico was spending time with his wife and daughters and this might be a mini vacation for Budapesters.  I met three sisters from London/Australia and they’ve been to the baths every day during their four-day visit.  I’m going to shoot for two to three soaks.

This is one city  I’ve had meetings arranged  with ‘young jews’.   It’s been maddening during the  last two days I’ve been in the wrong place at the right time.  For the first time I really missed my global cyber-space transit pass and my Purpleberry (as my niece Marissa calls it) to fix  the gaffs in memory.  This trip has reminded me that things happen in their own time and that everything works out.  So missed meetings be damned, today I played tourist walking across the Danube – on the chain bridge – not the water and hiking up the hill to the castle and museums that capture attention from the Pest or plains side.

Up here I had my

bowl of goulash soup which is always more fun to say than eat.  I’d say I’m high on experiences right now, but I think it’s because of all the poppy seeds I’ve consumed.   This town has pastries and bread mastered as coffee shops fill every street’s nooks and crannies replacing the never-ending amber shops that beckoned at every turn in Vilna and Krakow.

I caught up with a walking tour in front of the synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.  Although there are 24 synagogues in this city of 80 – 90 thousand Jews according to the guide, when most of us foreigners think of a Budapest synagogue, it is this one the Dohany Synagogue built in 1850 for a congregation of some 3,000.

The synagogue survived as it served as a command post for the Gestapo thanks to the towers which held radio satellites for communicating with Berlin.  Of course Hungary didn’t even enter the war till March 1944 after ‘switching sides’.  In short order the Germans rounded up Jews throughout the country, some went into the ghetto, some were saved by Swedish dignitaries, and 600,00 were slaughtered (mostly) in Auschwitz within three – four months.  There’s so much more to the story that I won’t go into right now.  Amazingly though, not  only are there 80,000 Jews here, but the Jewish Quarter still retains its identity as the home for many Jews complete with a mikva, several kosher restaurants, a yiddish-italian restaurant! and several Judaica book stores.

I’ve got some facts, a few pictures (so many more that will have to be put on a facebook page when I get home), but no stories.  I don’t know where I’ll find them but I’m learning how to listen for them.  Until then.


3 responses to “Budapest Baths

  1. Hey traveler:

    Hope the public baths rejuvenated you. How’s the coffee in the bakery and bread shops. Do people hang out there as they do in Starbucks stateside.
    Are you meeting other travelers along the way. What are people saying about the economic conditions – ie, news about the Euro financial crisis. Is it in peoples minds or do they just continue on and assume it will all get sorted out.

    News flash…..St. Louis Cardinals just won the world series. 4 games to 3. They pulled out a miraculous win last night after 11 innings and won the series just a few minutes ago. I’ve only seen 3 baseball games this year and they have all been in the last week…well, I came in on the 6th inning in each game. Bless the real fans. Baseball really pulls people back in time when things ran slower. It’s a real challenge for me to sit thru a slow moving game. I guess I am just a highlights kinda of guy.

    So in this time in history when we are so mobile, what keeps the jews that you met living in such difficult environments. Do they dream of being in other places or do they accept theri lot and make the best of it?


    • Such good questions Michael! Here’s a quick response. The baths were fabulous and rejeuvenating as well as the coffee and pastries. On my tour of the Jewish Quarter yesterday the guide made a joke about one coffee shop being called ‘the office’ since so many work from there though I’ve rarely seen a laptop in any shop I’ve been in. Would it sound strange to say that I haven’t just ‘hung’ in a coffee shop like I do in NY. It will take a whole post to write about my fellow travelers and their musings and I’ll need time for that like when I get home. Politics and the financial situation is only occaisonally discussed, especially in light of jobs and human migration. Budapest has not done well financially in the last ten years and in fact housing is cheaper now than ten years ago.

      Go St. Louis Cardinals!!!! I love it when there is an unexpected win and you must have jumped up and down. Have you gotten Judy into baseball or at least the cheering part.

      Keep the questions coming

  2. Linder, I feel that I am with you experiencing the ying and yang of your travels—-old and new, young and old, past and present, sadness and pleasure. You remind me that things are in some ways the same and yet always changing. While you have been away, we have gone from fall to winter, with the first snowfall of the year. The leaves are changing colors and the trees are covered in snow. It is most beautiful. I am looking forward to your next stop and adventures. Love ya—-

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