a walking tour of pest & a confusing (but fun!) visit to the széchenyi thermal bath

Saturday, September 23:  After lunch, following a Lonely Planet Hungary walking tour of Budapest, we stroll up Andrássy út, the most expensive street in Hungary. On this grand street, we find the Hungarian State Opera, and though we missed the final 3:00 English tour, we determine to return another day. Statues of opera muses adorn the first floor façade while great composers such as Verdi and Mozart line the second floor.

Hungarian State Opera House

A side street, Dalszínház utca, leads us to the New Theatre, a 1990 reconstruction of the original by Béla Latja (1909). On the façade parapet, nine gilded ceramic angels carry tablets spelling out the name of the theatre, and globes and geometric designs feature shades of early Art Deco.

New Theatre
New Theatre
Fanciful balconies
splashes of color

A block up from the Hungarian State Opera, on Nagymező Street, we find the “Broadway of Budapest,” with the Budapest Operetta (Budapesti Operettszínház) at Number 17. This musical theater with its pink facade features 500 performances per year of Hungarian operettas and contemporary musicals, as well as historical-literary musicals aimed at the younger generation, making it one of the most frequented theaters in Hungary.  I love its fancy wrought iron canopy and old world elegance.

The Budapest Operetta
The Budapest Operetta
inside the Budapest Operetta

Mike stops on a bench for a brief chat with Emmerich (or Imre) Kálmán (24 October 1882 – 30 October 1953), a Hungarian operetta composer who was one of Adolph Hitler’s favorite composers despite his Jewish origins. After Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938, he rejected Hitler’s offer to become an “honorary Aryan” and was forced to move to Paris. After his emigration, performances of his works were prohibited in Nazi Germany. He eventually settled in California in 1940, returning to Vienna from New York in 1949 before moving in 1951 to Paris, where he died.

Mike has a chat with Imre Kálmán

The eight-story Neo-Renaissance Mai Manó House houses the Hungarian House of Photography, a photo gallery, featuring world-class exhibitions.  After it was built in 1894 as a photo studio, it was the home and workplace of Manó Mai, the former imperial and royal court photographer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Mai Manó House
Mai Manó House – photo taken by Mike Dutchak

We find the leaning statue of Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet who was shot by the Nazis in 1944 and tossed into a mass grave.  When his body was found, a small notebook of poems was retrieved from his overcoat pocket.  From love poems to the wife he’d never see again to poems depicting the gruesome horrors of the Nazi regime, his small collection is a chilling masterpiece about the barbarism experienced during the Holocaust.

Miklós Radnóti, the leaning statue

Across the street from the Hungarian Operetta is Thália Színház, a performance art theatre.

Thália Színház

Our Budapest Walking Tour would have taken us ever-so-slowly to Heroes’ Square, but we are in a hurry to visit the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath before dinner.  Instead of walking, we take our Airbnb host Charlie’s advice and take the Metro 1, known in Budapest as “the underground” (“a földalatti”), the oldest line of the Budapest Metro system, built from 1894 to 1896. In 2002, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  After many frustrating moments figuring out how to buy tickets, Mike finally figures it out and we’re on board.

Metro 1, also known as The Underground

At Heroes’ Square, we get out and look out for the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath.  We follow the signpost shown below.

Signs at Heroes’ Square

How confounded we are by the workings of the Széchenyi Thermal Bath! Of course the language barrier makes it difficult, but the impatient attitude of the ticket salesperson also puts us off to the point where we almost consider walking away. Almost.  In the end, I’m glad we persevere.  It’s quite the experience.

The daily ticket with locker usage is 5,100 Forints, about $19.55 each. Simple enough.  But, there’s the issue of the towels. We didn’t bring our own towels, so we need to rent them.  The ticket salesperson mutters something about 3,000 Forints, which is about $11.50.  Surely, the entry fee can’t be nearly $20 and the towels nearly $12?!! That seems rather outrageous. It takes us quite some time to figure out that we must pay 3,000 Forints per towel, but 2,000 of that is simply a deposit that will be returned to us when we return the towels.  We finally commit and pay our fees, heading inside the locker rooms wearing electronic wristbands to lock the lockers.

It’s confusing because there is only one locker room for both men and women.  Where on earth are we supposed to change?  By watching other people, we find there are little cabins with doors on two sides, one leading into the locker room, and one to an outer area. Mike and I change in one shared cabin.  Mike figures out that to lock both doors, we must fold down a panel on the bench seat, which in effect blocks both doors.  We change and carry our heaps of discarded clothing into the locker room, stuff them into lockers #150 and #151, double test them, and then proceed into the pool area wearing our wristbands.  We are both worried about this procedure as all our money, credit cards and passports are in our bags.  We had trouble in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland with locking the lockers and then having them accidentally open when we thought they were locked! All seems to work fine here in the end.

We walk through the indoor pools, take a short dip, then head for the outdoor pools.  The outdoor pools are not quite hot enough, in my opinion, for the cold air temperatures.  I don’t bring a phone or camera to take pictures, because for one, I don’t want my camera to get wet, and two, I’m not sure of the protocol.  However, I desperately want to take photos!

After we soak in the outdoor pools for a while, I see a few people walking around the pool decks taking pictures with their phones or iPads, so I go back inside to my locker and grab my phone, stopping to take a picture of one of the indoor baths.

inside the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

As I’m taking another picture, a man happily jumps into the middle of my picture, a hilarious photobomb!  I crack up laughing.

a photobomber at Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Most of all, I want pictures of the outside pools.  So, I take a deep breath and head out into the cold, wearing a towel wrapped around me.  Brrrr!  I have to make this quick.

Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

I love the men playing a serious chess game on the steps of the pool.

an engaging game of chess

Can you spot Mike in the pool below?

Mike in the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Széchenyi Thermal Bath was designed by Gyozo Czigler and built in 1913. The Bath was expanded in 1927 with a public bathing department for gentlemen and ladies and a beach site. In the middle of the 1960s, further transformations took place.

Reconstructing the pools of the swimming section, completed in 1999, included equipping them with water filtering and circulation devices. The so-called fancy bath includes a whirling corridor, underwater effervescence production, neck shower and water beam back massage.  These were installed in the sitting banks, according to the Baths website.

Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

I am determined to take pictures all the way from the far end.  I have to walk past the thermal pool, alongside the 50-meter-long swimming pool, and past the activity pool. The pool at the far end has a spiral whirlpool, which makes for interesting photos. As I walk along the 50-meter swimming pool, which is only 26 degrees C (almost 80F) according to the sign, I see a few hardy souls swimming laps in it. It’s hard to imagine swimming in the cooler water, but I guess the water is still warmer than the air.

swimming pool at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
whirlpool end of the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

The panorama picture I take makes the pool look strangely distorted.

a strangely distorted panorama shot of the whirlpool end of the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Can you spot me in the bath?  I make Mike get out of the nice warm pool to take the picture.  He isn’t too happy about standing outside in the cold.

Me at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

After we stop in at one of the indoor pools, we return to the locker room to change.  Mike takes the towels to the drop-off to get our 4,000 Forints deposit returned.  He faces a bit more confusion as the woman asks him to give her 1,000 Forints, so she can give him a 5,000 Forint bill. He searches through all his coins to put together 1,000, struggling to decipher the values of the coins and becoming flustered in the process.

How disconcerting it is when you first arrive in a new culture and have to figure out all the nuances of language, currency, signage, direction and proper etiquette!

After we finish at the baths, we take Metro 1 back to the Opera and then, beginning on a perpendicular street, take a series of streets back to our Airbnb apartment.  We pass by a little playground park with a pretty mural on the background building.  We’ll pass by this every evening as we make our way “home.”

mural on the wall behind a city park

At the far end of the park is a more graphic and less pastoral scene.

another mural at the city park

We pass more interesting street art along the way.

Budapest Street Art
Budapest Street Art

On the block before our street, we poke our heads into a couple of restaurants and finally go inside the inviting Gettó Gulyás. They don’t have any empty tables so we happily sit at the bar.

Sitting at the bar at Gettó Gulyás

I order a tall skinny beer, while Mike gets a short squat one.

a tall beer at Gettó Gulyás

Our meal starts out well, but in the end, we’re not wholly satisfied. The goose crackling pate and red onion spread on the fresh bread are delicious, as is the beet salad.  But my mushroom stew with egg noodles (what I’d call spätzle) is not that great because of the texture of some of the mushrooms and the strange flavor of the noodles.  Mike’s beef stew is very chewy and he ends up leaving half of it behind.  We resolve not to return to this restaurant despite its cozy ambiance.

Back at Kazinczy utca, our home street, we stop in at an outdoor covered food court, Karaván Budapest, with 10 kiosks.  Here, we each get small cups of ice cream.  I order a brownie topped with vanilla ice cream and Mike gets an apple crumble. It’s a little cold for ice cream, but that doesn’t stop us!

food arcade

I know one of the benefits of staying in an apartment when traveling is that you can eat breakfast in and prepare lunches as well. We could even cook dinner in, but I enjoy eating out too much to do that!  After all, I’m on vacation, even from cooking.  So after we finish our ice cream, we walk to the nearest market to stock up on some food.

How I hate going to markets for mundane things when I’m on holiday!! The market is small and crowded and we can’t figure out what is what.  We finally buy yogurt, granola, cheese, crackers, bread, bananas (which I don’t care for unless they’re in a smoothie but Mike can’t seem to live without), and beers so, as Mike says, “we can stop by the apartment and enjoy afternoon beers before going out for dinner.”  It’s way too much food, and it turns out we never even have time to drink the beers as we usually grab dinner out in the areas where we’re sightseeing, thus never returning to the apartment first.  At the end of our shopping spree, we find that people have brought their own bags and the market doesn’t provide bags!  We stuff all our groceries into our backpacks and resolve to bring bags with us on our next shopping trip.

We have a great first day in Budapest, even though we pushed ourselves to go all day on less than an hour’s sleep the night before, and despite the gloomy weather.  My favorite experiences were enjoying the views from St. Stephen’s Basilica and dipping into the pools at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath.

Total steps today: 13,840 (5.87 miles). 🙂


a gloomy saturday in budapest

Friday to Saturday, September 22-23:  Four days in Budapest and this is our first, but only after Lufthansa carries us, miserably uncomfortable in economy class aisle seats, for 7:55 hours through a six-hour time zone change and across the north Atlantic to Frankfurt.

While airborne, I squirm and wriggle and try to sleep, but manage to snooze less than a half hour, instead captivated by a series of shows on the small screen inset into the seatback: first, a German-language movie Die Reste Mienes Lebens, in which Schimon lives his life following his pregnant wife’s death by clinging to a sentence his grandfather once told him, “Everything in life happens the way it should.” Second, Mama Mia and its exuberant ABBA songs delight me once again (how many times have I watched that movie?), although our destination will be nothing like the Greek island where that magical love story takes place. Finally, I watch the first of seven episodes of the TV-miniseries, Big Little Lies, which took away eight Emmys this year.

We wait in Frankfurt for nearly three hours, where Mike gets a little shut-eye while splayed across the seats in the airport.  All airports should ban armrests and have sets of lounge chairs like Frankfurt does so people can relax between flights. Meanwhile, I busy myself with a fancy coffee and pastry, in what will become a 2-week pastry extravaganza — resulting in a few extra pounds!

Mike taking a nap in Frankfurt

Finally, the airline lifts us the last hour and a half to our destination. We taxi to our Pest neighborhood in a steady drizzle under heavy clouds, bringing to mind the 1999 movie, Gloomy Sunday, which takes place in 1930s Budapest and features the famous melancholic melody which, according to urban legend, triggered a chain of suicides.  The suicide connection is unsubstantiated, but it’s probable that events in the decade in which the song was written, such as famine, poverty and the rise of Nazi Germany, may have influenced the high number of suicides at that time.

Instead it is a Gloomy Saturday, but our enthusiasm at exploring a new city is not one bit dampened.

The taxi drops us off on Kazinczy utca, the street on which Charlie’s Budapest is located; we booked the apartment through Airbnb.  Number 7 is simply a weathered door in a long nondescript wall.  We beep for apartment 7 and soon Charlie arrives with his two lively little girls, Chia and Eliye, to let us in. We enter through two large disheveled 4-story courtyards with peeling yellow paint, hinting at Old World charm. The apartment has a large bright bedroom, a nice well-stocked kitchen with an instant espresso machine, and a patio out the back door which we will use if the weather improves and if we’re able to open and close the door easily (for some reason it’s rather challenging).

The apartment sits on the ground floor in the far corner of two adjoining four-story courtyards.  Our door is to the left of the two pink chairs.

Our apartment door is on the far left bottom corner
the apartment building at Charlie’s Budapest

After Charlie gives us the rundown on Budapest, we put on our raincoats and venture out into the drizzle.

a rainy morning in Budapest

Kazinczy Street is in Budapest’s old District VII neighborhood, the old Jewish quarter, and since spring of 2012 has been dubbed as Street of Culture (a Kultúra utcája). Here in the decaying buildings left by World War II, funky bars and a lively nightlife scene have sprung up amidst the ruins. These so-called “ruin bars” line our street. We plan to visit one during our stay, so I’ll talk more about them when that time comes.

Szimpla Kert, the city’s first and most famous ruin bar, set in a dilapidated apartment complex, sits a few doors down and across the narrow street from our apartment complex.  Tour groups and lone travelers wander down the street, snapping photos of the colorful ruin bars and eatery exteriors with cameras, iPads and smart phones.

the street of ruin bars
our neighborhood

Can you find Waldo in the picture below?

wayward signs
Szimpla Kert

Immediately, Mike throws my detailed plan (outlined in an extensive spreadsheet) out the window, pointing out that going across the Danube to the Buda side doesn’t make sense for today as our apartment is on the Pest side and we’re getting a late start. He’s right of course, so I shrug and we meander through grand pastel-colored baroque, neoclassical, eclectic and Art Nouveau buildings to Szent István tér.

the pastels of Budapest

We wander streets garnished with enigmatic street art, curvaceous facades, vibrant flower stalls, and empty outdoor cafes.

Dressing Room
curvaceous buildings

The outdoor cafes would look inviting but for the light drizzle and cool temps.

outdoor cafe
fierce facade
flower shop

I fall in love with the vintage signs found through Budapest and even end up buying one later in our stay.

Coca-Cola please

The neo-renaissance Roman Catholic St. Stephen’s Basilica looms in front of us at Szent István tér and we must of course climb the 364 steps to the dome’s observation deck. Both the Basilica and the Parliament Building are 96 meters tall, and regulations don’t permit any other buildings in Budapest to be taller than these. The equal heights of these buildings represent a power balance between church and state in Hungary; they also represent the balance between worldly and spiritual thinking.

The patron saint of the church is St. Stephen (c. 975-1038), the first king of Hungary. His mummified right hand is kept in a glass case in the reliquary.

St. Stephen’s Basilica

We find a statue of St. Gregorius in a niche on the wall of the Basilica.

St. Gregorius

We also find Gothic looking details on a building across the way.

Gothic details

After climbing the increasingly narrow and claustrophobic 364 steps to the dome, we find fabulous panoramic views of Budapest from the solid balcony.  The Parliament Building, one of the Basilica’s bell towers, the Buda Hills, and the Budapest Eye Ferris Wheel on Erzsébet Square sprawl out before us.  At this point, I don’t know enough about the city to identify other sites.

View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica

Inside the church, we’re awed by the red marble and gold interior.

Interior of St. Stephen’s Basilica

Doing things in reverse order, we view the front facade of St. Stephen’s Basilica as we exit the building.

front facade of St. Stephen’s Basilica

We’re hungry by this time, and though there are Hungarian restaurants aplenty, we opt for the Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant across the street from the Basilica.  The menu out front looks healthy and enticing.

Looking for a lunchtime restaurant

I can finally shed my raincoat inside the warm and cozy Hachapuri.

Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant

I order Hikali, a set of four dumplings with four different fillings: mushroom, cheese, spinach and potato. Drawings on the menu demonstrate that one should hold the dumpling pouches by the gathered opening, and then bite into them, but I find them too hot and simply cut them up.  They’re delicious.

Hikali – dumplings at Hachapuri

As we will do many times during our trip, we forget to take a picture of Mike’s colorful Vegi Gobi before digging in, so I take a picture of the menu.  The Georgian platter has tomato-cucumber and parsley salads, hummus, cheese with mint, and various flavors of walnut balls served with a light yogurt sauce.  Meant to be shared between family and friends, Mike kindly shares some with me, although I’m too stuffed from my dumplings to partake much in his meal.

Vegi Gobi
Me at Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant in Budapest

Lunch takes longer than we intended and by the time we finish, we realize we will miss the final daily 3:00 English tour of the Hungarian State Opera House.  Instead, we decide to follow the Budapest Walking Tour in Lonely Planet Hungary, walking down Andrássy út, an avenue dating back to 1872 and recognized as a World Heritage Site since 2002. The avenue is lined with Neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses and is one of Budapest’s main shopping streets. The walk ends at Heroes’ Square, near the largest medicinal baths in Europe, Széchenyi Baths.  We have our bathing suits and flip-flops in our backpacks, intending to check it out!