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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Across the street from the Hungarian Operetta is Thália Színház, a performance art theatre.
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.
At Heroes’ Square, we get out and look out for the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath. We follow the signpost shown below.
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.
As I’m taking another picture, a man happily jumps into the middle of my picture, a hilarious photobomb! I crack up laughing.
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.
I love the men playing a serious chess game on the steps of the pool.
Can you spot Mike in the pool below?
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.
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.
The panorama picture I take makes the pool look strangely distorted.
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.
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.”
At the far end of the park is a more graphic and less pastoral scene.
We pass more interesting street art along the way.
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.
I order a tall skinny beer, while Mike gets a short squat one.
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!
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). 🙂