City of Baths: Budapest, Hungary

7 December 2017

Often described as the “Little Paris of Middle Europe”, Budapest is famous not only for its variety of grand architecture of civic and other buildings and its monuments reflecting its own 1,000 years of history but also for its abundant natural springs that are much used by its population and an increasing number of visitors. The city was formed in 1873 by the union of the hilly city of Buda on the right bank of the River Danube with the low-lying city of Pest on the left, together with Obuda, or Old Buda, existing from Roman times.

It has held the title ‘City of Spas’ since 1934 with more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world providing over 70 million litres of thermal water a day. The temperatures of waters vary between 21 and 78 celsius. The grandiose décor and services of the baths add to their great prestige and reputation for promoting wellness and health. There are also several public hammans and saunas situated throughout the city.

Budapest thermal waters were enjoyed by the Romans as early as the second century but it was only during the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the sixteenth century that the bath culture really began to flourish. Today there are fifteen public thermal baths in Budapest while some luxury city hotels have their own thermal facilities. The wellness and therapeutic benefits also serve to treat a number of ailments based on authorised medical prescriptions.
Hungary: Past and Present

It is a country in central Europe whose Hungarian name is Magyarorszag. It was conquered by the Habsburgs in the seventeenth century becoming an equal partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. Following the collapse of the empire in 1918 Hungary became an independent kingdom. After participation in the Second World War on the Axis side, Hungary was occupied by the USSR and became a communist state. A liberal reform movement was crushed by Soviet troops in 1956 and the communist system continued until 1989.

The official language of Hungary, spoken also by people in Romania, is a Finno-Ugric language and is the only major language of the Ugric branch. Also called Magyar, the origin is from medieval Latin Hungari, a name given to the Hungarians, who call themselves the Magyar+an.

In Budapest two important churches are Saint Matthias Church and St Stephen’s Basilica. The latter is dedicated to the martyred patron and founder of the Hungarian state whose great influence introduced Christianity to Hungary. The church was consecrated in 1905 and the following year Emperor Franz Joseph laid the final stone. The basilica went under renovation between 1983 and 2003 embellishing its mix of neo-classical and neo-renaissance style of architecture, statuary, murals, paintings, stain glass windows and other decorative and unique reliquary treasures.

St Stephen’s Basilica Black Madonna Chapel displays an icon type painting on wood by a Hungarian artist that is said to be a replica of Poland’s most revered icon in the Monastery of Czestochowa. The original painting has more mystery than history. While art scholars and historians disagree with the legend surrounding the icon it is much revered and credited with many miracles of events and cures. The national and religious connections are extensive. In the early 1980s when leading the outlawed Polish Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa placed an Our Lady of Czestochowa lapel pin on his jacket as a symbol of a defiant and subversive message to the Communist authorities.

The original icon suffered damage in 1430 when robbers ransacked the monastery. They broke the wooden boards that backed the painting and slashed the canvas. The Virgin’s face and neck were ripped. About three years later the image was wiped from the canvas and a similar image painted in its place. The original sharp features of Orthodox icons were softened by European hues and techniques; the nose was made more aquiline. The distinctive tears the Madonna seems to shed are actually lines painted to represent the rips made by the thieves’ knives, say the historians. The marks are visible in the strikingly beautiful replica that is placed in St Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest.

In 2016 the Harry Houdini House museum was opened that is unique in Europe. Born as Ehrich Weisz (1874-1926), he was the son of a poor Jewish family in Budapest whose father was a rabbi. The family left for the United States when he was four years old. The museum traces his life and exploits to escape from all kinds of bonds and containers, from prison cells to aerially suspended straitjackets. It features films, talks and magic shows. The Jewish district of Budapest tells its story through its synagogues and other institutions that bear witness to the ravages of WW2.

There are many famous buildings and places of historical interest reflecting the different periods of earlier and more recent times. Budapest is a thriving and lively metropolis increasingly attractive to visitors worldwide.

Ita Marguet, November 2017

Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows a brief visit to Budapest, November 2017, and a published text titled Irish Madonna in Hungary: Bishop Walter Lynch of Clonfert, by Ita Marguet, August 2016.