First the sort of science – if you scratch the surface of the earth’s crust in Hungary chances are you’ll spring a thermal pool. The planet’s surface is so thin in this part of the world that it has spouted more than a thousand thermal springs across the country.
Hungarian tourism officials say the nation might not have struck oil but the water business is booming. And they have prompted the growth of what locals call the wellness industry – what we might term a health spa except that few of our versions offer natural flowing hot water bubbling up out of the ground.
The spas are now Hungary’s biggest growing tourist attraction – and massive resources are being spent to promote the wellness concept. Almost €40 million has been spent on upgrading and promoting the industry in the past few years. The signs of a healthy pay back are good with a twenty percent increase in business last year.
Thermal bathing in Hungry is older than the nation itself. There is evidence that Neolithic peoples were attracted to the region by the springs. Later the Romans are said to have refined their bathing practices in the warm pools. And of course you’ll know that ‘water-cure-all’ spas were terribly popular with Europe’s aristocrats and upper classes in the 19th century. The old Austrian Hungarian Empire was famous for them.
Healing regimes that relied solely on bathing have over the last while given way to more elaborate therapeutic programmes which incorporate massage and physiotherapy.
The term wellness covers a general well- being in body and mind, relaxation revitalisation and just being well pampered. Some new hotels are built on the basis of this concept while others have extended their portfolio in the direction of health.
Hungary’s traditional spa mecca Lake Hévis. To the west of the country, it’s two and a half hours from Budapest but at 90 miles from Vienna is probably easier accessed from there. Lake Hevis is the largest natural thermally heated lake in the world – it fluctuates around 35 degrees C during most of the summer but does not drop below 22 degrees. The lake’s water here is claimed to be particularly efficacious in the treatment of rheumatism, locomotor disorders including chronic inflammation, muscular disorders, disorders affecting the nervous system and gynaecological complaints. The curative effect of the mud of Hévíz lake – covering the bottom is claimed to be especially strong. This mud — mixed by the lake’s water — is also used as a mud pack treatment. On offer are specialised massages facials and water based treatments including whirlpool baths and a worryingly named electric tub bath in “a direct current is led into a tub filled with thermal water” this treatment they say improves circulation and relieves pain.
When we visited the facility it was undergoing a massive refurbishment but is due for opening early in the new year. The curative claims made on behalf of the lake go well beyond the mere feel good factor. Surrounding the lake are hospitals and clinics where physicians are providing tailor made advice and treatments. Clients come not just for three day breaks but for weeks on end. The list of ailments the treatments are recommended for are often quite serious – rheumatism, arthritis fractures and post treatment of joint operations and herniated discs. While such treatments would be seen as a luxury in celtic tiger land here I am assured they are viewed as a basic health right. Such health breaks have long been popular with the Germans. Just when you thought you were actually beating the Germans to the skin – cancer sunbeds in Spain you discover they’ve actually all gone back into the safer thermal waters of Hungary. But now the country hopes to tempt the rest of the world to sample its wares.
Western Hungary is literally awash with hotels which offer extensive spa and wellness treatments usually with their own thermal as well as swimming pools. We stayed at the Hotel Karos Spa in Zalakaros and the Radisson in Buk – another established thermal spring resort. Both hotels are luxurious and provide all the five star trapping of white fluffy dressing gowns and slippers. But don’t forget it’s wellness you’re here for and if you find the treatment is actually working on the dodgy knee there’ll be little opportunity to set yourself back with the latest hip hop moves – the night life we experienced consisted of a man playing unrecognisable tunes on an organ – Leeson Street it ain’t.
Staying in Western Hungary and there’s atmosphere and romance aplenty at the Szidonia Castle hotel. Originally planned as a hunting lodge in 1750, it’s reminiscent of Gosford Park with its wood panelling and stag heads on the wall, skins on the floor and beautifully decorated white linen dining rooms. The Spa facilities were simply beautiful and the house is surrounded by woodlands. Although we only stopped for lunch everything was exquisite and we were quite prepared to believe their press blurb “We hold high the believe in personalised service and try to read from the guests eyes all their wishes.”
However when in Hungary do as the Hungarians do and it was in the public baths that we tried night out the massage treatments. Such baths are famous in the capital Budapest and in the rest of the country it seems taking the waters is a national past-time. Each public baths has a variety of different temperatured thermal pools alongside swimming pools whirlpools, steam rooms offering in water treatments and numerous treatment rooms for massage and other therapy. Although I swim regularly at a heated outdoor pool in Belfast all winter I have to say that this is a whole different concept – forget bracing yourself before entering the water. This is wellness, not penance.
The pools, both indoor and outdoor, are like swimming in the bath and stretching out your muscles in this buoyant water is bliss. Fall into its embrace and let the water carry you away like a magic carpet. All thoughts of offices, rush hours and ‘Mammy can I have …?’ fade away in this wet and mellow world.
It was in the public medicinal baths in Sarvar where I had an opportunity to try a massage. As I was still limping slightly with the after effects of a slipped disc and sciatica I chose a half hour traditional massage. I was a bit wary and hoped my guide’s explanation of my ailment translated properly. The massage left me feeling a little bit sore but I was told this was normal after a first massage – especially if you don’t relax – a bit like the first time you exercise. Some colleagues tried out a honey or mud massage – but everyone reverted to choosing a traditional massage the following day when we visited the medicinal baths in Zalakoras. Here I finally felt the professionalism of a good kneading coming home to roost. This time the masseur seemed to have a better grasp of what ailed me. She tut tutted at part of my spine and I presumed she could see/feel something. This time she concentrated on muscles around the spine using more sweeping movements. She seemed to chase away some of the cramps in my leg which I sometimes still felt twitching due to nerve pressure. This massage certainly left me feeling more relaxed and while the improvements in sciatica pain are so slow to be almost imperceptible on a monthly never mind daily basis – as I floated in the pool afterwards my symptoms did seem to have eased.
So did the massage and thermal waters help heal my back? As someone who is recovering from a slipped disc which meant I could not drive for three months I can only say – yes it helped. The nerves in my legs which had been still twitching seem calmed and my back less achy.
n Flights Fly to Budapest in around three hours with Malev Hungarian airlines – deals offered on line – some old fashioned luxury – a hot meal is served plus drink
n Currency The currency is the Hungarian Forint (Huf). Bigger shops might take Euro but you can get money changed at the airport, hotels or bureaus. You can use ATMs or credit cards but shops generally don’t accept travellers checks – we discovered the hotel (Pólus Palas) offered a better rate that the change bureau in Budapest.
n Food Varied – so everything’s on the table but specialities are paprika, often hot and sweet, with salads. Don’t ignore the salami at the breakfast buffet in favour of bacon and eggs; this salami is melt in your mouth – definitely not the cardboard imitation we get.
n Treatment prices The hotels offer a variety of packages with inclusive treatments but as a guide expect to pay Eu15- 20 for a half hour massage. A twenty minute mudpack treatment is on offer at Eu16 and under water massage lasting fifteen minutes for Eu19.
n Radisson Hotel in Buk Western Hungary offer a two night winter break for Eu145 which includes the use of all the facilities but treatments are extra.
If it’s a quick burst of luxury you want why not stay in Budapest’s most expensive hotel. The Four Seasons is housed in the Gresham Palace. (The Irish flag flies proudly in honour of the Irish landlords). The palace used to be an apartment complex for the great and the good. Refurbished and reopened in 2004 in the original Art Noveau style it manages to be opulent and tasteful all at once.
However if you can’t afford the Presidential suit with your own balcony overlooking the Danube at a price of over Eu4000 per night why not try the cheapest room at Eu250. Or even just experience the elegant surroundings by eating in the posh but reasonably priced restaurant. Even in the adjoining café – the house wine on offer was a superb pinot noir that quite simply hit the spot.
Of course when in Budapest you’ll take in all the sights they are proud of including the world heritage Buda Castle Danube Embankment and Andrassy Avenue. The Castle district is packed with museums – beware they’re closed Mondays and the view from the castle district is breathtaking. Despite being rebuilt in Gothic style Mathias Church managed to preserve its interior layout first shaped 700 years ago.
It might be interesting to juxtapose a trip to the Gresham with visiting Statue Park –where you can have a last glimpse behind the iron curtain. Here is the resting place of the statues which used to grace the streets and avenues of Budapest of Lenin Mark and other communist leaders and soldiers of the Soviet army.
Budapest is a city where you can feast both your eyes and your belly. No communist drabness here. The food is varied and of a high standard.
Kogart House on Andrassy Avenue serves itself up as the home of art and gastronomy. Here you can dine in the midst of both classical and contemporary exhibitions. The perch -pike meal we enjoyed here was a work of art all by itself. Also on the menu is goose liver mousse flavoured with sherry and truffle; salmon soup seasoned with saffron crab, dill pike-perch mousse or salads of smoked salmon and deer ham with white wine camembert sauce.
Mokka café restaurant is another example of café society meeting contemporary taste – even the soup bowls here are designer quirky. Lunchtime specials can offer good value for money — example – hot paprika cream soup with spinach chips followed by green gnocchi with feta cheese and thin sliced parma ham The only way to describe the dessert was petit mort by chocolate – hot dark chocolate soufflé with sour cherry cognac and candied orange in vanilla ice cream. This was three deserts in one but the chocolate soufflé could be promoted as another world heritage centre.
‘I’m in Fairyland,”said the German visitor with a wave of his hand as we floated in a a large pool of buoyant bath water surveying last night’s sprinkling of snow. Not quiet, the name of the hotel was Polus Palas and twenty minutes outside Budapest is actually more of an adult theme park. Golf – simulated golf even – and many country club attractions including cycling, horseback riding, hunting and archery are on offer. The hotel’s spa centre is smallish by Hungary’s standards but one of the cosiest and delightful that I encountered. The swimming pool is 32 degrees and flows from inside to outside so you can swim outdoors without getting out of the water. There’s a Finnish sauna with cold water dipping pool steam bath and a range of massage and beauty treatments. With an eye on the city break market the manageress says packages which include transportation into the city can be organised. The hotel is newly open and there’s no question about their five star luxury and enthusiasm. While the spa is spot on the décor, the rest of the hotel seems slightly suspended in another era – a little brightening up and some local art instead of reproductions. But oh that pool – I could languish for days!
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