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Soak up Budapest's thermal waters

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The ladies in our group were most disappointed. It happened to be men-only day in Budapest's Rudas Baths and so we were denied entrance into parts of the venerable establishment.

The Rudas was one of the stops on our guided bus tour of the Hungarian capital's baths, one of the highlights of our stay. Our group of Canadians -- only myself, the tour leader and another participant were of Hungarian origin -- assembled for a Budapest Spa Holiday, organized by Senior Tours Canada. We stayed at the Thermal Hotel Helia, one of several Budapest hotels that offer medicinal baths, spa treatments and first-class hotel accommodation, all under one roof.

Hungary's capital city is also the acknowledged European capital of thermal baths. The baths we visited on our tour were chosen for their variety of architectural styles. They were just some of the best-known among many baths all over the city, on both the Buda and Pest banks of the Danube and on Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube. The baths are fed by the capital's 123 thermal springs, spouting forth 70 million litres daily of mineral-rich water ranging from 21 C to 78 C.

First to discover the waters were the ancient Romans, who inhabited their city, Aquincum, now an archeological site not far from present-day Buda, in the second and third centuries AD. They were followed by the luxury-loving Turks, whose 160-year occupation of Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries gave them ample time to soak in Buda's health-giving baths, some of them in existence to this day.

Our first stop, the St. Gellert, is in reality one of the city's more "recent" spas, located on the Buda side, at the bottom of Gellert Hill. Both the bath and the adjoining hotel opened their doors in 1918, built in the period's ornate secessionist style, the interior filled with red marble columns and neo-classical statues. An indoor bubble bath and outdoor surf pool were added in 1927.

From my own childhood in Budapest, I remember well the thrill of jumping up and down and shrieking while splashed by the surf pool's artificial waves. My own father's back pain was helped greatly by the waters and treatments in the "Gellert furdo."

As in other Budapest spas, the benefits of easing muscle and joint pains, as well as several other medical conditions, are obtained from the Gellert's waters, rich in minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulphur. Here, as elsewhere, special mineral-based waters are used in balneology treatments, complemented by many other therapy programs, such as massage, electrotherapy and exercise.

We moved on from the Gellert to the Rudas Spa, also known as the Turkish Bath because of its origins reaching back to the Turkish occupation when the Turks called the city the "mecca of Rheumatics." The bath's updated version was opened in 1936. While originally only men could bathe under its column-supported dome, now ladies, too, are allowed in -- but only on specified days.

Our last stop on the hilly Buda side was the St. Lukacs Spa, first "discovered" by, and a favourite of, Turkish Pasha Mustafa. Entering through a garden, we noticed the many marble plaques on the spa's wall placed there by former patients in gratitude for their recovery. On a guided tour, we viewed the spa's complex of thermal indoor pools and outdoor swimming pools and its many treatment facilities.

Still as popular today as it was with the occupying Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Lukacs Spa is a favourite daily meeting place for the city's intellectuals. In my own family, I know my cousin would not let a day go by without a swim -- and socializing -- at "the Lukacs."

We had to cross the Danube to the Pest side for a visit to our last stop, the Szechenyi Spa. Located in the lovely City Park, the Szechenyi, the biggest bath complex in both Budapest and Europe, was built between 1909 and 1913 in modern Renaissance style. This bath, too, is familiar to me from my childhood when I enjoyed many a swim in its large outdoor swimming pools filled with natural water. Indoors, mineral-rich medicinal waters are used in balneological treatments.

Having completed our spa tour, we were rewarded with a treat of delicious cake and coffee in the bath's coffee shop. (Hungarians don't like to go hungry, not even at the spa.)

Then it was back to the Hotel Helia and our daily routine of baths and treatments in the hotel's Spa Therapy Section. Some of us enjoyed some newfangled wellness treatments, pampered with aroma, hydro or stone massages. Others were shivering in the salt chamber, said to be good for respiratory problems. I opted for a more traditional regimen of therapeutic massage, individual remedial exercise class and mud-based packs. Many of us enjoyed invigorating swims in the large swimming pool, followed by soaking in the warm-water medicinal pool and Jacuzzi.

As the days of our stay in Budapest were slowly coming to an end, I had one more thing on my to-do list before leaving my native city: visit the Rudas Bath on a ladies-only day!

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 E3

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