Back then, I used to love watching the river flow, something I never before had the time to do – not enough time, not to mention no nearby river. Here the Danube is wide, carrying a steady stream of tourist and cargo vessels in the warm months. We had free admission to the musical shows on the mid-river islands, just by listening from our balcony, and to fireworks off the Chain Bridge, visible by craning our necks. Nagyszombat utca. Our apartment in a brand-new building had a wrap-around balcony overlooking the river, from the Buda side, directly facing the old water tower on Margaret Island. In the distance off to the right stands Hungary's lovely Parliament, modelled on the Westminster and Canadian Parliaments.

While my husband was at work, I'd go about my usual day, walking about the cobblestones of our neighbourhood, avoiding the Soviet high rises, ambling by the river, or veering towards century-old buildings, now renovated into neat shops and cafes, passing a few traditional cafes charming in their smoky brown beer sort of way. Some days I'd head to the local market towing a shopping cart that was good on cobblestones and something of a looker in its tartan smartness.

Our immediate neighbourhood was once a garrison for Roman forces, the Danube being the eastern limit of the Roman Empire. Minutes from our apartment was a perfectly preserved Roman amphitheatre, complete with triumphal arches. Without the funding to preserve historic sites, the spot was a magnet not for queuing tourists but for young lovers on warm evenings and for kids to slide down the snowy arches in the winter. Luckily such ruins were salvaged from the post-war Soviet bulldozing frenzy.

In our apartment, if not reading or listening to music, I'd practise with Hungarian-language CDs, replacing an imbecilic CD from home that boasted "Learn to Speak Hungarian on your Flight to Budapest!" Give me a break! An example of the Canadian CD's relevance was demonstrated in lesson #1: "How to answer in Hungarian the airline question ‘Smoking or non-smoking seat?'"

Now living in Hungary, and determined to learn the language, I relied upon Pimsleur language programs as my linguistic guide, doing Doris and Peter roleplays at high volume, engaging in day-to-day scenes: eating goose liver, buying salami, sipping pálinka, riding the metro, mailing a letter. But nothing prepared me for the harsh reality of life in Hungarian. This language is daunting even to approach – if you look at the words, with their long chain of angry consonants, rarely relieved by a happy little vowel, you'd see why.

Some people say Hungarian has Finnish roots but Finns I've met dispute this claim. But I remind myself that English is itself a challenge to master – remembering Japanese exchange students we hosted struggling valiantly, and our tricks to get them to say "Cinderella" ten times, misplacing the l's and the r's, for our entertainment. Now, perhaps it is my time to be on the receiving end of such jests.

Bored with language lessons, I'd asked "What shall I do today?" On that late summer day, I knew the moment had arrived. I'd fought against the obligation too long to ignore it any longer. Today was the Day of the Baths. I couldn't remain in Budapest another day and not be able to answer the question "Have you been to the baths?" in the affirmative.

First, I'm no water baby: I enjoy reading nautical adventures, find pleasure in walking by rivers or staring out to sea, but as for immersing in the stuff – i.e. swimming? Nem nem nem. But bathing isn't swimming anyways. So… which bath?

I leafed through my guidebook: Budapest has several Turkish thermal baths, dating from the time when the Ottoman pashas ruled from Buda Castle. In this regard, the Turks modernised a bath system originally constructed by the Romans during their stay in Danubia and found the geothermal springs under the Buda hills to be an ideal source.

The Turks, like the Romans before them, utilised bathhouses for both ritual cleansing and social gathering. While many contemporary Turkish baths may be steam heated, the Budapest Turkish baths connect to warm thermal springs. Budapest has a multitude of such geothermal springs, Hungary as a whole having amongst the world's largest thermal water cave system.

There's the glitzy Gellért baths named after a beloved bishop who was not beloved when he first came to proselytise. So not beloved was Gellért that the townsfolk put him in a barrel and threw him from a cliff. Later, after converting, they felt remorse, made Gellért a saint and erected a statue on the cliff in his name. Timing is everything. But Gellért's baths were too fancy for me.

Then there's the Széchenyi baths where the men wear shower caps and play chess on floating chessboards. In the picture in my guidebook, taken early evening on a winter day, the sky is deep blue with a slip of a crescent moon, the pools illuminated by ornate 19-century lamps. The atrium and little café by the baths are an elegant reminder of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I postponed the pleasure of visiting Széchenyi for an outing with my husband.

Next option: Lukács baths. The guidebook flashed several attractive photos of the newly restored Szent Lukács Gyógyfürdő, an appealing bathing complex that includes physiotherapy and on-site medical consultants. The labyrinth of buildings is fully modernised, maintaining the style of its 1800s origin. Immaculate pools of different temperatures, lovely marble seating benches, newly stuccoed walls and columns, fountains, low lighting. Certainly inviting, but maybe a tad too flashy for my first bath experience? I was like Goldilocks choosing her bed.

As I turned the pages, I was drawn to a particular photograph of a building I'd passed a few times. A curious Turkish building with a stone dome, on narrow cobbled Fő utca houses the Király Baths. I read on: Király Baths was built at the beginning of the Turkish occupation in Hungary, when the Pasha of Buda ordered its construction in 1565…. After the Turkish era, in the 18th century, the König family purchased the bathhouse. The name has been kept, with its historical associations: Konig=King=Király.

At the Király Baths, a traditional octagonal pool is the centrepiece, surrounded by three smaller pools. I looked at the timetable of hours and costs. Seems the bathing is segregated, and ladies have Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Lucky me – today was Monday!

An hour later I strolled along Fő utca, sighting the domed Király Baths but passed by, wandering up the street, to pluck up my courage, stopping to pet a calico cat who, shocked awake, tumbled off his bench. I saw this as a sign for me to GO IN! That's the thing about signs – their helpful ambiguity.

I joined the Monday Ladies Queue; clearly, they all knew one other. At the cash desk, in answer to my mumbled question, the cashier pointed to a price list in front of my nose. 1000 forints. But for how long? Inclusive of towel? Locker? The information sheet was only in Hungarian and I couldn't understand it. The cashier was impatient. I had many questions but yielding to the unpleasant pressure of the queue and the overactive central heat, I became flustered and rushed to tackle the single most concerning question on my mind: DRESS CODE? In particular, could I obtain a bathrobe and slippers? I must hide the deathly pallor of my skin and unseemly bulges.

Now, when I most needed it, my Pimsleur language guide failed me. Nowhere on discs 1 and 2 had mentors Doris and/or Peter introduced A Day at the Baths. My vocabulary didn't include "bathing suit", let alone "bathrobe". I resorted as one often does on such occasions to ostensive definition: show, instead of tell. I removed my bathing suit from my backpack and dangled it in front of the cashier, gesturing to show I wished to rent a bathrobe. The cashier seemed shocked. Her heavy red cheeks puffed out like a pudding and she waggled an index finger. "Nem! Nem! Nem!" Behind me the Monday Ladies Queue was a-titter.

How often it is I cannot say, that some brave person stands up to peer pressure and becomes the voice of the minority. This Samaritan taps my shoulder and explains that on Ladies' Days, no one wears bathing costumes. I realised she was trying to help me out and appreciated her effort from the bottom of my heart; however, I didn't really want to understand the implications – that bathing was to be done naked. Somewhere in the guidebook's details, I'd read a line or two about bathing customs here. Guess I'd conveniently ignored reality, a preferred way to deal with unpleasant truths. What now? Should I ask for a refund and make a queenly exit? This was my Rubicon moment. I remained.

The Good Samaritan led me towards the changing rooms where a group of women waited unhappily for towels, muttering at the inefficiency. The wait of a half-hour finally over, and the ladies ahead of me were given out-of-shape hangers and sheets, as they'd run out of towels. My lucky day continued, I was given a towel, which was however so tiny I tried to exchange it for a sheet, preferring the coverage capacity of now for the drying capacity of later. But my wishes weren't understood, and I had to content myself with a hand towel.

In this state of uncomfortable undress, I left my changing compartment, tiptoeing gingerly on wet tiles, clutching the skimpy towel around me. Oh good – there was my Good Samaritan! I inched towards her but saw she had other priorities. Ladies Day at Király is a social club and she was greeting her friends, leaving me behind, puppy-dogging her steps, much as a dog shaking its tail.

I felt exposed, understandably – because I was. I held my towel like body armour, inched to the edge of the largest pool and slipped underwater, up to my chin. The guidebook said old but this place was ancient. The guidebook mentioned medicinal odours but these odours were, well, less than fragrant. At last I could take stock of my surroundings. The chamber was very dark except for bits of light filtering downwards from the stars on the domed ceiling. The three pools, of different temperatures, were tiled in geometric patterns. The darkness was a relief – not only was I hidden but so too was the bath's need of a good scrub. The Király Baths were bright and inviting once upon a time, in 1570.

Of the 20 or so ladies of different sizes, shapes, ages and health, only two wore anything. They were 20-something-year old blondes in bikinis. Scandinavian, I'd guess. The rest of us, from age 30 to 90, were naked except for an occasional shower cap or cane. The bikini-babes stood out because everyone else was naked, and twice their age and size.

I blushed at these out-of-place visitors, whose behaviour was worse than most pre-schoolers, their gawking, giggling and splashing so flagrant they deserved to be banished, or at least slapped. But their intrusion seemed to have no effect whatsoever upon the ambiance of the Ladies Monday Morning Király Bath Club: the visitors were ignored, their conduct waved off as one would swat a fly. I exchanged glances with the Samaritan and half closed my eyes, enjoying the light flickering from the domed roof and the delicious soothing water.

Back home later that afternoon, I sat on our balcony, again watching the river flow, trying to recall exactly what happened back there at the bath – did the Samaritan just exchange my glance? Did she not nod, or wink, or smile? Whatever the nature of the connection, there was something exchanged between us: for a fleeting moment I was a member of the Monday Ladies Király Bath Club. Yes, I can now say, I have been to the baths, Budapest's oldest and loveliest – the Király Baths. You must go too.

But times change. From the Király Baths website, September 13, 2012 "We kindly inform our guests that Király Bath is a mixed bath, so visitors of both sexes can use our services at the same time every day during the whole week. Please note that wearing bathing suite [sic] is obligatory. We are looking for your visit!"

Back home in Canada, this August 2019, I heard through the Hungarian grapevine that the Király Baths are to be closed to undergo extensive renovation for about two years. Unarguably, renovations are for the good, to preserve and protect some important part of the past; however, also unarguably, with the gains of progress, something is inevitably lost. So, if you wish to experience a sense of the pleasure I enjoyed a decade ago, I'd suggest your visiting the Király Baths really soon. This might be your last chance to soak in its unique and special ambience.


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