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Budapest Heal

Backed by traditionalism and history, Hungarian Baths continue to draw large crowds. Inder Raj Ahluwalia uncovers the secrets of its medicinal waters

Hotel Aquincum Corinthia is a spa centre that offers modern diagnostic and therapy facilities

They descend here from the world over to soothe their minds and bodies and seek elusive cures for aching joints. And the city takes them in hand and rejuvenates them.

Be it for rituals, washing, cleaning or easing aches and pains, for thousands of years man has used thermal waters. And though time has changed the role that baths have played in healing and medicine, their essence and character remains unchanged. They were greatly sought-after and flourished in Europe right from Roman times till today.

Some baths have been known for 2,000 years. The Romans built the first baths on the territory of today’s Hungary, when Pannonia Provincia was part of the Roman Empire. Aquincum was the province’s capital (today it forms part of northern Budapest, on the right-bank of the Danube). The baths drew their supplies from springs that rise at the foot of the Buda Hills, and the water was piped from here direct to the baths. To date, archaeologists have uncovered 21 baths, the largest being the central military baths (Thermae Maires). Public baths apart, beautiful mosaic bathing rooms have been uncovered in the houses of wealthy Roman citizens. The Magyar tribes who conquered today’s Hungary in the ninth century established their main settlements around thermal springs rising at the foot of the Buda Hills.

Budapest is the world’s only metropolis and capital with over 100 thermal springs and wells which feed some 50 baths, and the world’s greatest thermal destination. The 1960s saw Hungary embark on a huge baths development programme, upgrading older baths, and building dozens of new medicinal ones, swimming pools and strands. The beneficial effects of medicinal waters on the body include bathing, drinking or inhalation cures, with the past decade spawning major changes in the approach to bathing therapies. Though natural bath treatment remains the mainstay, healing programmes that relied solely on bathing have been superseded by complex therapy systems utilising a complete range of natural healing methods like massage, electrotherapy and therapeutic gymnastics.

Medicinal water is mineral water medically proven to have healing effects. Hungary’s fame is owed to the fact that thermal waters lie far nearer the surface than they do elsewhere. Balneotherapy (treatment involving medicinal waters) also includes mud therapy. Mud used in pack form is highly beneficial for treating chronic locomotor and gynaecological illnesses. One of the most beautiful survivors from the Turkish period (first half of the 16th century), during the Ottoman rule, the Kiraly Baths was already using water from springs that fed the Lukacs Baths, piped here through larchwood conduits. All that’s changed today is that plastic pipes now transport the healing water. Glass mosaics decorating its main entrance cupola hall, the famed Szechenyi Spa Baths is among Europe’s largest spa centres, and one of Budapest’s elite institutions. Fed by thermal water, the bath features an out-patient ward treating post-operative orthopaedic, articular and trauma cases, and chronic locomotor disease patients.

The Rudas Baths have been fed by springs that have been known to man ever since this area was settled. The present thermal baths were built in the 16th century by Pasha of Buda, Sokoli Mustapha, still functioning in virtually unchanged form. Three famous springs (Hungaria, Juventus and Attila) and 15 smaller ones feed the baths, with the mildly radioactive, calcium-magnesium-hydrogen-carbonate waters containing fluoride and sulphates, mainly useful for the treatment of chronic locomotor disorders. The water of the Juventus spring is also utilised in tub bath form, and as the name suggests, has rejuvenating effects.

A local landmark, and most famous baths, Gellert Medicinal Baths’ springs have been tapped for 2,000 years. One of Europe’s few baths built in Art Nouveau style - today’s building was erected during the First World War, between 1914-1918 - the baths are combined in one building with the world famous Gellert Hotel that offers its guests a full range of services. Its calcium-magnesium-hydrogen-carbonate, mildly alkaline medicinal water with chlorine and sulphur content - taken from 10 springs - is curative for chronic, degenerative locomotor disorders.

Located on the Buda side by the foot of Elizabeth Bridge, the Rac Baths radiate old-world charm. Known since the days of the great humanist ruler Matyas Corvinus (15th century), early documents show the establishment was once directly connected to the royal palace. A fitness centre functions in the building.

The Turkish baths built here in the 16th Century is still in operation. Also important are the Lukacs Baths which was a bathing spot in Turkish times, though the current building dates from the second half of the 19th century.

Feeding the baths are several springs and wells with water arriving at temperatures of between 21 and 49°C, with compositions of calcium-magnesium-hydrogen-carbonate, with the hotter waters also containing fluoride, chloride and sulphur. Available are balneotherapeutic facilities like physiotherapy courses and mud treatments. Its water supply drawn from medicinal springs on Margaret Island, the five-star Hotel Aquincum Corinthia is a spa centre with modern diagnostic and therapy facilities, also open to non-residents. Linked and sharing their medical facilities, the Danubius Thermal Hotel and the Danubius Grand Hotel feature baths fed from medicinal springs on Margaret Island. Their range of therapy options aside, the hotels feature specialists in the field of ultra-sound diagnostics, neurosurgery, sports surgery and cardiology. Also taking its water supply from the thermal springs on Margaret Island, is Danubius Thermal Hotel Helia, which is equipped with the latest medical facilities and offers several fitness options.

The National Institute for Rheumatism and Physiotherapy, the world’s largest such institution, has a 1,000 beds for patients with locomotor disorders, offers diagnostic and therapy facilities, and operates physiotherapy and rheumatology clinics. Patients are referred to the attached Csaszar Baths. Budapest also features a string of attractively sited strand baths, generally open in summer. Prominent ones are Csepel Strand Baths, Palatinus Strand Baths, Paskal Strand Baths, and Dagaly Strand Baths.

Backed by traditionalism and history, Hungarian Baths continue to draw the crowds, and are cost-effective by international standards. Charges differ from bath to bath. Upscale establishments like Gellert and Kiraly charge entrance fees of USD 10-15 approximately, exclusive of other facilities and services.

Budapest Strand Baths

Gellert Medicinal Baths