Raving in a Hungarian Turkish Bathhouse

Monday Magazine | October 20, 2004
Fed up with the New Year’s polar bear swim? Want something warmer? Try a bathhouse rave in Budapest, Hungary, where internationally renowned Cinetrip produces an annual New Year’s day party in a 500-year-old Turkish bathhouse. European DJs play the latest trance music, while VJs project synchronized images onto the surrounding walls—and everyone gets wet. Well, almost everyone!

Being a confirmed water addict I couldn’t resist; so last New Year’s day I joined the thousand-plus partygoers at Rudas Baths and was baptized the Cinetrip way.

It’s utter mayhem outside, where there are no ropes or security guards to keep people in line. The mob spills into the middle of the road and the approaching trams ring their bells to clear the tracks—but once inside, it’s a different world.

A subdued drum’n’bass groove fills the foyer, which is jam-packed with rhythmically pulsating, semi-nude bodies. Bikini-clad girls conceal their bums with scarves and shorts, while boys in loose-fitting trunks cover-up with terry cloth bathrobes.

Off to the left is a 100-year-old swimming pool. It’s usually occupied by children and seniors, but at these parties, it throbs with a deafeningly loud hard drum’n’bass. A wall of speakers is installed on the deck at the deep end, and above it a split projection screen spans the width of the five-lane pool. Digitally manipulated video clips of boxing, rugby, athletics, figure skating and gymnastics are closely cropped, layered, and synchronized with the music.

The thermal baths—which are what I came for—are in the oldest part of the building, off to the right, on the other side of the changing area. The baths are usually open to men only, so these parties give women a chance to enjoy them.

There are five thermal pools in all, in the room beneath the Turkish dome. A jacuzzi-sized pool sits in each corner with a large, central, octagonal-shaped pool, encircled by eight green-stone columns. A single orange spotlight shines down from the dome, and a very subtle drum’n’bass rhythm beats beneath ethereal electronica. The atmosphere is ultra laid-back and sensuous.

Five hundred years of use have made the stone steps leading into the pools as smooth and satiny as the water. Young women sit in clusters on these underwater steps, while young men stand in circles, in chest-deep water, making small talk and attempting to dance. Meanwhile, those who have found partners openly kiss and rub each other.

I start the party in the main pool. At 37 degrees Celsius, the water seduces me. I lie back, eyes closed, and relax into a dream-like state. The tension drains from my body and I drift. Now and then I bump someone, but no one hassles me. Then suddenly, a pair of hands is beneath my spine, offering support. I open my eyes and look into the face of a handsome young man of about 18. He nudges me to my feet, then back to back, we interlock arms; he lifts me up and spins me in a circle—slowly at first, then faster, and faster, until finally he releases his hold and my body glides over the surface of the water.

Strangely energized, I start to bounce up and down in the water in time to the music. Another young man starts bouncing with me. After several minutes he turns, and embraces me, takes my face in his hands and says: “Super cool!” Then he pulls me onto his back and parades me piggyback style through the crowd. When the music changes, I slip into the water, and he disappears into the steam.

I head for a smaller, cooler bath (33 degrees Celsius), where two couples are necking on either side of a gushing tap. I slide in between them, and let the water pummel my back and shoulders, giving me a free massage. When the music changes, I move to the next pool, which is slightly cooler again and here, of course, is another necking couple.

By midnight—when the belly dancers arrive—the air is heavy with cigarette smoke and the main pool is packed with an eager audience. The electronica stops, the lights go out, and Turkish music starts. The crowd cheers enthusiastically as the lights illuminate six dancers, their breasts and bellies shaking and rippling in time to the music, making their tassels and bells sway and tinkle.

When the belly dancing finishes, most of the crowd quickly disperses. The DJ changes and a heavier beat replaces the seductive, mesmerizing electronica. I visit the remaining two pools, one of which is hot, at 42 Celsius! The other is a cooling-down tub, at 28 degrees Celsius. As my body cools, my blood pressure slowly drops, and I get a little natural high. No drugs needed here.

At one a.m., they close the thermal area to clean it in readiness for the regular patrons who will start arriving at six. By now, the crowd in the foyer is thick, and cool. This is the “I am definitely not getting wet” crowd. These guys are so cool, they aren’t even sweating! I head straight for the swimming pool.

The volume of the music is numbing. The shallow end of the pool is packed with people tossing beach balls and dancing in the waist-high water, and the deck overflowing with ravers grooving to the music. I dive into the deep end, which is almost empty, and propelled by the fury of the music, eggbeater my legs and dance with my arms. Almost crazed with energy, I climb out and jump in again, over and over. Where does this energy come from? All I’ve drunk all evening is water.

Of course! Juventus, one of three underground springs that feeds the baths, takes its name from the rejuvenating properties it is renowned for.

Back in the change room, I dress in the privacy of a little cabin. It’s three a.m., I’ve partied all night, and I feel great.

On my way out, the Cinetrip souvenir stand catches my eye. There are the usual T-shirts plus something not so commonplace: for 500 Hungarian forints (about 2 euros) you can take home a small can of “Cinetrip Party Atmosphere.” Contents? “200% (A Double Dose): 70% vibration, 47.2% light, 31.9% steam, 26.8% magic, 17.9% swimming suit, 4.4% recycled space trash. May contain traces of radiowaves.”

No, it doesn’t add up, but then, most of the best things in life never do. Maybe that’s why I seem to have found a home here in Hungary, where they speak a language you seldom here anywhere else in the world, and the birds sing all winter long.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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