'IF ONLY,' sighed the Hungarian doctor, 'Arpad hadn't stopped in this basin of the Carpathians; if only he'd gone straight from the Russian steppes to Switzerland, we wouldn't have ended up in this inconvenient place . . . '

So would the doctor have preferred to spend his life squinting at cuckoo clocks, yodelling and eating melted raclette, to gazing across Hungary's Great Plain (to the music of gypsy violins), eating goulash and immersing himself in the therapeutic Hungarian spas?

No, certainly not. Arpad, the Magyar chieftain who conquered Hungary in the late ninth century, knew what he was doing when he said: 'Right, lads, this is home]' And like Sam McGee, he may well have remarked, as he sank into one of Hungary's hundreds of natural spas, that it was the first time he had been warm since he left the Urals.

That was all of 1,000 years ago and a lot has happened to Hungary since. 'We have, alas, lost our seas,' said the doctor, 'which we regard as deeply inconvenient.' ('Lost, what can he mean, lost? You can't just mislay a sea,' snapped an English lady, straightening a picture.)

Perhaps to compensate for the lack of seas, Hungary's spas continue to flourish, and the Hungarians to flourish in them. To gain some idea of the Hungarians' survival instincts, it is best to kick off in Budapest, with a visit to the public baths at the Grand Gellert Hotel. In a dreamy, steamy Art Deco atmosphere, ladies as old as the century take leisurely baths amid the potted palms before subjecting themselves to the imposing masseuse casually arrayed in robust bra and pants. This outfit, while fetching enough in its own way, hardly conjures up Janet Reger, but it allows Olga freedom of movement while modestly containing her fulsome form. Besides, it's hot in the massage room.

Communicating with Olga isn't easy. She speaks a language whose only other relation is Finnish, and Finnish isn't easy either. But after the kneading and pounding, concluding with what to the sensitive might seem suspiciously like a slap, you won't have much breath for small-talk anyway. But who needs small-talk in the state of euphoria induced by the thermal waters and Olga's vigorous offices?

On then to the small transdanubian spa town of Sarvar (but watch out for the picturesque Transylvanian road-sweeper outside the medieval castle who does not like having her picture taken - the English lady photographer whom she pursued down the road needed a special massage for bruises inflicted by the thrashing broom. No language barrier there.)

Sarvar offers cheerful spa treatments for everything from bronchial problems (inhalations and breathing gymnastics) and optical complaints to infertility ('High success rate,' sighed the doctor).

'No problem]' is the motto at Sarvar. The baths and gym of the spanking new hotel are full of rejuvenated Hungarians and Austrians glowing from the thermal and mineral waters.

At Sarvar we also discovered the glories of Hungarian dentistry. An English tourist who had formed a too intimate relationship with poppy-seed cake developed toothache. Before our very eyes he was whipped off to visit the spa's resident dentist. The patient was treated so quickly, efficiently and cheaply that we were all clamouring for our turn. 'Only the best materials here, and a dentist at every spa,' said the dentist proudly. 'Imported from Austria.' (Indeed, the Austrians all bucket over the border at the first twinge to avail themselves of Hungary's budget-priced service.

'I have this filling that's fallen out,' said the English lady.' Perhaps it won't hurt so much here.'

But for something altogether dreamlike and dream-inducing, head for the hot lake at Heviz, surrounded by woods, and step straight into the 80F-90F water for an experience like no other. A mist rises over the lake as you swim towards you know not what - or care, for that matter - as the lake's famous curative powers begin to get to work on you.

The woman who could not understand how Hungary had mislaid its seas was transfigured by her somnambulistic swim in the surreal lake: 'I wondered,' she said, 'if I was sinking or swimming, and then I thought, well it doesn't matter either way.' She drifted off like Elvira Madigan, oblivious to the strange effect the magic water was having on her streaked blonde hair, now a peculiar metallic green. ('Our waters are extremely rich in minerals,' said the changing room attendant, averting her eyes from the green gleam). We found that silver chains round our necks had turned an ashy black, surely a sign that these were indeed curative waters.

Joints refreshed, skin glowing, molars masticating, we headed west across the Great Plain for Buk, a huge new development ner the Austrian border. Buk's big modern spa offers everything from mud baths to underwater massage (which is not as sadistic as you might think). If you want to lose weight, you can shed the kilos to the music of gypsy violins.

Back then to Budapest and St Margaret Island (where, according to a Hungarian proverb, 'love begins and ends'in the centre of the Danube. 'Brides in the old days,' our guide tells us as we speed across the Great Plain, 'would dance all night with all the male wedding guests and by morning would have earned enough money to buy a car. As morning dawned she would head for the nearest spa for therapeutic massage after taking the thermal waters. It's all a matter of stamina.'

Arpad did well to stop where he did.

Treat yourself to a vist to the Hungarian spas through Ernalow Consultants, 9 Reece Mews, London SW7 (071-584 2841). Fly either Malev Airlines to Budapest (no visas needed by British passport holders and most European passport holders) or fly Austrian Airlines to Vienna and transfer via coach or boat. Packages are available featuring either the big, elegant hotels such as the Gellert or the Thermal Hotel on Saint Margaret Island, small family hotels or B & Bs. Or you can fly to Budapest and visit any of the spas on a daily visitor basis. However, if you are serious about spas, it is better to check in, see a doctor and arrange a regular programme for baths, hydromassage, and balneotherapy (supervised underwater exercise). Where spas are concerned, it is horses for courses, so if you have a specific medical problem, choose a suitable spa through Ernalow.

(Photograph omitted)