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Chris & Allyson vs. Europe (2017)

Budapest Day Three: Gellert Spa. Parliament. Depeche Mode.

I'm not a believer in cultural immersion. You can't experience a foreign culture in a few days, so there's no point in pretending. Better to air-drop in, see the touristy attractions, appreciate what you can and speak highly of your hosts.

But in Budapest, spa days are a big part of their culture. You can make an exception for spa days.

The city is built on a veritable mattress of hot springs. Baths have been constructed in more than a dozen locations so that people might access the (allegedly) healing waters. And if you're building a bathhouse, you might as well offer massage treatments, right?

We got up at 7:45, ready to explore this vital part of Budapest's culture. Our hotel was right across the Liberty Bridge from one of the city's finest baths. The Gellert Hotel and Spa complex is more than 100 years old. It's a beautiful building in the "Secession" style. Parts of the facility are getting rough around the edges, but when you consider that it's used every day by scores of semi-nude tourists and Hungarians, the place is holding up remarkably well.

Allyson and I had arranged in advance for a 50-minute couples massage. First, we had to check in at the baths. We were given a "cabin" – really, a small changing room – nifty electronic bracelets that opened the cabin, and a few minutes to figure out the minotaur maze that is the locker room. We could have used a few more minutes. Running a little bit behind, we had to jump a turnstile to get back to the hotel complex for our massage.

In our relationship, Allyson is the massage expert. She gets them on a regular basis, whereas I had only one -- for about 15 minutes on a beach during our honeymoon. I was advised by Allyson that even though this was something we were doing together, we absolutely should not talk or look at each other during the session. Doing so would spoil the togetherness. Allyson's attendant was male, and mine was female. And while massages are generally very relaxing, there's definitely some tension when a strange woman is rubbing your thighs while your wife is 15 feet away.

Let's just call the whole thing a delight for all parties and skip ahead to the spa part.

There are two big baths in Budapest: Gellert and the Széchenyi thermal bath in City Park. Gellert is less popular with the locals, but to us it seemed fantastic. It has a couple of ornate indoor thermal pools, running as hot as 40 degrees Celsius. There's a cold-water indoor pool which we skipped, because it was cold and filled with old people doing water aerobics. And there are fantastic outdoor pools. The largest is considered by some to be the oldest wave pool in the world, with artificial surf kicking on every hour. There are enough statues and architectural flourishes that the whole place looks classy, like a drug dealer's mansion in a 1980s music video.

At the start of our visit, most of the clientele were old Hungarians who stared at us like we had clear plans to pee in the pools. (They were also probably longing for the days of gender-segregated bathing.) By mid-morning, there were enough middle-aged Hungarians and tourists present that we no longer felt like intruders. We tried the pools, soaked up the minerals and even rode out one of the wave cycles. This was all great fun, and after having a delightful lunch at the pool café we went back to our hotel to rinse off the healing minerals with good-old-fashioned Hungarian tap water.

Another appointment was waiting for us that afternoon: a tour of the Hungarian Parliament. It is a beautiful building from the outside, and the Hungarians are very proud of it. Most guidebooks will tell you to visit, and my mom felt very strongly that the guidebooks were right. When she visited Budapest, the river was flooded, and Parliament was closed. So for once, she needed to live through her children. It was our duty to go.

Parliament offers tours in multiple languages at multiple times throughout the day. We weren't feeling THAT adventurous, so we opted for the 3 p.m. English tour. We were part of a big group, and everyone was equipped with closed-circuit radios that let us hear our guide in the big echoing hallways.

It's a quick tour, and a formulaic one. But there are things to remember: The building is bigger than the British Parliament, and the Hungarians really want you to know this. The tallest part of the building is 96 meters – supposedly to commemorate the founding of Hungary in 896 – and it's the same height as the tower at St. Istvan's. That's supposedly symbolic of the church and state being on equal footing. The footing is high above mortal man, but hey, no metaphor is perfect.

The inside of the Parliament is gorgeous, thanks in part to gilding. Every few generations, 88 pounds of gold are flattened into unbearably thin sheets and pressed into the ceilings. It's very impressive, especially when combined with the carvings and statuary that inhabit every available surface. We have some level of artistry in American public buildings, but the Hungarian Parliament has next-level craftsmanship that makes any good American say, "Whose tax dollars are paying for this crap?"

The building is a little outdated. One legislative chamber (their House of Lords) was dissolved, so half the legislating space goes unused. There are some neat features left over from the past, such as the numbered cigar holders by every window. No one wanted to hear other legislators speak; instead, they stood in the hallway and smoked until they had to run into the chamber and shout something or vote. They would leave their cigar in an appointed spot until they could return.

Oddly enough, the center of the building – the very heart of Hungarian democracy! – is given over to the monarchy. The middle of the rotunda has a case holding the "coronation crown" bestowed on the ruling monarch. The crown has a bizarre history, having been whisked around the world to protect it from plunder hounds. (It was actually confiscated by American troops during World War II and stored in Fort Knox until Jimmy Carter gave it back to the Hungarians.) The crown's display case is flanked by two jacked guards with dress swords. The interior of the rotunda is decorated with statues of great figures from Hungarian history, none of them particularly democratic.

And finally, there was a tiny museum at the end of the tour, which featured the giant red star that topped the building during the Communist era.


We took the leisurely route home, stopping in Freedom Square, then grabbing dinner at a tourist trap near the hotel (Café Anna). Then it was on to the true inspiration for this entire vacation.

Depeche Mode was playing that evening at Groupama Arena, one of the local soccer hangouts. In America, Depeche Mode is a nice band that some people listen to. In Europe, Depeche Mode is a band that regularly fills up outdoor stadiums. We hopped on the Metro, and within minutes we were amid a bunch of hard-drinking, chain-smoking, middle-aged white Europeans. Concert time.

Depeche Mode puts on a great show, and it was dampened only a little by the thunderstorms all around us. (Lightning was flashing in the distance, and there was a bit of rain – although our seats were so far back that we were sheltered by the partial roof.) The people in our section, and in most of the seated sections, did not stand up. That was a bit of a bummer, but these things happen with bands that were big in the 1980s. At some point your fans get bad knees and mostly want to nod their head silently in appreciation. Rock out while you're young, is the point.

Our enjoyment of the concert was surpassed only by our satisfaction at running for the exit as the encore was ending. We caught the last train before the Metro closed for the night, thereby repeating a victorious tram ride that we took after the Depeche Mode concert in Germany a few years earlier. We celebrated this great achievement with some drinks at the Bohem's bar before calling it a night.

It's entirely possible that Depeche Mode will crank out another album in a few years, and have another European tour. I'm guessing we'll joke about it at first, then book tickets not long after. There are worse vices.

On to Budapest Day Four

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