SOAKING IN HISTORY: THE THERMAL BATHS OF BUDAPEST
Hungarians boast that if you dig a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary, you’ll find a hot water spring. With around 80% of the region covering thermal water, they may be right!
Situated on a part of central Europe’s Carpathian Basin— an area where the Earth’s crust is at its thinnest— the landlocked country of Hungary is home to two major river systems (the Danube and the Tisza) and a slew of accessible hot springs. Warmed by the geothermal heat given off by the Earth’s mantle, a classified “hot spring” is any natural spring whose water temperatures are above those of the human body (36.7 °C or 98 °F). Since heated water can retain a heightened level of dissolved solids, hot springs contain elevated mineral content and are often described as medicinal waters.
For over two centuries, locals and visitors have touted the miraculous healing effects of Hungary’s mineral-rich waters alongside the architectural splendor of their ancient bathhouses. For contemporary Hungarians, a visit to the thermal baths can be prescribed by local physicians to improve the health of patients. However, the belief that warm mineral water can benefit one’s health is not a novel concept. In fact, it is widely regarded that the word Spa is actually an acronym that comes from the old Latin expression ‘Sanus Per Aquam’ or ‘health through water’.
A Brief History of Budapest’s Baths
From the first century BC to the fifth century AD, western Hungary was part of the Roman Empire. It was called Pannonia and its largest town, Aquincum was the ancestor of Hungary’s capital city, Budapest. It has been suggested that the Romans may have colonized present-day Hungary because of the healing powers of the region’s thermal waters. Rumor has it that Emporer Marcus Aurelius began construction on the area’s first thermal bath after noticing his soldier’s wounds heal faster when bathed in the thermal springs. Built in the Roman regional capital Aquincum (now part of Óbuda, in northern Budapest), the ancient ruins of Óbuda’s early baths can still be seen at the Aquincum Museum.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Hungary was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Turkish style bathhouses were constructed throughout the city and several remain standing. Known for its medieval Turkish architecture and octagonal dome roof, the Kiraly bathhouse (constructed in 1565 AD) was once used by the Turkish “pashas” who ruled the Buda castle. Like many baths open during the 16th century, soaking in the thermal pools at Kiraly was a luxury only afforded to men. Presently, both men and women can enjoy the picturesque beauty of the elegant dome and wade in the healing waters of the Kiraly bathhouse. Budapest’s Rudas baths and the Lukács baths are also Turkish in origin and enjoyed by tourists and locals alike.
By the 1930s, so many spas had been constructed that the vibrant capital city of Budapest was designated ‘International Spa City’! Currently, the city is home to more than a dozen thermal baths and over 120 natural springs.
Soaking in the Thermal Waters
Before traveling anywhere, I try to familiarize myself with the customs and history of the culture of my destination, buying travel books, reading blogs and perusing photos taken by locals. While prepping for a recent trip to Hungary, I came across several travel guides insisting that a visit to one of the infamous baths is a must. Jet-lagged and looking for a way to adjust to an entirely different time zone, I took a trip to the Szechenyi baths. Located on the Pest side of Budapest, the Szechenyi baths are one of Budapest’s most popular artisanal water houses, a fact made evidently clear on the day of my visit. Though the skies were cloudy and the weather cold, droves of locals and tourists could be found soaking in the warmth of the thermal waters. The crowded pools of warm water offered a respite from the chilly afternoon and the masses remained even after it began to drizzle.
According to records, it took nearly 10 years for a Hungarian engineer named Vilmos Zsigmondy to find water beneath Szechenyi. Once located, Zsigmondy drilled 970 meters (0.6 miles) to reach the concentration of mineral-rich pressurized water that would flow to fill the baths. The first well flowed until 1938, at which time a second well was drilled to feed the bath’s many thermal pools. Today, two hot springs feed Europe’s largest spa baths which include 15 indoor baths and 3 grand outdoor pools.
During WWII, portions of Szechenyi were severely damaged by bombs and required extensive reconstruction. Following Soviet liberation in 1945, the remaining areas of the bathhouse were split into two— with one side of the bath reserved for Soviet soldiers and the other for locals. It was only after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communism in the early nineties that tourists were allowed to enter Szechenyi. Today the contemporary Szechenyi Baths are designed like a Neo-Baroque style palace with offers of golden-hued light, views of locals playing chess, and temperate waters to all who pass through its gates.