On our way to Budapest, Renee and I made a one-day stop in Vienna. Luckily it didn’t take us very long to see the city because it was Easter day and nothing was open. The streets were eerily deserted but I can imagine that Vienna is normally an energetic, bustling city. We did stop in Karl’s Cathedral to see the end of a Catholic Easter service and, as someone who has grown up attending Protestant services, the entire thing was foreign and fascinating to me. Tourists hovered at the back as a man in a white robe and golden headdress up front recited important-sounding speeches in German and Latin. But they played the Hallelujah Chorus as the priest led the procession out of the Cathedral, so I found some common ground. Afterwards we saw the Belvedere Palace, had some Schnitzel and drank some Austrian beer, so I feel like we successfully experienced as much of Vienna as possible in our whirlwind stop there.
We left the hostel at seven the next morning, walked a short distance in the crisp morning air to a tram station outside of Westbahnof that took us to the train station, Hauptbahnof. From there we took a train through the Austrian countryside into Budapest, Hungary. We endured a brief telling-off from a very severe Hungarian man who urged us, “Don’t sleep girls! Don’t sleep! Do you understand?” It was clear that he didn’t want us to get robbed while on the train, and I’m very grateful that he seemed so worried about us, but he was very intense about the situation. I can’t imagine he’s much fun at parties.
While in Budapest I had the most casual birthday of all time – which is funny because it was my 21st. I FaceTimed with my parents at 6am their time, and then went on a tour of the city and immediately forgot that it was my birthday. I think I can say I am probably the only American to have one beer on her 21st birthday, but I also can say I spent it in Hungary, so I’m not complaining. Especially since the next day we went to the Budapest Baths.
I have to admit that the whole thing was Renee’s idea and I had absolutely no idea what to expect from the baths, but I was more than willing to go along with it. We took the metro to the end of the line and emerged into the sunlight in front of a crumbling, mustard-yellow building with ornate green trim. When I saw some 80-year-old men climbing the steps with towels around their shoulders I knew we were in the right place.
The first thing that hit me when we walked through the front doors of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths was the thick, sickly-sweet smell of sulfur. I went from being chilled in my thin raincoat to sticky with sweat. We paid 4,200 Hungarian Forints and made our way to the changing room. After spending a long time trying to figure out the confusing locker system – and getting yelled at in Hungarian from a very large security guard – we finally made it into the baths. It turns out that the baths are basically a massive complex of different pools of natural hot springs. We spent a lot of time walking through these endless rooms of steaming pools before even realizing that there was an outdoor section of therapeutic water as well. It had started to sprinkle at this point, so we shivered our way down the steps and across the pavement before slipping in to the startlingly warm water. The rain created little bubbles on the surface and steam as thick as fog drifted into the cool air.
We floated around in the water for what felt like an eternity, watching groups of old men playing chess and young couples drifting back and forth. The beauty of the baths is that there are people of all shapes and sizes, young and old. I saw more old, round, hairy Hungarian men than anything else, which makes me think it is a local spot as well as a tourist destination, if such a place can exist. I am in no way beach-bod ready, but I didn’t feel too self-conscious because no one else seemed to be concerned with how they look, so why should I be? It was a very relaxing way to end our ten-day trip to Eastern Europe.