Old style wellness experience at one of the world’s most iconic bathhouses

A trip back in time to the Gellért Hotel and Spa in Budapest

Now that baths have become a daily part of my life again, I am finding that I have time to think every morning, about life, stuff, whatever, time to reminisce.  I am remembering some of my most unforgettable bathing experiences.

The Gellért Spa and Hotel in Budapest provided one of them.  Now the spa and hotel have been renovated and fully modernised, and it is more beautiful and professional than ever.  The time I went, some 20+ years ago, it was like a time capsule.  Absolutely beautiful, with treatments that did not break the bank, and were wonderfully “original” to me, in that none of them I had ever heard of or tried before.

I was there with one of my closest friends in the world, the first and only person who knew me as non-binary, a partner in crime, a friend of laughter and tears.  We were driving all across Europe.  I had bought a car for the purpose, and we literally covered the continent over a nice long chunk of time.  The trip didn’t interfere with work as I was setting a schedule then that gave me control over my time, and together, we used it, getting to see so many places, cultures and countries at the slow pace at which we travelled.

Budapest was a glorious revelation, such beautiful architecture.  And of course the European spa culture pulled us towards the Gellért, pictured twice in this post, one of the world’s most iconic spas.

Spa culture had its origins in wellness, and the belief in “taking the waters” remains strong and followed as an active part of European culture.  The emphasis today is more on relaxation and stress relief, and beauty, and the treatments are more about pampering, but the treatments of those times were also just as refreshing.

We were not able to go in together, and in those days, nobody spoke any English, and we of course spoke no Hungarian.  We just agreed to meet several hours later in the lobby of the hotel.  I couldn’t tell what any of the treatments on offer were, and I was relentlessly curious, then as I am now.  So, I did what any intrepid tourist would do, and asked if I could just do it all.  I got a series of coloured plastic discs, and was hand-gesture explained that I needed to get naked, shower, and go into the spa.  There were lockers, and the cavernous changing room, with its mosaic tiles, was completely empty.  Space in the old days was grand.  Even in the changing room.

I was down underground, it felt as if I had descended at least two stories underground, and the interiors were a mix of ornate mosaics, some cracked and falling out, and rough hewn stone walls.  The thermal baths are natural, and come in a variety of different forms.  These are some of the things I did.

There was indeed a porter of sorts, who was able to direct me according to my plastic discs.  I didn’t really know what I was doing at any juncture, and thankfully I could either watch others being worked over, or get taken in hand.

There was an older man getting what was known as a “wet message” which seemed to involve a lot of soap, cleaning in all locations without consideration for modesty, and the most extraordinary stretching and bending.  The attendant looked exactly like a Soviet-era weight lifter, and indeed, he wore a weight belt, and he was tossing the old man around like he was as light as popcorn.  I watched with some level of consternation for my prudish modesty.

In the event, there was no room for it.  As the old man slunk off, this hulk slapped the rubber table top indicating that I should come and submit.  The rubber table-top was a sling of sorts, sagging an inch or so in the middle.  The rubber was thick, perhaps an inch, and this permitted the water to pool before splashing to the ground.  There was water everywhere, the sound of water, dripping, splashing.

The light in the whole place was kind of an aquamarine blue, a faint half-light, that helped one to relax.  I dropped my towel as I had observed others do, hung it on a hook, and strode over. He had a faint smile as I climbed onto the table, and he grunted that I should lie on my back before taking my bicep in his big, muscular, butcher’s hand and pushed me down.  He picked up a garden hose, which was how the water was delivered, and proceeded to spray and lather me all over. All over.

This massage involved cleanliness of an altogether different kind, and there was no part of me that did not get soaped and cleaned.  What came next was a kind of stretching.  He pushed my feet back, making my knees come towards my face, and he pushed them until my butt began to lift from the table, and then he took his hands and pushed my hips down, before leaning into my feet and legs to give an extra stretch.  Then each leg, separately, this way and that, then more of the same in the middle.  He did not bother to tell me to flip over, he just flipped me over.  I could feel his strength and as he bent me, and stretched me into uncomfortable positions, I could well imagine him snapping me in two.  He came to me at one point and breathed, showing me how to breathe as he stretched me, and then he did it, and the breathing helped with the pain.

It was not appropriate at the time, but in the ensuing years, this was the one experience that day that has given me repeated sexual fantasies.  I wonder why.

After, I felt limber and fantastic.  I went to a high-pressure shower room where the light changed according to the scent of the shower.  They were full on hot blasts of natural spring water and were intensely relaxing.  I had the room to myself.  Rosemary was my favourite of the scents that came through.  I found my way into various jacuzzi baths.  I call them that as they were not quite big enough to be pools, but they were irregularly shaped, some with ornate tiles, others carved almost out of cave or cliff, and all at different temperatures.  Some cool, some lukewarm, one cold, and one very hot and sulphurous.  There were not many people, and everyone was minding their own business, relaxing, enjoying.   

Of course, the Gellért is famous also for the indoor/outdoor pool and that was not to be missed.  The whole experience was an extravagant trip into relaxation, at a price that was very reasonable.  I imagine that prices today are the same as at any premium spa, but the experience was one to never forget.  My friend and I talked like kids with eyes wide with amazement about how rich our respective experiences were.  It was an incredible day.

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