Budapest - In North America, swimming pools are dominated by lean bodies in Speedos bent on breast-stroking 100 laps in a matter of minutes. That's why I don't go swimming. I'm more content splashing around or lying, lethargic, belly-up in warm water.
I usually associate going to the baths with the Turks, but Hungary is equally famous for this pastime. Budapest, divided by the Danube River into Buda and Pest, sits atop of a network of thermal springs that pump mineral-rich waters into its many baths. Some are coed, some unisex, and some of the men-only baths double as popular cruising spots.
The most famous and beautiful is the Gellert Bath, located in the hotel of the same name just north of Castle Hill in historic Buda. These spa-like baths have attendants in the waiting room and a variety of services to indulge in. You pay for exactly what you get, so you can elect a minimalist visit (just the use of the pools) or something more elaborate (an underwater water-beam massage, for example).
Tourists favour the Gellert Baths for good reason: the lavish art nouveau interior with its balconies and fountains. You feel like royalty as you gaze up at the intricate canopy while soaking your achy muscles.
You can relax in the large, slightly cooler indoor pool, the warmer outdoor pool, hot tubs or steam rooms, then refresh yourself in the cold baths. Though some enjoy swimming laps here, they don't approach it with the same vigorous athleticism that we're accustomed to seeing in North America. There's more leisure to their stroke.
After the spectacle that is Gellert, the Lukács Baths feel mildly disappointing, like comparing the Hilton's pool with the rec centre's. For Hungarians, though, baths are a part of their everyday lives and need not be extravagant affairs.
More rundown and with fewer facilities, Lukács is primarily patronized by older people and families. A grandmother reprimands me, via sign language since she speaks no English and I no Hungarian, for not wearing a bathing cap in the pool. I'm told I can rent one.
At the Yellow Submarine Hostel, which I've chosen over the Aboriginal Hostel (honestly, who thinks of these names?), I meet some youths who've been staying in the city for almost a week. The Yellow Submarine, on the top floor of an apartment/retail building just steps from the Nyugati Station, encourages you to get to know your neighbours. The space can feel too close for comfort at times, but at others it's just a comfort.
An Australian and a Yankee introduce me to the Széchenyi Baths, in the heart of the City Park in Pest. A neo-baroque complex of indoor and outdoor pools, steam rooms and hot tubs, these baths attract the most young people. A doughnut-shaped whirlpool carries you around in circles, jets and waterfalls abound, and a bucket of ice is provided outside each steam room. We really enjoyed bringing our beers into the shallow, warm waters of the outdoor wading pool and floating in the sun.
Pools at home and in Budapest demonstrate some of the differences between the two cultures. North America spends its non-working hours furiously working out in the quest for good health and a fat-free waistline, while Budapest hasn't yet been won over by the fitness ideology. So, at least when in Hungary, put down the free weights, relax your butterfly into a dog paddle and wallow in the revitalizing waters of a communal tub.