Less showy than the city's more famous bathhouses, the neo-Classical Szechenyi and art nouveau Gellert, the Kiraly Baths are less frequented by tourists, and hold far more fascination for me.
Beneath the 16th-century Turkish dome – one of the numerous reminders of the Ottoman occupation that dot this side of the river – the thermal pool plays host to a fascinating cross-section of Budapest life. There are a few young couples, engaged in a struggle to outdo one another in public displays of affection, but the majority of bathers are in their 50s or older.
The glass panels of the sauna, I discover, are a perfect vantage point for people watching. A skinny middle-aged woman in a floridly floral bathing cap stares shyly out of the corner of her eye at men as they arrive. A professorial old man with glasses and a pointed gray beard tells a story with increasing animation to two teenage girls (his daughters, I first assume), sending water cascading over the side of the pool as he gestures with gusto.
The stories play out in unison. A silver-haired gentleman with a puppyish grin paddles over to the woman in the bathing cap – bringing an apple-colored blush to her cheek as he flirts with equal parts charm and desperation. Middle-aged couples greet one another from across the room, unperturbed by their profusions of flesh: they kiss and whisper and their gossip echoes off the dome.
The professor repairs to another pool, and the two girls – evidently unrelated – begin to kiss one another with increasing ferocity – only to welcome the professor back into their embrace. Nobody seems to mind the ménage – or even to notice.
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