Five years ago I decided to implement a plan that had been brewing in my mind for a long time – to take a group of In Balance readers on a city break and to experience Hungarian thermal spas.
We booked into Hotel Margitsziget on St Margaret’s Island which had its own thermal spa and a range of treatments – many only available with medical approval, although we had the choice of a range of massages and beauty treatments.
Only having three days to visit, we needed to get moving – and fast! For the group briefing we consulted our copies of the excellent Budapest City Guide, generously provided by Bradt travel guides. In constant use every day, the small size made it an ideal travelling companion in pocket or handbag. Update: It is now in its third edition. The maps fold out – great improvement with points of interest numbered and cross referenced. Physically it has doubled in size. Much improved and very, very informative.
One of the first things we learned is that the city is a misnomer. The reality is two cities – Buda and Pest, one each side of the river. With so much to see it was a smart move to arrange a coach tour with a guide. Driving around Buda, we were really very impressed: the historic city has been well restored and, at night, the main buildings are lit giving the city a fairytale backdrop. Great views and a real treat for the photographers.
Across the Danube, Pest was another story altogether. Flat and built up, many of its buildings have a stucco finish which was broken almost everywhere giving the city a tired and run down feel. Work on an extension to the Metro was causing traffic havoc.
Overall, the two cities had a melancholy beauty. Everywhere we saw cruelly pruned trees and piles of rubbish in the streets, awaiting collection.
The people were great though! In our hotel they were really helpful and friendly, although a little shy and slow to approach us at first. But we’d made a great choice for a relaxing base – for example, Lucia, one of the group, quickly forgot which day it was she was so chilled out! The thermal baths were excellent, clean and relaxing.
Interestingly Budapest had become a medical tourism centre, visited by many from the UK for the good value for money dental treatment. (You might like to read our later feature concerning dental treatment abroad). Around the hotel, we got chatting to several visitors from the UK with positive stories to tell about their experiences. Cosmetic surgery and laser eye treatment were popular.
Many of the old state run services, like health, still worked extremely well. Transport was very reliable and easy, with frequent trams, double coach buses, taxis, metro, bikes and river boats, a single ticket system linked all public transport. We found the ticketing regulations complex and struggled at times to travel legally!
Apart from our own hotel, we spent some time in Hotel Gellert – a general cry for coffee and cakes break!
The hotel’s own thermal spa is available to the public with its main bathing hall renovated and opulent. However the women’s changing area was awful – run down and smelly, with unlockable cubicles for your belongings. Bathing in the women’s pool was naked – an experience not to be missed. Or repeated depending on your view! The hot water gushes straight out of the rock and was absolutely wonderful to stand under it and have a good, natural massage on the shoulders, and other parts if you wished of course!
On aspect of nude bathing is that it is a natural leveller and also an educational experience. Never knew there were so many different shapes of parts of the body. Luckily the mixed pool insisted on swimwear. Thank goodness.
But our visit wasn’t all about healthy living! We ate in traditional restaurants and experienced the dated atmosphere, where music was provided generally by violinists and guitar players. Much of the food we found to be overcooked, but the exceptions were the freshly cooked dishes like trout with almonds and the baked salmon we found in a fish restaurant. We also enjoyed Hungarian dishes including hortobagh palatsinta – chicken minced with cream and paprika.
As luck would have it we visited during the Spring Festival, a time of music, dance and theatre. One of our stops was at an outdoor craft market with food stalls – a chance to try some more local snacks! And I was rather taken by a flute seller who played his heart out for us.
Organisational problems were few except when a couple somehow got separated from the main group, twice. So I quickly learnt how it important it was to always check mobile phones will work in the country you are visiting!
Well that was six years ago. It would be interesting to revisit and compare experiences. We would go later in the year, probably early April when it would be a good deal warmer, brighter and more conducive to joining in the city’s famous cafe society habit of people watching.
We stayed at the Danubuis Hotel Margitsziget on St Margaret’s Island www.danubiushotels.com
An informative website is www.gotohungary.co.uk
Val Reynolds Brown, Editor