A random comment by my friend Diana sent my mind whizzing back to my trip to Budapest several years ago. I was there with a friend (some of you know her, but for the sake of propriety I'll keep her name out of it!) We were at the end of a great trip, first to Bratislava, then Vienna, and finally Budapest.
Our trusty Time Out/Rough Guide insisted that a trip to the thermal baths at the Hotel Gellert was an absolute must. We could see the gorgeous building just on the other side of the bridge across the river, so we trundled off with our swimming costumes, towels etc.
The price list at the reception desk was fairly baffling and only in Hungarian so we opted for the cheapest one that appeared to include the baths and a massage. We were given a ticket and a small, triangular piece of white cloth, and no explanation. We made our way out of the huge, domed reception area and headed to the ladies' changing rooms. These looked more like what you would expect from an Eastern Bloc building - in the basement and just some very basic cubicles. We quickly changed into our swimming costumes, emerged clutching our towels and still unexplained triangles of cotton, and locked our worldly goods in our cubicles. We had gone no more than 2 or 3 steps when a terrifying sight appeared. A sturdy, flip-flop-wearing Hungarian woman, who may well have more than her fair share of shot-putt gold medals, advanced on us across the room, wagging her finger, shaking her head and saying "No, no, no". Baffled, we looked around to see if we had used the wrong cubicles or were somehow in the men's changing rooms. No. She bore down on us like a train, finally stopped, pinged the shoulder straps of my swimming costume and uttered the unforgettable words......... "Nudie bath. Nudie bath."
Gulp. Er, what? My mate and I looked at each other in terribly British, prudish disbelief, nodded at the woman and ran back inside one of the cubicles for a conflab! What to do? We'd paid (though clearly not for quite what we thought), and had been really looking forward to it. So do we get dressed and run away? Or do we bite the bullet and stay? Well, my motto is meant to be Carpe Diem so we went for the "What the hell? We're only here once and no-one knows us" option.
So after promising never to mention it again (so much for that promise, eh?), off came the swimming costumes, and the towels, and we crept back out into the shot-putter's lair. This time, something she may have thought of as a smile crossed her face and she directed us up a flight of stairs at the back of the room. To this day, I still feel bad about making my mate go first, not least because it meant I ascended the stairs mere inches from her bare arse!!!! We emerged into the thermal baths to be met with the sight of scores of naked women of all shapes and sizes, immersed in the steaming waters or wandering about. We finally discovered the purpose of the tiny triangles of material with a neck strap that we'd been given. They were intended to preserve a modicum of modesty. Which would have worked if we'd been about 3 feet tall, 6 inches around and had no adult body parts! I'll say no more about that.
To be honest, after a shorter time than you might think, we got quite used to the idea and spent a lovely couple of hours wallowing in baths of varying temperatures, and boiling ourselves in the string of sauna rooms which increased in temperature as you went through each connecting door until we reached the one of about 113 degrees at which point we both had admit defeat. We even gave up on any pretence of using the little cotton aprons. My abiding memories of that part of the day are the (we think) Dutch girl who sat in one of sauna rooms, on a chair, facing the rest of the room, with her knees under her chin and her feet up on the chair, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination, and the 2 American girls who had heard us speaking English and sidled up to us saying "Oh my god, did you REALISE......?" We admitted it had been something of a surprise to us too, but that we recommended just getting on with it!
Finally, the time came for our massage. Any ideas we'd had of a lovely, relaxing 15 minutes of aromatherapy oils and soft music were swiftly despatched! The massage room was a large, glass-brick-walled affair, containing 2 metal slabs and a couple of women who clearly came from the same stock as the assistant in the changing rooms. We clambered, inelegantly, onto a slab each, face down. I, for one, was desperately trying not to think about the fact that it was more like the dissection room in a morgue, or the display trays in a fish market! Having liberally lathered me up from neck to toes with a gigantic bar of soap and a little lukewarm water, the masseuse set to work. Pain is an understatement. I don't know what she did, how she did it or what parts of her anatomy she was using, but she found ways of causing pain, without leaving any marks, that a KGB interrogation team would have been proud of. After a few minutes, she forcibly flipped me over onto my back, leaving me slithering around on the table while she did her thing again to my front! I didn't dare glance over to the other table. Having decided that either she'd caused enough agony, or that she was disappointed I hadn't screamed, she shoved me off the table and yelled "Stand". She was not a woman to be argued with so I stood stock-still with my back to her, wondering what on earth could be coming next. Had I actually considered the possibility that it might be a huge, wooden bucket full of ice-cold water thrown over me at point-blank range, I might have taken the opportunity to leg it while I could! Too late.
And that was that. We were done. An old, tatty white sheet that passed for a towel was thrown at us and we were pointed in the direction of the changing rooms.
When we finally re-emerged into the Budapest sunshine, I'm not sure we were even capable of speech though I recall something like "Did that just really happen?" being uttered. True to our original promise, neither of us mentioned it for a while though the intervening years have at least turned the experience from a traumatic, never-to-be-repeated debacle, into something much more memorable and appreciated for what it was.
So - if you're in Budapest, you know where (not) to go!