An Adventure at the Thermal Baths in Budapest

The last few weeks have been exhausting. It hasn't been anything in particular - it's just life you know. Does life ever actually slow down? Wait, don't answer that. I don't think I want to know. 

The past weeks have been tiring and wonderful. Jacob and I joined a boxing gym (check that one off of the life-long-dream and things-I-need-to-master-before-I-can-become-a-spy lists) and it is thoroughly kicking our butts into shape. It's awesome. 

Our careers are advancing in wonderful ways (catch that? I said career because that is what we actually have now...not just jobs). Sometimes I need to remind myself how ridiculously blessed I am to be 26 and have a career - that is increasingly rare these days. 

And the past few weeks have made my head spin. Like when the elderly lady sitting across from me on the subway after work the other day started yelling at me for have "two cell phones" (my iPod and my cell phone were in my hand). I didn't catch everything she said but from the context and the sympathetic looks I was receiving I am assuming it was something along the lines of "damn youths and their technology". 

So rather than telling you about my recent boxing class inspired revelation of "I didn't even know it was possible to sweat that much", I am going to tell you a story from when Marcia, Jacob's mother, Jacob, and myself went to Budapest for a weekend. 

So, a few weeks ago that I wish I could teleport to and re-live, Marcia, Jacob, and I took off for a weekend in Budapest. We knew Marcia would love it. Not only is it a beautiful and fascinating city, it is host to more amazing restaurants, cafes, and thermal baths/spas than can be adequately enjoyed in just one weekend. We did our best though. We ate and drank our way through Budapest, soaking in the sunset light on the Danube on a wine-tasting river cruise, then soaking in the thermal waters of one of the traditional spas Budapest is known for. 

The view from our boat on the river cruise. 

The view from our boat on the river cruise. 

A Hungarian specialty called Langos. It is deep-fried bread with your choice of toppings - in our case, sour cream, cheese, bacon, onion, and tomato. It was delicious in a "I don't care if I die young" type of way until your body suddenly wakes up and realizes what you are eating. Tried it once, never again. 

A Hungarian specialty called Langos. It is deep-fried bread with your choice of toppings - in our case, sour cream, cheese, bacon, onion, and tomato. It was delicious in a "I don't care if I die young" type of way until your body suddenly wakes up and realizes what you are eating. Tried it once, never again. 

A daytime walk through Szimpla Kert, the popular bar that first kicked off the "Ruin Bar" movement that caught like wildfire in Budapest. In case you are wondering, "Ruin Bar" is short-hand for a bar whose aesthetic was determined by an "anything goes" mentality and items salvaged while dumpster diving. Think things like half-sawed off bath tubs, detached car chairs with the stuffing coming out of gashes in the fabric, marker graffiti on the walls, etc. 

A daytime walk through Szimpla Kert, the popular bar that first kicked off the "Ruin Bar" movement that caught like wildfire in Budapest. In case you are wondering, "Ruin Bar" is short-hand for a bar whose aesthetic was determined by an "anything goes" mentality and items salvaged while dumpster diving. Think things like half-sawed off bath tubs, detached car chairs with the stuffing coming out of gashes in the fabric, marker graffiti on the walls, etc. 

It was our last day in Budapest, and after so many cumulative hours of walking we decided the best use of our time would be a nice long soak and a massage. We went to a wonderful bath called Rudas, styled like a Turkish Hammam. The main room had 5 baths, one in the center, with four in each corner of the room of ascending temperatures. It smelled a bit in there, that sulfuric smell that is somehow acceptable when you can convince yourself the waters are good for you. 

We hopped from bath to bath, occasionally stopping to go into the steam sauna. (Bathing suits were required for those of you who will wonder.) The steam sauna was an experience in itself. The first time I went in I completely fell apart. I pride myself on being someone who would be level-headed in a crisis, but apparently 122 Fahrenheit of concentrated heat is too much crisis for me to handle. Jacob and Marcia had gone in ahead of me - Marcia had sat down like a normal person, whereas I froze in place, trying to breathe, struggling to open my eyes, and unsure of what to do because every move I made just made me hotter. After standing there like an idiot for (what felt like) an eternity, Marcia told me to come and sit down by her. I sat down and realized Jacob was missing - the steam was too thick to see him. I called out for him (sorry other sauna-users, it was too hot to be courteous), and he called back - he was on the floor. That's right folks, Jacob had gone into the sauna and pretty much immediately just lay down on the floor, knowing that would be where it be coolest. The only problem was that if he passed out from the heat we would never find him. 

The bucket of cold water waiting for us on the other side of the sauna was such an endorphin rush that the pain was forgotten. Somewhat like childbirth, or so I hear. 

After a couple of masochistic trips to that sauna, it was time to prep for our 30 minute "aromatherapy" massage. Marcia had treated us each to a massage and we were all slotted in at 2:00 PM. Thirty minutes prior to our massage we decided to go to the "resting room" (basically the nap room, if we were in Preschool), which gave us a clear shot to the massage area. 

The hallway to the massage rooms. 

The hallway to the massage rooms. 

Marcia was getting increasingly nervous. Jacob had checked out the massage area earlier and reported seeing a burly Hungarian man massaging someone in one of the rooms. From where Marcia was positioned she could see three middle aged man chatting in the corridor. They in themselves were a motley bunch - one was in the spa uniform, another was pot-bellied and wearing nothing but a towel, and the third was blind, shirtless, and wearing white booty-shorts while holding his cane. Assumedly the blind guy and shirtless dude were two regulars chatting with one of the staff. 

Time came for our massage and we went over to the trio standing in the hallway by the massage area. After a moment of confusion a second man in a spa uniform scanned Jacob's massage receipt, said something unintelligible to us, and promptly walked away.  

Moment of silence. 

Then the blind guy speaks up. "Follow me!", and leads Jacob down the hallway, tapping his cane to the entrance of the massage room. 

I stood there, slightly petrified. But before I could think, the man wearing nothing but a towel turned to me and grunted. Oh dear. I would have preferred the blind man. I followed the towel-man into a massage room. 

Marcia got the guy wearing a uniform. 

Now from here I will break it up into our individual experiences: 

Jacob: Jacob was told to lie down on the table, so he did - on his back. The blind man tapped around a bit with his hands, and then went "No! Turn over!". So Jacob did. The blind man tapped down to his foot, then started massaging. Jacob's verdict: overall, it was a good massage. Perhaps a bit unorthodox, and the harmonica music playing on the radio was odd, but it was good.

Chelsea: Frankly, I was terrified. When given a choice of whether to lie on my stomach or back, I opted for my stomach and came up with a plan. Anything gets fishy and I will kick him in the face and make a run for it. Thankfully he left the door open so that helped a bit. But still. Secondly, that was not aromatherapy. That was just plain old unscented oil. 

Now, I am not sure what the European standard for massages are, but I have come to expect certain things: a relaxing atmosphere, quiet, minimal distraction. Not so here apparently. To my naked masseuse's credit, nothing unseemly happened, unless you consider him placing a hand on my back and my butt and shaking vigorously unseemly.

There was, however, some guy standing in the door way having a conversation with my masseuse, as I listened to the harmonica music wafting from Jacob's room. At one point I opened my eyes and in the plastic room-divide could see my reflection as my masseuse massaged my neck with one hand, other hand on his hip, as he engaged in passionate conversation with the guy standing in the doorway. 

Marcia: As soon as Marcia saw Jacob walking away with the blind masseuse, and myself with the wearing-a-towel-is-he-naked? guy, she couldn't stop giggling. She followed her fully clothed masseuse to the room and lay down on the massage bed, trying to stop laughing. In the end she had to imagine her husband (Jacob's dad) dying to stop giggling during the massage. 

The moment we all saw each other though...

The Hungarian massage we will never forget. And truthfully, the funniest story I have had to share in a while. Budapest never disappoints. 


Budapest: A Picture Book

Jacob and I recently took our first real trip away from Vienna, heading to Budapest for the weekend with our good friends Neil and Zoe.

Zoe had been the first to plant the idea of a trip to Budapest. It had been high on the list since our short visit two years ago (which consisted mostly of parking the car and running around for an hour), but as I have mentioned earlier, Jacob and I were having trouble peeling ourselves away from Vienna - even for a weekend. Zoe, however, had a purpose for going to Budapest that extended beyond your average tourist curiosity: she had discovered the Hairy Hog festival. 

The Hairy Hog festival is an entire weekend-long festival dedicated to the various foods made from a specific type of pig that has thick curly hair. Considering that one of the first things Zoe and I bonded over was our mutual love of food, she knew that Jacob and I would share in her and Neil's enthusiasm for a festival dedicated to pork. She was right. 

Jacob and I took the bus early on Friday morning, arriving into Budapest around 10:00 am. The plan was to take the day to explore the city, then meet up with Neil and Zoe who would be arriving by train in the evening. Upon arriving to Budapest, Jacob and I upheld our time honored tradition and promptly got lost. (I will say, however, that we are slowly beginning to learn from our repeated traveling mistakes...this time we made sure to eat a snack upon arrival and skip the "hangry" [hungry+angry] phase of our arrival to a new place). 

Budapest immediately makes an impression. It continues to fascinate me how, in some parts of the world, crossing a border can spell such an immediate shift of atmosphere. Vienna, though very much located in "Central Europe", feels much more like Western Europe than Budapest does. Though Budapest lies just a couple of hours from Vienna, the weight of it's history - as Vienna's sister city in the Austro-Hungarian empire, it's tragedies and losses in WWII, the Cold War, and beyond, lies heavy on the shoulders of the city. Everything from the glory of the Hapsburgs, to the decimation of the Jewish population and the heavy hand of Communism, is etched into Budapest's stones. 

It hits you like a wave as you walk through the city. If Vienna is the pristine older sister who has her act together and constantly steals the spotlight, Budapest is the black-sheep younger sister who has a taste for the macabre. 

Adding to the immediate disorientation is the language. Hungarian is a tongue which stems from a family of languages that I have absolutely no familiarity with. While I typically pride myself on my ability to quickly adapt to new languages, Hungarian doesn't give any footholds to someone who only knows Romantic or Germanic based languages. Reading a map often deteriorated into "we need to take a right at Nahg-ehz-blehbleh street". 

Scanning a metro map of the city, Jacob and I picked a stop that appeared to be within the city center and decided to head there. We arrived above ground, dragging our weekend suitcase behind us, and looked around. Almost immediately to my right was a small door propped open in a large wrought iron gate. I poked my head in, and found this: 

Abandoned. Devoid of people or shops, with only a mop and bucket propped up in the corner. It was enchanting. What surreal world had we stumbled into?

Jacob and I spent the next hour wandering around, ducking our heads against the ferocious winter winds that skim from the Danube, until we located our apartment and a café to while away the time. This building lay just around the corner from our apartment, once again looking quite forlorn and unused - though I wouldn't be surprised if you told me the Addam's Family lived there. 

That evening Jacob and I ventured out to meet Zoe and Neil at the train station. The problem was however, that their train was not arriving at the main station, but at a small outpost set of tracks that runs through a neighborhood on the city limits. Looking at this train station on Google Maps, it is not very apparent that the station even exists. Unable to do anything but follow the directions Google provided to us, we stepped off the tram into a dark industrial neighborhood dotted with ramshackle houses. We crossed the street towards the tracks and down an unlit street with sidewalks made of dirt and broken pavement. It wasn't looking promising. 

Spotting a house ahead with a dim light shining through the window, we figured that may be our train station. It was. Once again, I questioned what surreal world we had found ourselves in, where international trains arrive to deposit their passengers at an empty shack on the edge of a cosmopolitan city. This was a world where where hidden corners had yet to be touched by the hand of commercialism. This train station, likely built in the communist-era, was a holdout against the rising tide of McDonalds and Starbucks. In a way, it was as refreshing as it was unfamiliar. 

Two familiar faces appeared from the train. It was time for the Budapest and pork-eating extravaganza to begin. 

The next morning dawned mercifully sunny, and we set out early to our first coffee shop. Have I mentioned that Zoe and I (and Jacob and Neil for that matter), really like food? Budapest has a great deal of delicious, affordable food. Zoe and Neil had come armed with lists of coffee shops to try, ensuring that we would stay very well caffeinated during our trip. 

Commence the touristy things:
Walk across the Chain Bridge. 
Visit the Hospital In The Rock (Cave system-turned WWII hospital-turned Nuclear Bunker).
Walk around St. Michael's church and Fisherman's Bastion with breathtaking views of the city. 

Visit (more like stand and stare with gaping mouth) Parliament.

Walk along the sobering memorial to Jewish Hungarians who were murdered along the Danube.

Visit Hero's Square.

Meandered through a Ruin Bar (a very...specific...trend of bars and clubs in Budapest that are decorated by hanging random ...stuff... all over their walls. I was ever-so-slightly disappointed. I was hoping we would be drinking a beer in an old bunker or something.)

And a lot more. We spent our days going at a breakneck speed, and I still feel like we only scraped the surface of the city. There is something beautiful, heartbreaking, and fascinating at every turn.  

One of the highlights however, was the Hairy Hog festival itself. Before I get to that however, I want to explain this:

This picture shows an ongoing public demonstration (in the foreground) against the sculpture/memorial in the background. Though I cannot do the story justice, I will attempt to describe the situation. The memorial was apparently erected overnight in 2014, having been approved by a political party who had failed to consult the public before signing off on the designs. Originally the sculpture was memorializing the day that Germany (depicted by the black falcon) captured Hungary (the archangel is extending the golden orb of Hungary to the falcon). Many, many people were understandably angered by this memorial. In the face of the public scandal, the engraving on the sculpture was quickly blotted out and replaced with text saying that the memorial was to the "Victims of the German invasion of Hungary". Anger over the sculpture and it's "revisionist history" still persists, and those demonstrating have vowed to continue until the sculpture is removed or changed. 

For the hundredth time I felt like I had been swept into another world. I liked this world though, where the sober realities of history and the intrigues of the present felt less Hollywood-scrubbed clean. This sight was touchpoint of past and present, more tangible and pressing than any I had experienced before. 

We dragged ourselves away, lured by the scent of pig. This pig, to be exact:

Suffice to say, it was good. We ate a lot, and would have kept on eating everything in sight had our stomachs and wallets allowed. 

Then we ate dessert. 

Jacob, Zoe, and Neil eating a ridiculously addictive Hungarian pastry called....I have no idea. In German it is called "Baumkuchen". 

Jacob, Zoe, and Neil eating a ridiculously addictive Hungarian pastry called....I have no idea. In German it is called "Baumkuchen". 

I could say more, some point words don't help and you will get annoyed at me for talking too much. So before I overstay my welcome: Budapest is worth adding to your travel itinerary. Especially if there are good friends willing to go with you and bacon at the end of your journey.