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New Europe

Day Seventy-one: Budapest

The Gellért Hotel, Budapest 
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The opulent Gellért Hotel in Budapest, full of imperial self-confidence. Within two years of its opening in 1918, the Treaty of Trianon reduced Hungary's territory by two-thirds.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThe Hotel Gellért is an institution, and can easily feel like one as you open your door in the morning to find the palatial corridor outside full of shuffling figures in slippers and white flannel robes. Ninety years old next year, it feels as venerable as some of the clients who flock here to take the waters which have made it so famous.

Designed to market the hot springs that well up at the foot of Gellért Hill, and have been noted and recommended since Roman times, the luxuriously appointed hotel was opened with much ceremony in 1918. In France the last battles of the Great War were coming to an end and soon the peacemakers who were to dismember Hungary would set about their work, but the scale and aplomb of the Gellért harked back to the years of imperial confidence that had transformed Budapest into one of the great European capitals.

I've been up for some time studying an intimidating document called the Guide to the Gellért Spa, which fills me in, in considerable detail, on plastic admission cards, wristbands, barcodes and 'decency covers'. As advised, I leave my room, like all the other health-seekers, wearing the gown and slippers provided and carrying a bath cap and valuables in a plastic bag.

The first and easiest mistake is to assume that the hotel lifts will take you to the spa. Wrong. The baths are run, not by the hotel, but by the city of Budapest and are located in a completely different direction from the rest.

The lift is worth finding, not just because it's the only way down, but because it is a fully functioning museum piece, a wood-panelled cabinet set in a decorative cast-iron shaft, and operated by an Edith Piaf lookalike with hair dyed pitch black. As we descend she moistens her finger on a sponge pad, prises an admission card from a thick wad and hands it to me.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-one: Budapest
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Budapest
  • Book page no: 169

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