Internationally acclaimed spa photographer, Daniel Leser, takes us on a tour of one his favorite European cities and spills a few of its liquid hotspots.
If Sydney has its sparkling harbor, Paris its golden boulevards, Rome its ancient ruins, then Budapest has its therapeutic waters. A famous river literally runs through it, and if medicinal waters are not just the source of life, but the elixir for good health, then perhaps this explains why in a country of barely 20 million people, there is such a rich history of brilliant minds and bewitching beauties. The place is overflowing with Nobel Prize winners, writers, artists, composers, and people whose fetching qualities are enough to wash the eyes clean.
I came here to escape the sweltering heat and blinding light of an Australian summer; to wander the Christmas night markets, eat bowls of steaming goulash, slices of strudels, all washed down by mulled wine and the seductively sweet and strong national brandy, ‘Palenka’. I wanted to walk the cobbled streets of Buda – the hilly and historic side of the city, and its separated sister-city, Pest, bridged and bound by the once blue Danube which courses through its centre.
Flanked by six nations – Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, the Ukraine, Romania and Serbia – Hungary stands at the crossroads of a new Europe, and under the ancient ground of its captivating capital exists a network of thermal caves, springs and artesian wells that have, throughout time, intrigued and enticed conquerors and visitors alike. And whilst many are lured by art, shopping, nightlife, and more, I came for the purest of its hidden treasures – its spas, or ‘bathhouses’ as they are locally known. Hungary might be on its knees economically, but unlike its old Eastern bloc neighbors, its capital is blessed with a natural resource that is the envy of the world.
Where to Spa
With 130 hot springs spewing 70 million liters of water to the surface every day–vertical rivers rich in calcium, magnesium, bicarbonates, alkalis, sulphuric compounds, and other minerals–it’s little wonder this jewel on the Danube has held a magnetic attraction for centuries.
First settled by the Celts around AD 41-54, it was the Romans who colonized the city nearly a half century later, partly because of the seemingly endless network of thermal springs spurting to the surface. Under Roman rule Budapest began to flourish and by the end of the second century a population of 40,000 was able to take the cure in up to 14 thermal spas. In other words, it’s the Romans we should thank for first seeing the potential of this underground water supply and for consequently building some of the great bathhouses of the world, the ruins of which still remain today.
It was under Turkish rule, however, that the most celebrated and surviving bathhouses were constructed. During the 16th and 17th centuries the Rudas, Kiraly and Lukács Thermal Baths materialized in the centre of the city, as well as the grand Gellert Baths – now an imperious Art Nouveau spa complex. And the recently restored Racz Thermal Spa, with its maze of meticulously refurbished thermal pools, steam rooms, saunas, and private spa suites, is set beside a soon-to-open deluxe hotel.
During the city’s golden age (1913 to be precise), the Szechenyi Medicinal Bathhouse was also constructed and then expanded upon in 1927. Today this neo-Baroque palace is Europe’s hottest and largest spring fed spa complex, complete with three outdoor and 15 indoor pools, a ‘beach site’ with segregated nude summer sunbathing on its rooftops, Swedish and Turkish saunas, massages, mud packs, and carbonated baths. Closing at 10pm, it is little wonder the Szechenyi is always full of locals and tourists alike.
A note of caution: don’t expect to be pampered and coddled like you would in many Western or Asian spas. This is bathhouse east-Euro style where you’re left to yourself to drift from pool to pool; although, if chess is your caper (as it is for many Hungarians), you might like to while away the hours playing on stone boards sunk into the water. Afterwards, you can repair to the restaurant and rest area where the obligatory schnitzel sandwiches and Kolbász (sausage) rolls are on offer, as well as a daybed to sleep it all off upon.
Given their history, it’s not surprising then that Hungarians love to bathe. They bathe at dawn, at dusk and in the moonlit hours. There’s such a tantalizing range of medical spas, public baths and swimming pools in the city (24 in total), 10 of which have special medicinal and therapeutic value. Some even feature hospitals and doctors who unashamedly use thermal therapy as a vital treatment, so it’s fair to say that in Budapest, every watery whim can be satisfied.
In Budapest the relationship to water and healing is at its most sophisticated, whilst still fun. The company Cinetrip even held raging spa parties called ‘Sparties’ at the Szechenyi, Rudas, Lukacs and Kiraly thermal baths. Unfortunately, due to legislative changes these steamy nights were stopped from happening inside. However, in the summer months the outside spectacle will return to the Szechenyi baths.
Where to Play
Whilst it’s easy to disappear for days in these warm waters, Budapest offers a treasure trove of other sights worth exploring. Browse down Kiraly Street and Andrassy Avenue for the most fashionable boutiques, galleries, interior design and furniture stores on show. Savor the spirit of Europe’s largest synagogue and the surrounding old Jewish quarter of Pest or visit the Antiques Row for hidden delights. The Central Market Hall, opened in 1897, is Hungary’s largest indoor market selling salamis, sausages, sweets, spices, fruit, veggies, and other delicacies on the lower floors, as well as handicrafts and food stalls on the first floor. Try the fried flat bread lángos rubbed with garlic, and grated cheese and sour cream drizzled on top. Beyond here, gourmet restaurants, beer houses, including many retro den-like ones referred to as the ‘Ruin Pubs’ of Pest’, are some of the delights to revel in by night. With no shortage of chic bars and clubs like Boutiq, Instant, or the Moulin Rouge, don’t forget to dress to impress, as the Hungarians are amongst the most stylish dressers in Europe.
Were to Eat
There are also more cafés than you can poke a strudel at. The timeless New York Café was the clubhouse for Hungary’s great writers and intellects like Ferenc Molnar and the literary ‘Home Circle’ he was a member of in the early 20th century. The so-called ‘artists tables’ attracted stars of the screen and stage like Alexander Korda and Michael Curtis, as well as celebrated composers Pongrác Kacsó and Imre Kálmán. Local lore has it is that this is where Kasco and Kalman penned their musical masterpieces cozied up in the corner; and where, after its opening in 1894, Molnar and some fellow writers threw the keys to the café into the Danube so that it would never close. Now that’s love! Have a Hungarian ham and salami selection with goat’s cheese, washed down by Tokaj Aszu, the finest national wine. A classic cake, like the 5-layered sponge, chocolate buttercream and ground almonds Dobos Cake, complete with coffee, and well… another Palenka please, and that could even inspire the creative genius in you too!
Another grand neo-Baroque cafe is the glittering Gerbeaud in Vörösmarty Square with its crystal chandeliers and silk-carpeted walls. Originally opened as a cake shop in 1858, to this day it is Budapest’s finest spot for sweets and coffee. Once frequented by the great composer Franz Liszt, the Hapsburg royal family, and the cultural élite of the golden age, today you can be a humble member of the proletariat and enjoy the city’s most historic café.
Where to Stay
For places to stay, there’s a wide selection to suit every budget, all being great value by western standards. The most majestic of them all, The Four Season’s Gresham Palace is impeccably appointed with a spa on top, replete with lap pool, sauna, steam room, and spa treatments. This is luxury at its finest. The Boscolo, located above the New York Café, also ranks as another historic 5-star palatial place. The 4-star Lanchid Boutique Hotel is a modern and elegant alternative, with floor to ceiling windows looking right out over the Danube. From here you’re only a short tram ride to The Rudas and Gellert Bathhouses, and the cable car up to the Buda hills is a minute’s walk from the hotel door.
Getting around the city must be done on Europe’s oldest metro–the Millennium Underground–a sight in itself with authentically refurbished tunnels and exhibitions at every station. The old trams are also a way of easily and elegantly getting around. Budapest is undoubtedly a traveler’s delight and in this age of uncertainty, one thing remains true – in Budapest the warm waters just keep on flowing.
Daniel Leser began his career in Australia as a photojournalist before focusing on Interiors, Spas, Travel and Lifestyle photography. His work has taken him around the world from hotels and spas throughout Asia and Europe, to front cover assignments in the Australian outback on the hot topic of Coal Seam Gas. His work has been featured in magazines and newspapers such as Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Elle, Good Weekend, Vogue Living, Asia Spa, Destinasia, the Bangkok Post and the South China Morning Post. To view more of his work, visit: www.leserphotography.com