Explorer: Laura Pugliano
Immersing into the Ancient World in Budapest
Budapest. It sounded exotic and royal, a place that didn’t often roll off the tongue in travel stories. Yet my gleaming travel books promised adventures and ancient thermal baths to those who visited it. I determined that Budapest would be in my stories, and I chose it as my maiden travel destination on my first semester studying abroad. Eastern Europe was calling, and I sped toward it on the first weekend train out of Gaming, Austria.
Arriving at our destination, my friends and I alighted upon a stunning powerhouse of an Eastern European city. Budapest straddles the River Danube, and in actuality is two separate cities, Buda and Pest. These cities were united in 1873, but they couldn’t be more different. The mountainous Buda boasts sweeping views of the Danube River and the flatland Pest on the other side. When Buda closes the Habsburg fortress gates and turns in for the night, Pest shuts its doors to the Hungarian Parliament and puts on its dancing shoes.
As we mapped out our weekend by the pages of Fodor’s Travel Guide, I fixated on the historical stories of Romans settling in Budapest and creating the famous Turkish baths that the city is famous for. The iconic Hotel Gellert in Buda was identified as housing some of the oldest and finest thermal baths in Europe, and that’s precisely where we decided on visiting first.
Rounding a turn, the outside of the hotel halted me in my tracks. Its regal grandeur was of a kind I’d never seen before. The looming façade touched with creeping ivy called for a moment’s pause to appreciate it. Outside each hotel room window was an ornate balcony overflowing with blossoming pink flowers. It looked like an elegant cross between a stately government building and a castle.
Stepping through the entryway landed us into the ancient, grand world of Roman thermal baths in Art Nouveau style- an art form inspired by plants and flowers. Marbled columns, cupola ceilings, and vibrant, mosaic flooring enveloped us. Nestled into golden alcoves were white statues of ladies, beckoning visitors towards their world. This Hotel Gellert entrance hall is known worldwide for its beauty.
Entering the women’s baths can only be likened to a full immersion into the ancient Greek and Roman world. The rooms were constructed of glass-domed ceilings and teal, tan, gold, and red mosaic walls and floors, exuding a sense of Middle Eastern and Ancient Roman style at the same time. Structured after the ancient baths, each room held various temperature pools along with optional spa treatments. Women of all ethnicities were all nude, luxuriating in this ancient ritual spa experience. They chatted with each other in pools and baths, lounged on benches with eyes closed, and smoothed hands over their skin as they stood under fountains. In the massage room, nearly every bed was occupied by a lady stretched out in relaxation as their muscles were worked on by therapists. The sauna was so full of steam that I could barely see the women lounging in it as their pores soaked up healing herbs. Witnessing this atmosphere of community, leisure, and bodily healing lent an understanding to why partaking in thermal baths was such an important practice in ancient civilizations.
This was clearly not the world for shyness, or disdain over bodily appearances. Anyone clad in a swimming suit would be the one who felt out of place. Eventually, I roamed towards the door leading to the regular pool for both men and women. Swimming suits were required for admittance, and I opened the door to the most enchantingly extravagant indoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi.
Stepping onto the marble floor, I did a 360-degree turn. Delicately carved columns supported an open second level above the pool, where wrought-iron balconies, painted white and bedecked with green plants, jutted out over the water. Overhead, a golden, domed ceiling caught the sunlight that streamed in and contrasted beautifully with the pure aqua-colored basin. In the corners, lion-headed fountains cascaded water, where guests allowed it to run down their faces as they relaxed into it.
As it was still winter when I visited, I only experienced the indoor portion of the baths. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable adventure. I was immersed in a culture that before had only spoken to me through history books. It will forever be one of my most treasured experiences, and at barely 10 Euros’ cost, I will always encourage people to visit the marvelous city of Budapest and bathe in the famous Turkish thermal baths.
Laura Pugliano began globetrotting the world spending semesters abroad in Austria and Italy, managing an equestrian facility in Central Italy, and traveling as much as possible everywhere in between. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Writing from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and her professional writing experience includes newspaper travel columns and magazine articles. In 2015 she married her sweetheart in Calabria, Italy, and honeymooned in Bali, Indonesia. Laura lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Pino, and holds the title of Cooperative Genius at work by day and sous-chef at home by night. She spends her summers with her in-laws among the sea, sun, and hills of Southern Italy. Find her on Instagram here: @lauramonica.
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