One of the things that surprised me when my first summer in Hungary rolled around was just how hot it was. Inevitably, my thoughts naturally turned to swimming. And in Hungary, the options seem endless.
Your idea of heaven may be swimming laps in an unheated outdoor pool at the crack of dawn. Or it might be lounging at the lido on a gloriously hot Hungarian afternoon. Much as a I love a good lido, I prefer what’s come to be called “wild swimming”.
When I first heard the term, I imagined diving into raging torrents. But it’s just a more exciting turn of phrase for taking a dip in anything that isn’t a swimming pool.
There’s something splendidly old-fashioned about swimming in rivers and lakes which feels particularly Hungarian to me.
However you like to swim, there are plenty of places to choose from in and around Budapest.
Rather than skim the surface with a roundup of the many excellent pools in Budapest where you can do laps or just hang out, I’d rather take a deep dive into one pool.
My partner’s sister and brother-in-law are serious swimmers as well as connoisseurs of the delights of Budapest. He’s a Budapester born and bred and she’s a transplant from the country who’s made it her business to know the place better than any native.
Their absolute favorite pool in Budapest is Csillaghegy open air baths and I believe it may even be where they first met. The pool is surrounded by parkland and is built into a terraced hillside. It opened in the second half of the 19th century but was renovated in 2000.
Two rows of cubicles open directly onto the main pool and the restaurant is housed in a satisfyingly quaint looking building with a terrace.
Serious swimmers like my partner’s brother-in-law, a triathlete, swim in the unheated water of the main pool. There’s also a leisure pool and another for children somewhere up on the grassy terraces.
Apart from the joys of swimming at Csillaghegy, the restaurant makes what is reputed to be the best lángos in the whole of Budapest. For those of you who don’t already know, lángos is a flat piece of deep-fried dough, often topped with garlic, sour cream and grated cheese.
Good lángos should be crispy on the outside and succulent inside. If it isn’t bigger than your head, you’ve been shortchanged.
Although I’m a serious fan of lángos and take a perverse delight in its sheer unhealthiness, I have yet to compile an exhaustive guide to the lángos of Budapest. But I do respect the inside knowledge of my partner’s sister and her brother-in-law.
Even if you’re not a lángos aficionado, there’s something wonderful about munching on a vast, greasy slice of salty, fatty badness after a vigorous swim. If you’ve just spent an hour or so watching your children splashing around, your only exercise peeping over the top of a book, you’re on your own when it comes to justifying your indulgence.
It probably wouldn’t get any wilder than swimming in the Danube. But in most places – like Romai Strand, the fabulous strip of bars and restaurants just outside Budapest proper – you’re prohibited from going more than a meter or two into the river.
Staying with the unhealthy food theme for a moment longer, the best and perhaps only reason to visit Romái is to taste the most heavenly hekk and chips in the whole of Hungary.
I’m afraid I can’t tell you the name of the hekk place. All I know is that it looks like a big wooden shed and it’s on the left-hand side of the path as you’re walking down Romai strand towards Margit hid.
If want to try wild swimming, there are a couple of places you can swim safely not so far from Budapest.
How could you resist wild swimming at a place called Göd? You find Göd about 25 kilometers from Budapest. If you’re feeling energetic, this isn’t too much of a stretch by bicycle.
On the banks of the Danube, Göd has two beaches. You can choose between sandy or pebbly. Though why you’d want to swim off a pebbly beach, I don’t really know. I grew up near the British North Sea, which has seriously pebbly beaches and I shudder at the memory of them.
There’s also a sandy island to swim to and indulge your Treasure Island fantasies.
Göd is fully equipped with toilets, showers and changing rooms. You may have noticed that Hungarians don’t really like to do the old wrestling with the swimming costume under a towel routine, so changing rooms are something of a must.
It’s free to bathe here at Göd. You can also hire a bicycle or boat as well as eat and drink. I’m not sure if the lángos is up to the standard of Csillaghegy. You’ll have to find out for yourself.
If Göd doesn’t appeal, you could also head for the Pázsit bathing lake on Szentendre Island, 36 kilometers from Budapest. You can swim or fish at the island. There’s something magical, if a little bit scary, about swimming in a piece of water where large fish occasionally break the water in front of you.
To get to Szentendre Island, head for the oddly Mediterranean village of Szentendre – well worth exploring in its own right – and take the ferry over. You’ll have to pay to swim but it’s still pretty cheap.
The attractions of Szentendre Island include a buffet and restaurant. I’ve not tried the lángos here thus far, but I shall waste no time in doing so.
Go to www.csillaghegyistrand.hu for more information on the pool.