The first and last time I visited Budapest was in1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember spending time each day taking the tram to the Szechenyi mineral spa in the City Park. At that time the entrance fee was minimal, the massages were rough ups, and men and women had separate areas to soak in the mineral baths. The dark interior was a neo baroque cupola over the thermal pools, reminding me of a Felllini movie. The only people using the banos at that time where elderly men and women suffering from chronic pain, and arthritis, Young people, after the Soviet occupation, laughed when I asked if they ever went to the mineral baths.
There are over 125 thermal springs under the city of Budapest, the largest in Europe. Unfortunately, visiting a spa has become one of the main draws for tourists. The most popular and my favorite, Szechenyi, has become a Disneyland and not especially clean. The most disappointing change of all was the spas have become co-ed. Who wants to sit in hot mineral springs with a bathing suit.
Visiting Lukas spa on the Buda side of the Danube meant wearing a bathing suit. It was a Saturday afternoon and the indoor baths and outdoor soaking pool were packed with couples flirting and kids splashing. It became clear why the spas here had become
co-ed. It has become a social experience so it attracts locals who would not have gone before and hordes of tourists,increasing the revenue tenfold or more. It’s a party, not a relaxing intimate experience. Searching online, I discovered Rudas thermal baths, located on the Buda side across the Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd). One of the oldest Turkish baths, built around the 16th century, offers women only visits on Tuesdays, men only the other four days and co-ed on the weekends. I was surprised when I visited on Tuesday to see more than half of the women, young and old, wearing bathing suits. As I sat in the very hot pool 42 c(107 F), I noticed there were black steel bars supporting the ancient columns covering the cupola. Five hundred years is a long time to stand on its own.
As I wandered the narrow streets of Budapest, lined with wonderful examples of early 20th century architecture, I thought about the tacky trash being built in Seattle. Searching on Airbnb, we found an apartment dating back to the early 20th century. The home was renovated and spacious with 2 bedrooms and 2 baths, balconies, a kitchen and living room, and 13ft high ceilings. An ancient birdcage elevator, transported us to the third floor but it was much quicker to run down the elegant marble stairs. Many of these homes had been owned by Hungarian Jews, murdered the last year of the war by the Nazis or the fascist Arrow Cross party.
We didn’t see homeless people in any of the post-communist countries until we arrived in Budapest. There were so many down and out men and women, sitting on benches or so drunk they were sprawled out on the street.. And every day, as I walked in our neighborhood, I saw the same faces from the day before, disheveled, forlorn with a bottle of beer or alcohol in their hands.
Comparing Almaty with Budapest, both were modernizing, building expensive apartment houses and condos, shopping malls, espresso bars, health clubs and good restaurants. Whereas Budapest had always been a historic city, the old architecture was more beautiful than the new. Almaty built by the Russians and then the Soviets, is memorable for its beautiful parks and trees, more than its buildings.