Hungary is famous for its thermal activity - over 1,300 thermal springs feed some one hundred and twenty baths and hot pools around the country. Budapest alone has 118 springs and 40 spas and baths. "Taking the waters" is popular with tourists, but is also a normal part of many Hungarian's week. The first bath we visited, in Eger, was almost entirely local, and was mobbed with an after work crowd from five until closing, at eight.
As with most bathing complexes in Hungary, there were a variety of pools and temperatures to chose from. The baths ranged from very hot to cool, with the warm pools probably the most popular. Older men and women in particular liked soaking in the 85° to 100° water, sitting together in little bobbing huddles to talk and relax.
The cooler pools were generally less crowded, and were more popular with young children. We noticed a definite correlation between the temperature of the water and the girth of the bathers bellies, with cooler water swimmers being much thinner than warm water floaters.
Around the eight or so pools at Eger, a meadow for sunbathing and picnicking was dotted with blankets. Families packed food to eat, younger and older people filled the bars and food stands that lined one edge. If soaking in thermal baths is supposed to be good for you, eating at them certainly is not. Fried foods and sweets predominate; mugs of beer and soda slosh plentifully.
Lake Hévíz was an entirely different experience. Just off the south-western tip of Lake Balaton, a separate, much smaller body of water sits. Though it's undeniably diminutive (perhaps it would be better described as a pond), it's actually very big for what it is: Hévíz is the largest thermal lake in Europe by surface area (about eleven acres) and by volume (it is one hundred twenty five feet deep at it's deepest point). Radon and sulphur rich waters filter up from the rock beneath in astonishing volumes - the water in Hévíz is replenished approximately every 24 hours.
Platforms and bathing stations fan out over the surface, and people sunbathe or float amongst the waterlillies. The temperature of the water is generally only about 85°, which doesn't feel all that warm - more tepid than hot. Rebecca described our swim as being like "a dip in old person soup," which was astute. It's really quite peaceful, with far fewer screaming children and no loud music. In winter, the water never gets below sixty five degrees, so it's possible to swim here surrounded by icy trees and snowbanks.
Two enclosed areas are built over the deepest point of Hévíz, so that people can swim indoors. I think the purpose of these enclosures has more to do with the juice and beer bars than anything, but the water is slightly warmer there, where the surface is covered. It's possible to swim right under the containing walls, but putting my head under this warm, sulphuric water didn't seem appealing.