Are you an uptight workaholic who is afraid to unwind? Stay outta Budapest, pal. This city is for living life and not getting all wound up in the trivial stuff.
It took me awhile to figure this out. I have been in the city for three weeks and was having trouble describing it to people. What was the general pulse of the place? How do you define the ineffable? A lot of places I’ve travelled I can usually get pegged in a day or two of wandering around, observing the natural comings and goings of the city dwellers and what seems to make them tick. Budapest was a much tougher nut to crack and I was stumped to why that was. The first thing people ask is whether the city is beautiful. A reasonable question to ask as every picture of the city on the internet is loaded with beauty. In reality, yes, it is just as pretty as those pictures.
It also has a bit of grime to it. Not a bad sort of grime, but just a settled, lived-in kind. This isn’t a tourist attraction like Disneyland where the park closes and people leave. This is a major city that has people of all walks of life interspersed with all the lovely tourist attractions. That’s the big thing. People live here.
To further that, I have to mention that I mean they “live” in all senses of the word. They occupy space here, inhabiting buildings, etc. But they also enjoy their time doing it. It’s not about a day-to-day grind. It’s about just being.
The first week I was here I couldn’t understand it at all. There I would be, going for a run through the park on a business day and it would be jam-packed with people of all ages and perceivable socio-economic statuses. They’d be walking around, hand-in-hand, or sharing a beer or some wine. They’d be playing in the playgrounds, fathers and mothers with their children. They’d have pickup games of soccer and basketball in the many free facilities. They’d be lying on the ground, soaking up the sun’s rays (tops optional). I’d continue on with my run in the 30-degree heat, convinced that I was the hardest working person there (and I’m on vacation).
But, that’s not it at all. Hungarians aren’t lazy, they just know not to sweat the small stuff and to enjoy what the day has to offer. If the weather is gorgeous, what better time to spend with the ones you love? There are free concerts all over the city and as many diversions as there are hours in the day (in just the City Park, there is a zoo, a bathhouse, a circus, an amusement park, and a bunch of museums). I’ve definitely embraced that mentality and that’s part of the reason that my blog posts have become infrequent. You can forgive me if I’d prefer to lie in the grass and read a book under the sun, yes?
Of course, my own traits are hard to shake completely. One day I found a hill in the park that had lots of sun and decided to spread a towel out and read, soaking up the Vitamin D. My tan so far this summer is relatively faint (with the typical exception of farmer’s tanned neck/arms), so I decided to get rid of a bit of the milky white on my back. I tried to lie there and relax and dive deep into Dostoevsky (nearly finished the Brothers Karamazov), but wouldn’t it just happen that a swarm of Hungarian bees arrive. I tend to get annoyed by a single fly landing on me, so having fifty bees tickling my bare legs and back was not at all pleasant. I swatted them away the best that I could, but they would not relent. I looked around at the other sun worshippers on the hill and they were all unbothered. In fact, even the nearly-nudes were having no issues and they had the most skin exposed to this onslaught of us all. I had to sit there and bear the bees until I could finish my beer and pack up and leave. Needless to say I haven’t quite got past Dmitri’s trial.
If I wasn’t quite able to unwind on a hill infested with bees, well then at least I could enjoy a traditional Turkish bathhouse. The first night that I arrived in Budapest I went with two friends that I had met in Bratislava to the Rudas baths for a Saturday co-ed night. Typically, at many bathhouses there are segregated bathing periods by gender during the days. When this happens, the women supposedly wear a toga-like item and the men wear loincloths. One of the other things to scare off (or entice, I guess) potential bathers is that certain baths on certain days have a reputation as being a place for gay cruising. One such description in my Lonely Planet guidebook says that on Tuesdays you can expect “intense cruising” at a particular bathhouse. Not remotely interested in that type of experience and not blessed with a command of the Hungarian language to turn away advances (“Csak hadd fürödjön!”), I definitely saw the benefits of just going on a “normal” co-ed night.
On co-ed night at Rudas, the opening hours are from 10pm to 4am, which is a really cool idea in theory, but definitely dangerously late for a group of weary Western travellers who took a 6am train from Bratislava that morning. Instead of loincloths or togas, normal swimwear is required. “Normal” being a relative term, as anything from banana slings to long trunks were worn by the men (note to any male considering a skimpy bathing suit, after consulting with my female friends, you basically have to be built like Daniel Craig to pull it off, so don’t humiliate yourself, mate). Each bather is given a wristband with an RFID tag in it that unlocks your own personal cabana changing room, where you can safely store all your belongings. It was a pretty cool experience to know that you have your own personal locker that you can climb into.
After changing, you make your way through the showers and give yourself a rinse before you enter the baths. In the centre of the bathhouse was a large warm bath underneath a dome that had small coloured circular skylights. There were four additional baths (one in each corner of the room), each with a different temperature, ranging from coldish-lukewarm all the way to toasty. There were a couple side rooms as well, one with a very chilly bath, another with a steam room, and a wing that had three different sauna rooms (each of intensifying temperature).
What to say about spending about four hours in varying temperatures of water? It was damned relaxing and a very enjoyable experience. The fact that I woke up the next day with the sniffles was totally worth it (and to be fair, I had felt a cold coming on a day or two earlier). If you have the chance, I do think that a midnight trip to a bathhouse is a requisite activity for a visit to Budapest.