Category Archives: Art and Architecture

Local Color at Budapest’s Thermal Baths

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It was such a relief to be on the plane that the physical discomfort of an overseas flight in coach couldn’t really touch me. I was no longer worried. D and I synchronized True Grit on our seat-back video screens, pausing at regular intervals to try to decipher Jeff Bridges’ mumblings.  At the Munich Airport we made our way along endless meandering hallways, up and down countless stairs, to reach the gate for our flight to Hungary. Several hours later, we were at the Budapest Airport, where the cheerful Viking Cruise staff awaited us.

Our ship was docked in the heart of this ancient and strikingly beautiful city, immediately adjacent to the majestic Chain Bridge. The room that D and I shared looked out onto the bridge and the hilly Buda side of the city, with Buda Castle and the medieval Matthias Church nearby.  A bit farther away, we could see the sleek new Elizabeth Bridge and the statue-topped Gellert Hill. My parents’ room was across the hall facing the flatter Pest side of the city.

Hungary is a land of abundant hot springs. Budapest has more than twenty thermal baths, all owned and operated by the government. According to every guidebook I consulted, the quintessential Hungarian experience is a trip to one of these baths. In the most celebrated baths, indoor and outdoor pools are grandly enclosed by elegant nineteenth-century architecture. We chose to visit the recently renovated Széchenyi Baths, which attract fewer tourists than the more upscale Gellert Baths. The friendly young woman at our ship’s concierge desk happily called a taxi when we inquired about getting to the baths. Our driver, a pleasant, talkative woman about my age, was soon whisking D and me through the city in her spotless white Mercedes. We left my parents to relax and unpack on the boat.  In a quick ten minutes, we had arrived at the ornate entry building.

To foreigners, the entry procedure at the Széchenyi baths can be befuddling, to say the least. Few attendants speak English, and the notoriously difficult Hungarian language can hardly be picked up in a weekend with the help of a phrase book. Rick Steves’ e-book on Budapest offers a comprehensive guide to negotiating the baths.  I had reviewed it on the plane, but we were still confused. Upon entering, one pays admission and rental for either a locker or a changing cabin. In anticipation of a trip to the baths, I had exchanged some dollars for Hungarian forints (a currency I find just as confusing as getting into the baths). Like a child, I paid by laying out the money and letting the attendant point to the required bills.  I thought I had rented a changing cabin, so we wandered through the complex until we found that area, only to be told that we had paid for a locker. We roamed through additional subterranean corridors and finally located the women’s locker room. An attendant attached a wristband to my arm and showed us how to activate the lock using the attached metal disk.

Having worn our bathing suits under our clothes, it wasn’t long before we were back in the labyrinthian halls in search of the towel rental station. In an effort to be upstanding guests, we hadn’t smuggled towels with us from the boat. Next time we will not be so virtuous. The rental towels bore little relation to typical American terrycloth towels. Made of smooth heavy cotton, they were more like tablecloths. For those desiring further adventure during their baths experience, bathing suits can also be rented.

Getting out to the pools was easy, and it was wonderful to be in the open air again. Surrounded by the golden yellow Neo-Baroque buildings housing the entrance area, indoor baths, saunas and massage rooms, there are three spacious outdoor pools. The afternoon temperature was in the high 60s, and the warm water felt amazing. We spent most of our time in the semicircular “Fun Pool” which has a current circle in the center. We kept to the less populated edges.

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 The “Fun Pool” where we spent most of our time.

The clientele was primarily Hungarian, although we heard various other languages, including British and American English, French, German and Russian. I have never before seen such an eclectic variety of swimming attire. And no, this is not one of Budapest’s several “clothing optional” baths.  Hefty grandfatherly men strutted about in tiny Speedos. Svelte young model types posed at the water’s edge in daring bikinis and spike heels. A number of older, well-covered women protected their hair with puffy shower caps. In the center lap pool, a cap is required. While some swimmers wore actual bathing caps, others sported baseball or shower caps.

The water began to feel cooler after a while, so we decided to have a look at the indoor baths. I was hoping for warmer water there. These pools were far more crowded than those outside. Along the edges, people, mostly men, stood shoulder to shoulder, staring unabashedly at any newcomers who ventured in. I was determined to test the water, so I made a quick circuit of the interior until I found a spot where the multitude was less pressing. When I dipped my foot in, the water was no warmer. We gladly returned to the unintimidating outdoor pools.

As the time approached to meet our taxi driver, the late afternoon air was taking on a serious chill. The abject deficiency of our rented towels made it difficult to emerge from the water. Our completely saturated tablecloths were icy and offered no comfort. Other towels, real, fluffy towels, folded invitingly, temptingly, seemed to mock us. I hope to never again feel such overwhelming towel envy. The comparative warmth of the taxi was especially welcome. We were invigorated by our plunge into the warmth and local color of the Széchenyi Baths.  And we were glad to return to our floating haven on the Danube, which appeared even more inviting than it had at first sight.

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The “Relaxation Pool” where some bathers play chess.

Helpful note on payment: Mastercard and Visa are accepted at the baths, which allows you to avoid dealing with forints.  Our taxi driver preferred to be paid in Euros.

Anticipating Disaster on the Danube

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I still find it hard to believe that a little over a year ago, my daughter, my parents and I were on our way to Budapest. We had decided, uncharacteristically, to use spring break for a Danube River cruise. Typically, we go no place more exotic than Atlanta during this time. Even more typically, we rest, recharge and sleep late. But the European river cruise was highly recommended by several friends, and we had been considering it for a few years. The time was right, it seemed. None of us, after all, was getting any younger or healthier. The longer we put it off, the more medications we’d have to drag along, and the less sure-footed my parents and I would be on ancient, uneven cobblestones and cathedral steps.

My husband opted out, as I had expected. He likes to remind us that he doesn’t get a spring break.  He had accompanied me and my parents on a trip to France when our daughter was three. One European vacation with the in-laws, he decided, was sufficient. The river cruise, with its set itinerary, didn’t appeal to him; he preferred a more free-ranging vacation. Had he come, we would have needed another stateroom on the ship, or a suite. Traveling in uneven numbers isn’t ideal for river cruises.

The previous September, when I had asked my parents about the Danube cruise, they responded enthusiastically. I had found what looked like the perfect trip, with a stop in Regensburg, where Daddy had been stationed with the American occupational forces after World War II. His time in Germany had been cut unexpectedly short, when his father died suddenly. Daddy had not returned, and he was beginning to think he never would. While Mama, a dedicated Anglophile, would have preferred another trip to England, she was fine with Germany. My daughter’s top vacation choice would have been a bustling Caribbean cruise, but she was happy to be going to Europe for the first time. I looked forward especially to accompanying my father to Regensburg, an unspoiled medieval town that was spared wartime damage. I loved it that he would be returning with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.

As the departure date approached, my excitement gave way to anxiety. I would have worried less if my husband had been coming with us. While we disagree about the highlights of travel (I prefer historical sight-seeing, he goes for action and adventure), he has a gift for keeping a clear head and making good decisions when adversity arises. As Mama once noted, while H drove us calmly out of Paris, after negotiating various bewildering aspects of French bureaucracy at the airport and rental car agency, he would be a formidable contestant on The Amazing Race. Not long after we had begun dating, we were on our way to Newark Airport in my VW Rabbit, when it broke down on Route 1. I was headed to Michigan for a friend’s wedding.  H spotted the office of a car service, persuaded the owner to awaken the off-duty driver (her son), and got me back on the road in no time.  As I waved goodbye to H, who waited beside the Rabbit for a tow truck, I had complete confidence that he and the car would make it back to Princeton safely.  From that moment, I began to see his potential as a permanent feature in my life.

Without H on this upcoming trip, I would be the Adult in Charge, and that was frightening. It had been nearly ten years since I was in Europe, but, as I tried to remind myself, I was no travel neophyte.  I had spent a summer in France during college, and as a grad student I had become accustomed to traveling throughout Europe, with friends, family, even alone. I had enjoyed it. I had not been riddled with misgivings. As for my parents, they are sturdy and capable travelers. They visited me during the year I lived in England, and we zipped around the countryside for three weeks in a rented red Ford Escort. We explored out-of-the-way castles and hard-to-reach ruins that only the locals knew about.

But we were all younger then. So much younger, it appears, when I see the photos from those trips. Still, none of us is ancient, doddering or especially fragile, and we have my daughter to help us. Even as a baby, she was a spirited and adventurous traveler. While fellow airline passengers crossed themselves during bouts of turbulence, she was all smiles, clapping her chubby hands and yelling “Whee!.” She had grown into a highly competent traveling companion. Like most of her peers, she has a facility for technology. She is her father’s daughter, and she would be a good stand-in for him. We would be fine, I told myself over and over. We would have a wonderful trip.

But then again, what if? What if one or more of us got sick? What if someone fell or met with an accident? I remember taking a flying fall on the marble steps of a Renaissance church in Italy. I couldn’t afford to do that now. What if my parents’ passports, which expired in five months instead of the recommended six, led to some difficulty? This point caused me extreme consternation, and after many calls to various European embassies that should have eased my mind, I was still worried. What if, after all these plans, we couldn’t make this trip? Or what if we did, and disaster struck? What if, what if. . .. The what ifs were exhausting me.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, similar worries dogged my parents. Our family tends to make plans eagerly for a date that appears comfortingly far-off. As the actual event nears, the second-guessing starts. It’s tempting to say, “Oh, never mind. Let’s just stay home.” Stay safe, be comfortable, avoid the risk.

But the time was ticking by, and it looked like this trip was going to happen. The day arrived when Mama and Daddy drove up from Atlanta, healthy and looking good. We would be flying overseas together, first to Munich, followed by a short connecting flight to Budapest. I expected that once we were on the plane, my worries would vanish. The river cruises cater to a predominately elderly clientele because so many of the usual travel worries simply disappear.  We would be in the capable hands of the Viking River Cruise staff.  The ship would be our well-equipped floating hotel.  On land, we would, no doubt, be herded onto “motor coaches” like preschoolers on a field trip, but unlike H, I was fine with that.

The weeks of worry were at an end.  We would soon be flying to Hungary.

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On the left bank, the hills of Buda. On the right, Pest, with the dome of the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building.

 

Back When the Movies were Big, and the Theatre was a Palace: Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox

My trove of movie memories was neatly packed, sealed, and hidden away in my mind, and it took a while to access them. I’ve grown so accustomed to the ease of home viewing, of DVDs, streaming video and Tivo, that I had nearly forgotten the thrill of the old-time movie-going experience.

Having grown up in Atlanta during the 60s and 70s, my most colorful movie memories center on the Fox Theatre, which opened in 1929. Originally intended as the Yaarab Temple Mosque, national Shriners’ headquarters, its flamboyant style is best described as Islamic with touches of Egyptian. When escalating costs jeopardized the project, William Fox stepped in and oversaw the completion of the building as his newest movie palace. The fanciful exterior is a wealth of onion domes, minarets, ornate tile work and arched colonnades.

The movie that stands out most clearly among the many I saw at the Fox was, strangely, a re-release of Disney’s Song of the South, truly a remnant from another world. I was with a group of fifth-grade friends, and it was the first time a parent had dropped us off at the theatre. Maybe the movie was chosen by that parent simply for its “G” rating. Had we been younger, we might have taken some delight in the singing, dancing, southern dialect-spewing animals of the Uncle Remus stories. We were mature enough to be uncomfortable watching wise and contented former slaves extolling the joys of life on the old plantation. (Because it is now generally considered a racially offensive film, it has never been released in its entirety on VHS or DVD.)

The movie wasn’t a good fit for us, but it didn’t matter, because the Fox Theatre was dazzling. Gilded opulence was everywhere, from the box office window, to the concession stand to the luxurious Ladies’ Lounge (no mere utilitarian restrooms for the Fox). The auditorium was vast and atmospheric, with nearly 5,000 seats. It resembled an enchanted courtyard from the Arabian Nights. Before the movie began, we marveled at the gradually darkening and slowly rotating twilight sky above, flickering with crystal stars and the occasional drifting, wispy cloud. Just before show time, the famous pipe organ rose from the orchestra pit. The second-largest theatre organ in the U.S., it filled the great space with the music of an entire orchestra, a variety of brass instruments and sound effects, such as thunder and lightning.

By the mid 70s, as potential movie-goers flocked to the suburbs, the Fox was struggling financially. Down at the heels and seedy, it had become the Blanche DuBois of movie palaces. The City of Atlanta, always quick to move on in the name of progress, proposed demolishing the theatre to make way for Southern Bell’s new headquarters. This plan awakened Atlantans, at long last, to the urgent need for hometown historic preservation. (The city’s once-magnificent Terminal Station, designed in the Spanish Mission style by the architect of the Fox, had been torn down in 1972.)

Perhaps because so many Georgians clung to their own unforgettable memories of the old theatre, the Save-the-Fox campaign gained support quickly. The building was not only saved, but eventually fully restored. It now serves as a popular concert venue, with a film series every summer, complete with organ sing-a-longs. The historic old girl looks better than ever. Blanche has bucked up, gone through rehab, become fit and healthy. An active, happy grandmother, it looks as though she has many good years ahead.

My daughter has never been to the Fox.  My husband hasn’t either, although he and I have eaten dinner across the street at the Georgian Terrace, while crowds flocked to a performance of Celtic Woman. I hope we can catch a summer movie at the Fox this year, so H & D can see that magical, indoor amethyst sky.