The “Citadella” to Ljubljana

Dec. 30 – Ljubljana, Slovenia

At noon I left from Budapest’s third-best train station, a drab block with none of city’s charm. The wagons themselves were extravagantly graffitied on the outside, though the compartments were clean and comfortable. The rollout from the city was uninspiring – spray-painted scrawls on neglected buildings, piles of scrap metal, railway ties, broken concrete. We saw the Danube once, grey green water drifting past a steam-belching refinery.

The train’s progress was as ponderous as its nickname, and it made frequent two-minute stops at small regional stations along the way. Progressively, the view improved as it passed through tidy towns with backyard garden plots, broad plowed plains of dark soil, farmers with horses and donkeys. I shared my compartment with two Hungarian women, frequently chatting on cell phones. The language remained a rich phonetic smear too slippery to grasp. The names of some of the stops – Boba, Hodoš – were like the utterances of infants. Other stations – Székesfehérvár, Zalaegerszeg – sounded like the curses of condemned witches.

It was dark when the train crossed into Slovenia and stopped. Passengers took out cigarettes and smoked on the platform. A boisterous family of Slovenes took the compartment next to mine. Passport control was casual, “a formality” explained the officer in German. For three hours, rolling westwards, intercom announcements were made first in Slovene, then in Slavic-tinged German, increasingly slurred. The train rolled into Ljubljana to isolated fireworks, a day early it appears.

I’m with friends here, heartily welcomed in Slovene fashion with blueberry schnapps, and will tell you more about this small alpine country tomorrow.

At the Szechenyi Baths

Dec. 29 – Budapest, Hungary

I came to Budapest for the water, but I was not the only one. The city is famous for the many thermal springs which attracted first Romans and Turks, then Hungarians, and now tourists.

Prepaid ticket in hand, I approached the magnificent 98 year-old Szechenyi Bath in the city’s central park. It is a venerable institution in Budapest – the Maracana Stadium of bathing, one of the world’s biggest spa complexes. And unfortunately, like the Maracana for a Brazil futebol match, it was packed. The anteroom, all columns, domes, mosaics and statues, resounded with confused foreigners trying to get in and resigned cashiers and gatekeepers explaining that there were insufficient lockers to accommodate the Holiday crowd.

After an enjoyment-sapping long time, I finally got a locker key and headed into the men’s change area. In my swim trunks, and clutching a towel, cap and goggles, I ventured to the outdoor pools. There was enough uncertainty involved in this process – wandering semi-naked through areas where most people were fully clothed – to discourage me from looking for the smaller hot pools.

In any case I was interested in actual swimming and the main pool offered that. Swim caps were mandatory, a rule rigorously enforced by vigilant whistle-blowing monitors. “Ah bon” I heard more than once after a guard gave a stern hand-to-head gesture “il faut avoir un bonnet.” I did my lengths guided by underwater lights. Around me, a variety of figures moved through the water, some stately and ponderous, some twitchy-limbed. I would pause, cold air embracing my exposed shoulders, and look at the dark night sky. Contemplating the pale yellow glow of the graceful building, it seemed amazing to me a century ago, a monarchy had produced such a lavish structure for public recreation.

Workout done, I moved into one of the hot pools that flanked the main pool. Dozens of bathers lolled in the steaming water, an enormous natural jacuzzi. Excited tourist families, embracing couples, matronly ladies chatting. Geysers bubbled and frothed from the bottom, and bathers improvised an astonishingly strong whirlpool. I had noticed a sulfurous smell earlier, but no longer. I looked around me at relaxed, happy people, and thought “hot water is civilization.”