Budapest's thermal baths are like restaurants: levels of service and satisfaction vary and everyone has their favourites. They're open from 6am to 7pm and they're always crowded. Some single-sex bath-houses do have a reputation for loucheness, but given the environment - swirling steam, moist bodies - one shouldn't be too startled by the occasional proposition.
Such events no doubt took place in the days of the Pasha of Buda, Sokoli Mustapha, who, while observing the Islamic tradition of cleanliness, wouldn't have neglected the joys of the flesh. It was he who in the 16th century created two of the baths that survive to this day - the Rudas and Kiraly - both glorious reminders of Buda's Ottoman past.
Budapest's bath-house tradition is a legacy of the engineers of the Roman province of Pannonia. A fault line on the west bank of the Danube produced the thermal springs that were exploited by the Roman garrison of Aquincum;1,000 years later, the Turks carried on the bath-house tradition which had survived in Rome's eastern empire. Now, these old baths, some capped by Turkish domes with their familiar crescent finials, line the Danube's left bank on the Buda side of the city.
During a five-day stay in Budapest, I sampled three. The Lukacs is one of the most traditional, on the site of a 16th-century spa: outside the main building, the walls bear tablets in many languages praising the medicinal powers of the waters. My three words of Hungarian got me a ticket and a well-built female locker-attendant in a white coat: beyond that, my lack of thermal understanding scored a minus. In place of the towel I should have brought I was obliged to hire a vast shroud, more suitable for the commitment of my body to the Danube, and without flip-flops I was obliged to walk a mile of corridors in bare feet. Without a cap I was obliged by a mustachioed (male) attendant to leave the pool.
I did slightly better in the Szechenyi, a large complex of swimming-pools and thermal baths in the city park known as the Varosliget in Pest, on the other side of the river. Here the big attraction is an outdoor thermal pool (38C) where bathers - mainly male and elderly - play chess on floating cork boards, wreathed in steam. The principle the Romans applied in their ancient thermae, of combining cold, warm and hot baths, was adopted by their successors. By the time I reached my third bath-house, the Gellert, I knew the form. The magnificent entrance hall, modelled on the Caracalla Baths in Rome, with its glazed vault and mosaic walls, led into the interior pools, with marble fountains adorned by chubby cupids doing all sorts of things with tortoises. Skylights shafted sunrays through the steam, turning the pale-bodied bathers into strange, phantasmagoric shapes. After a ritual immersion in the 26C pool, I moved rapidly to 32C, then luxuriated for a while in 40C. Then, with the spirit of a true Magyar, I entered the goz kamra (steam room) which progressed from a sweaty 50C to a blistering 70C.
The Gellert Baths are segregated and the men in the steam room sat like glistening Buddhas on the benches, with only their "decency covers" - little white aprons with a string attached - maintaining their modesty. Some chose to discard this etiquette for the sake of practicality: the seats were very hot and to save their buttocks from a burning they performed what can only be described as a "diaper flip", reversing the apron to cover their behinds.
An exposure to the showers was necessary to learn the difference between "meleg" (warm) and "hideg" (cold). I then felt brave enough for the "hideg furdo", a cold plunge-pool whose temperature was a matter for nervous speculation. Three steps down and I knew I could go no further. Turning round, the locker key - attached loosely with string - slipped off my wrist. By some feat of self-preservation, I managed to catch it on my little finger before it dropped into the pool. The thought of having to retrieve it from that icy depth - or even worse, get a macho Magyar to do it for me - sent me scurrying into the massage room.
Any thought of relaxing under gently kneading fingers was dispelled by the muscular masseur's 15-minute work-out. Lying on my stomach and acting like a roll of dough, I could only comfort myself by fixing my gaze on the three men having underwater traction in the nearby tank, gripped firmly by their neck-braces.
Indolent tranquillity came finally in the Gellert's indoor swimming-pool, with its Byzantine pillars, palm trees and lion-head waterspouts. Stroking up and down the luxurious warm waters, it occurred to me that the best pleasures were the simple ones. I didn't learn till later that there was an outside pool with a wave-making machine.
The Pasha of Buda would have loved that. No less would he marvel at the latest innovation of the Rudas baths - "nightclub parties" - with ambient music, under-pool lighting and silent era movies projected on the walls. But was this a "bath-night" too far? The idea of boogieing till dawn, both in and out of the water, in such Sybaritic surroundings might appeal to the hip generation, but to older Magyars - the most frequent users of the baths - it would seem a frivolity. The burghers of Buda live well and their priority in going to the baths is atonement. Goulash soup, fried goose-liver and Gundel pancakes must exact their price.
Paul Watkins travelled with Global Connect (tel: 0171-371 6300), which arranges breaks in Budapest, including flights with Malev Airlines (tel: 0171-439 0577). Two nights b&b in a two-star hotel costs pounds 249 per person. The same package at the four-star Gellert Hotel is pounds 349 per person, including use of the hotel's thermal baths.
Entrance to most baths costs pounds 1.50 to pounds 2.
Hungarian Tourist Office (tel: 0171-823 1032).