My first encounter with a hot spring spa occurred four years ago when I was living in Budapest, Hungary – a city renowned for its numerous bathhouses. Two large outdoor pools lay before me, with slowly rising steam being the only indication that their water was anything but chilly. As I stepped into the warm spring, I could almost immediately distinguish who were regulars to the scene: groups of wrinkly women in bathing caps, chatting and arguing amongst each other; and older men hovered around chessboards that were built into the bath’s concrete floor. It was undoubtedly a different spectacle than the first introduction of baths to the city, but the atmosphere and purpose remain the same. Here is a place where locals come to chat, to heal, and to soak in the earth’s natural minerals.
The history of baths in Budapest revolves largely around the Ottoman occupation from 1526 to 1686, but recordings of a hot spring area date all the way back to the 12th century. In 1178, a settlement known as Felheviz (“Upper Hot Spring”) was built under the orders of St. John as a place to cure the sick and diseased. Another early hot spring, now called the Gellert Bath and one of Budapest’s more upscale spas, was discovered around the 13th century. Today it lies in an elaborate marble hall beneath the famed Gellert hotel.
The majority of Budapest’s spas, however, were constructed under Turkish influences in the 16th century. The Turks were known for their ornate bath houses decorated with elaborate mosaics, towering fountains, and ornate columns- a palatial pool for the masses. Construction of the Kiraly Bath, another popular hot spring on the Buda side, began under the Pasha of Buda, Arslan, in 1565. Its name, translated in English as “King,” reflects the bath’s royal architecture and status among Budapest’s hot springs. Although the Kiraly draws its water from a nearby spring under the Lukacs thermal bath nearby, there is never a shortage of the constantly heated water that funnels into the domed spa all year round.
Hot springs are one of Earth’s natural wonders, especially when a simple pool of warm water can be as relaxing as a hotel spa. They are formed when geothermally-heated groundwater emerges from the earth’s crust, rising in temperature as the water passes through hot rocks. There is some debate as to just how hot the water must be to be called a “hot spring,” but most geologists agree on a minimum temperature of 40 degrees Centigrade. Water temperature isn’t the only deciding factor, however. Hot springs can either have a low or high flow, which determines whether the site will be bathing friendly. Almost all thermal baths have a low flow. A high flow, on the other hand, generally leads to geysers and fountains, which would be quite difficult (and dangerous!) to take a relaxing dip in.
The developers of a commercial hot spring, like those used by locals and tourists throughout Hungary, filter the ground water by diluting it with their own clean supply. This ensures that the water is kept at a controlled temperature, as well as regulates the amount of natural minerals that are found in natural spring water.