Massages and the use of different creams and oils were an essential part of Turkish baths, and eventually Hungarians were happy to enjoy the same treatments. But because only the Turks were allowed to use the baths in the day, Hungarians could visit only after hours.
I have selected just one baths complex. From 1868 it took 10 years for Vilmos Zsigmondy (1821-88), the Hungarian engineer who specialised in geo-thermal well drilling, to find the waters under the City Park! The hot spring water supply came from the artesian well which was drilled 970 ms deep. Thus the underground waters rich in minerals could flow spontaneously from the great pressure, like a fountain.
Front entrance, main building with three domed pavilions
Artesian Baths were the first hot spring bath palace in Pest and the largest, with 15 indoor pools and three large outdoor ones, were surrounded by yellow and white neo-baroque buildings. Inside the vaulted ceilings were mosaic tiles, statues and painted windows.
The bath building was so popular that by the late 1880s the city councillors wanted a bigger, better facility. The palace of Szechenyi Bath was designed by Gyozo Czigler (1850-1905) . He presented his plans at the national exhibition in 1896, when Hungary celebrated its 1000th birthday and when the Hungarian Millennium Monument on Heroes’ Square and Vajdahunyad Castle were built. This Professor from Budapest Technical University had also designed Gozsdu Court and Hunyadi Square Market.
It took 7 years to get the designs officially accepted by the General Meeting. Alas Gyozo Czigler had died by the time the construction began in May 1909. So the work was completed by architects Ede Dvorak and Kalman Gerster. At the opening in 1913, the baths were already renamed now called the Szechenyi Baths, after the Count Istvan Szechenyi.
The 1913 version of Szechenyi Baths was considerably smaller than today’s version. The popularity of the baths was increasing year by year, providing both relaxation and medical benefits. While in 1913 200,000 people visited Szechenyi Bath, by 1919 890,000 bath guests used the pools. But despite the Thermal Baths’ huge success, the facility was not profitable. WWI presented a tough economic situation in Europe and the planned Szechenyi Bath Spa Hotel didn’t happen.
In 1924 Budapest’s city council voted for the Bath’s expansion. The outdoor thermal baths and the long open air swimming pool were added and opened in 1927, based on the design of Imre Francsek. At that time the pools were surrounded by sand, bringing the beach into the city. Since 1985, however, the pool sides have been made of hard stone pavements.
From 1936-8 the new wells’ geo-thermal water came from the depth of 1256 ms. The hot spring waters, at 77c, were cooled with fresh cold water, to provide an ideal temperate in the thermal baths. By 1938 it was so successful that the mayor of Budapest recommended building a fountain and a drinking well in Szechenyi Baths, to promote tourism. These buildings were added in 1939, as my Czech mother-in-law delightedly found on her regular visits to Budapest.
As Szechenyi Bath was originally planned for separate male and female pools, the structure of the building was symmetrical: men on the right side could use the same sort of pools and bath facilities as women could on the left side.
The Siege of Budapest was one of the worst city sieges during WW2 and parts of Szechenyi Baths were severely damaged. In March 1945, the male baths were used by the liberating Soviet soldiers, while the former female baths were used by the local Budapesters.
Changes happened. It was only in 1963 that Szechenyi Baths remained open for the winter season. And the Szechenyi Bath Hospital later opened, taking care of daily 178 patients.
Main hall, the pump room and massage rooms
Hungary became a member of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. During the Communist era (which ended in 1991), the Szechenyi Baths were somewhat neglected. Thanks to the detailed restorations after the Soviets left, Szechenyi Bath has become beautiful again. The pools and thermal baths have been restored since 1997 and restoration work is still creating luxurious medicinal baths with modern treatments.
The hot spring waters of Szechenyi Baths used thermal waters that were channelled into the artificial lake in City Park. This lake was used as a boating lake in summer months, and a skating rink in winter months.
The architecture and decoration of the Szechenyi Thermal Bath palace reflected Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance taste. There were many painted windows, statues related to water mythologies and water gods, fish, swans, shells, clams and mermaids. Statues of dolphins, detailed cupola and lamppost mosaics, reliefs on the walls and art deco metalwork shone. Tiles on the walls were made in the Zsolnay Majolica Tile Factory. The bust of Zsigmondy is in front of the baths.
In 2009 Szechenyi Bath gained a rooftop spa oasis called Palm House. It has exotic trees that love the heat of the thermal baths and the endless sunshine and light coming through the glass roof.