The Skinny: The Gellert Baths are lovely, and definitely worth a visit with kids, but not particularly user-friendly. Skip the ‘Mix’ – eat before you come or grab something at the (fair to middling) restaurant on the terrace near the outdoor pools, which is open only in the summer months. The only other food option within the bath complex itself is a small shop with drinks and simple sandwiches.
When you’ve been living in Budapest for a while, and fall into the same ruts and routines, you start to get the nagging feeling that you should be taking fuller advantage of all the city has to offer. It was that gentle tugging, that twinge of something almost akin to conscience, that led us to the Gellert Hotel to take advantage of the ‘Gellert Mix,’ a combo lunch-and-bath deal.
Now first of all, the city’s baths and pool complexes can be great places to take your kids. The Palatinus Strand on Margit Island, the Szechenyi Baths in the City Park (Varosliget), Dagály Strand on the Danube in the 13th District – these are all great escapes from the city heat, and in addition to the soothing waters the Szechenyi Baths offer a spectacular architectural setting.
Our first visit to the Gellert Baths had been in 2000, prior to its most recent renovation. It had not been a stellar experience. A Byzantine menu of prices and services, a labyrinthine convolution of changing rooms, a surly band of service staff dressed like orderlies in an insane asylum – these cultivated neither confidence nor relaxation. Then there were the ‘dirty aprons.’
Having lived in Japan for a couple of years, we had become accustomed to immaculate, well-ordered hot springs and total nudity. The graying, fraying apron we were issued at the Gellert befuddled us. Were you supposed to wear it in the front or back? Was it supposed to cloak my balls or my butt? Had it been laundered in this century? I tried it both ways, and either way it left me feeling filthy and exposed. I ended up just carrying it around in my hand. To hide my fingers. Apparently this was something of an unspoken invitation, because it wasn’t long before I began to be followed around by a leering and lecherous Lothario making obscure but seemingly obscene gyrations with his hips.
The baths themselves were lovely but in desperate need of repair. Paint peeled indecorously and large chunks of plaster and tile had fallen from the walls. The effect was of a once-great beauty, a celebrated courtesan, perhaps, afflicted by age, syphilis, maybe a touch of leprosy. The letch continued to leer. At least there was the massage to look forward to.
The masseuse, a towering, tubby monolith of a man, finished pounding out the great slab of hairy mangalica hog ahead of me and gave the hard, rubberized steel table a cursory cold-water rinse with a cracked garden hose. Bits of curly mangalica fur swirled in eddies at the corners of the table then dribbled to the floor. My confusion mounted. I tried timidly to intimate to the masseuse that I had signed up for a gentle rubdown, not a gulag interrogation. He grunted, motioned to the table, and I slunk bare-assed and embarrassed onto the icy board. There I was pummeled mercilessly until I was a gibbering hunk of mishandled flesh. Generally during a massage one has the bittersweet sensation of hoping it will never end but knowing that alas, it must. Now I just wanted the man to stop digging his sausage fingers into the space under my shoulder blade.
I left the Gellert that day sore, bewildered, and disgruntled. But things change, time heals all masseuse-inflicted wounds, and it was time to give the old Gellert, newly renovated, another shot. I had seen that they have this combo arrangement, three-course lunch and entrance to the baths for Ft 5,990 (about $30 US). Since the baths alone cost Ft 3,900, this seemed a pretty decent deal.
We entered the hotel lobby, two young kids in tow, and went to reception. I told the desk clerk, let’s call him Balazs, that we were interested in the ‘Gellert Mix.’ Yes, sir, just go ahead that way, yes, the end of the hall to the restaurant, they will help you. They will give you a voucher. They have vouchers coming out of their asses.
If you haven’t been, there is an indescribable yet palpable sense of old Socialism in the Gellert Hotel that lingers like the stench of an apparatchik’s Cuban cigar. Perhaps it’s the dingy hallways. Perhaps it’s the cheap, utilitarian furnishings that one might find in a low-end countryside rental property. Whatever it is, it chafes slightly, like institutional toilet paper.
At the restaurant we were told that they wouldn’t open for another 15 minutes. Something that maybe Balazs should have mentioned. We went back and loitered in the lobby, admiring the cut-rate coffee tables and luxuriating in the incongruous glow of exclusivity and state-sponsored egalitarianism.
Finally seated in the restaurant at a dining-room cousin of the coffee tables, I told the waiter we wanted the famed ‘Gellert Mix.’
‘Yes, sir, get a voucher from the reception desk.’
‘They told me to get a voucher here.’
‘We have no vouchers. Go kindly to reception.’
Meanwhile our baby is transitioning rapidly from irritable to overwrought. He’s hungry. He’s tetchy, piqued. He’s pissed. But they can’t possibly begin to serve us without an official voucher. I go back to Reception.
I go to Balazs. ‘The restaurant says they have no vouchers.’
‘They must have vouchers.’
‘They say they don’t.’
Instead of issuing me a voucher, Balazs gets on the phone to the restaurant and berates them for their incompetence and stupidity. I assume this is for effect, for my benefit. Minutes pass. Balasz goes rifling through filing cabinets for the goddamn vouchers that the restaurant should have. Minutes pass. He finally locates one. I fill out forms and pay in advance. I ask how much the baths are for children. He doesn’t know. I return to the restaurant.
The menu available with the ‘Mix’ is pretty much limited to the Hungarian suite of culinary stars. Goulash, letcho and the like. To be honest, I don’t even remember what we ate. There was soup I recall, the base straight from a can. Tasting the food, I could tell exactly what the chef, and the kitchen, were like.
The chef is in his late fifties, heavy-smoking, hard-drinking. He got laid a lot in the 80’s, round about the time he stopped giving a shit about food. Whatever is easy, is good. Canned soup base? Bring it on. Frozen pre-portioned chocolate cake? Heaven. Whatever is cheap, is good. The guiding principle of the kitchen is keeping the food cost low, so the chef can make his bonus. In this he is abetted by the Food and Beverage Manager, who in turn is under pressure from the GM, who knows that the restaurant is a loser, little more than a courtesy to the few guests who straggle in and the handful of tourists and locals suckered by the seductions of the ‘Gellert Mix.’ The GM would turn the entire space over to rooms if he could, because that’s where the money is.
He used to care, the chef. He used to spend hours huddled over salmon in aspic and canapés with caviar, maybe even a beef Wellington, all the tired old hotel standards that were fresh and exciting at the time. He’s nostalgic for the days when he would pump out 800 dinners for political cronies and visiting dignitaries, their wives and mistresses, when he would hump waitresses in the dry store and change into crisp chef’s whites to be feted in the dining room. These days the kitchen puts out maybe 75 meals a day, and the chef lets his underlings handle most of the work while he barks at the wait staff, smokes a million cigarettes, and dreams of hitting 32% food cost.
Perhaps my profile is all wrong. Perhaps the chef is nothing like this. But the food doesn’t lie, and even if the details differ, the kitchen philosophy is the same. I could see it in the outdated furnishings, the slumpy body language of the staff. I could taste it in the food. It’s the taste of indifference, exhaustion, stagnation. It’s the taste of slow culinary death.
But let us leave the chef sitting in his tiny office, poring over the numbers and placing orders for more pre-mixed pancake powder (just add water!). The ‘Mix’ includes the baths, so let’s get bathing. Our vouchers work like a charm. We skip the line and I take the baby in the stroller straight to the men’s changing area. There’s a turnstile. I obviously can’t get the stroller through the turnstile, and after a couple of minutes standing there helplessly, one of the attendants notices my desperate plight and drifts slowly in my direction. Great, let’s just lift this thing right up and over. He shakes his head. It simply can’t be done. He needs to get a key. Two more large, well-muscled attendants arrive and examine this intractable situation. Needs a key they seem to conclude. Five minutes, ten minutes, twelve minutes. I was keeping track. The original attendant returns, without a key. How about we just lift it over, he suggests. A brilliant plan, executed without incident.
I am now finally in the changing rooms. But no, wait, these are not my changing rooms. For those, I must exit these changing rooms, go past the pool, turn right, pass through a set of doors, descend some stairs, and find my room somewhere in the endless grid of corridors. A distinguished-looking Italian man is ahead of me, talking to the attendant as his two young sons tug at his arms. I can’t hear their conversation, but the attendant is disconsolate, the father clearly frustrated. Whatever it is the Italian wanted is simply not possible. The attendant sadly shakes his head, and the father and sons turn and walk away. I’m informed by the attendant that there is a machine at the other end of the building that will read the wrist band I’ve been given and tell me my cabin number. Other guests pass us without receiving this bit of information. An older German woman stops me to ask the way to the baths, while all around us bewildered tourists wander aimlessly like the undead.
The indoor baths themselves are lovely, if somewhat limited. There are essentially three warm pools (one rather tepid for my taste), a cold plunge pool, and the large central rectangular one, flanked by columns. Outside there is a large wave pool and one thermal bath. I try to look at them with fresh eyes, to imagine what a first-time visitor not jaded by years of living here might feel.
Impressed, certainly. Overwhelmed, perhaps. A bit nonplussed by the confusion and disorganization, probably.
After a couple of hours we pack it up and head out, feeling about as relaxed and satisfied as on our first visit. In a way it is comforting to know that while outside its doors the rest of Budapest hurtles breathlessly toward the 21st century, at the good old Gellert the ethos of the old days remains unchanged. Bureaucracy, incompetence, mediocrity and indifference linger like cherished friends, and what does one do with friends, but embrace them.