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New Europe

Day Seventy-one: Budapest

The Gellért Spa 
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Epic entrance to the famous Gellért Spa. The therapeutic waters that emerge here have been an attraction since Roman times.
Michael Palin - New EuropeI step out of the lift, go through a door and find myself in a cavernous space the size of a large railway station. A big, arched Art Nouveau entrance decorated with ceramic tiles opens onto a galleried hall with porphyry columns, a vaulted roof with stained-glass panels and marble statues of naked maidens. It's a place for men with top hats and tails and women with long, satin ballgowns, not confused guests in bathrobes. One of two big boards on the wall tells me that the waters contain calcium, magnesium, hydrogen carbonate, sulphur and chloride, whilst the other describes the services offered, which include everything from Underwater Traction Mud Treatment, Gingival Massage and 'Inhalation for Pensioner', to Impulse Current Therapy, Salt Chamber and the frankly alarming Carbon Acid Tub Bath.

Display my card, barcode uppermost, and proceed through the turnstile, past the Ladies Only and Mixed pools into the changing area of the Gentlemen's Thermal. Here I'm given a rubber wristband and the aforementioned 'decency cover', which is little more than a tiny apron with a loose flap at back and front, and pointed towards another passageway.

I'm getting a little concerned by now, having seen no water of any kind, and fearing I might tumble unwittingly into the Carbon Acid Tub Bath. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and splashing through a foot rinse, I find myself in a lovely arched chamber with a choice of 36° or 38° pools. Choose the hotter and recline against its enamel sides whilst water trickles soothingly onto my head from the mouths of marble cherubs.

Nothing is purely functional here. Every detail, from the stylish curve of a brass handrail to the maidens frolicking in a stained-glass oval in the roof, is there to create the feeling of having fun with some minor deities halfway up Mount Olympus.

The decency covers seem far from obligatory and the older bathers seem to have dispensed with them completely. This, and the fact that the slightest draught blows them aside, makes me a tiny bit apprehensive about entering the steam room. Of course I needn't have worried. The place is full of naked men in animated discussion about the stock market.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-one: Budapest
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Budapest
  • Book page no: 170

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