9th February 2017
In the morning I went on a free walking tour with Vlad and Henrique, a Brazilian we met at the hostel last night. Well over one hundred of us swarmed into the central square where the tour started. We were divided into English and Spanish groups, subdivided, and set off. Our guide, a young woman studying English language and literature in a Budapest university, brought us through the monuments and sights of the old centre, explaining the history of the city and country as we went.
“Hungary,” she told us, “has fought many wars; and has lost almost all of them.”
The tour began in Pest, the flatter, more densely inhabited region of the city, on the east side of the Danube. We finished in Buda, the more mountainous region to the west, in a hilltop Renaissance fortress overlooking the city. The thick fog was back, obscuring the view. After the tour, the guides told us that they were going to eat in a local canteen, which served traditional Hungarian dishes at good prices, and invited us to join. The canteen was the kind of place a tourist would never find; tucked away in an alley, with no English advertisements pointing towards it. Myself and Henrique ordered the beef and cabbage goulash. Vlad, being vegetarian, got the halušky dumpling soup.
Later in the afternoon, the three of us visited one of the thermal bathhouses for which Budapest is famous. We went to Szechenyi, the largest and most popular of the spas. Szechenyi was built over a century ago. The hot waters which feed the pools arise from a kilometer below the surface, maintaining a steady temperature of thirty-eight Celsius, however cold the outside air may be. Three large pools, two of which are geothermally heated, lie in the central courtyard of a grand manor, the rooms of which are filled with saunas, steam rooms, and plunge pools.
Being early February, the air was cold; almost below freezing. The huge temperature gradient between the heated pools and the atmosphere allowed for large columns of steam to billow from the thermal water. After the sun set, and the floodlights surrounding the pools came on, the rising steam glowed as it floated skywards. We sat in the outdoor pools for a while, admiring the grandeur of the place, before heading inside to explore the labyrinth of smaller rooms. Each sauna or steam room had its own theme. One was brightly lit, with lavender herbs infused with the water vapour. The next was dark, with walls and benches built from old, rustic wood, giving it a strong earthy odour. Some were comfortably warm, where we could lounge on the tiled seats indefinitely. Some were painfully hot, and after a few challenging minutes, we’d find ourselves light-headed and short of breath, and heading for the exit. We spent several hours in the bathhouse, alternating between the outdoor pools and the indoor rooms, quickly making the frigid walk through the cold air which separated them. Eventually, exhausted from being exposed to so many thermal shocks, we decided it was time to leave.