Budapest Party in a Spa
Budapest's latest clubbing craze involves bikinis, dancing displays, thumping beats and a 16th-century bathhouse - welcome to Sparty (the party in a spa)Featured May 10 Words by Kate Graham
PHOTOGRAPHY DANIEL KOVALOVSZKY
Electricity and water don't normally mix. Neither do bulky, black-clad bouncers and me in a swimsuit, dancing insanely in an enormous Turkish bath. But here I am as the clock strikes midnight, splashing alongside about a thousand other revellers as lasers shoot through the steam-filled air and booming techno beats pulsate through the heated water. Welcome to the party, Budapest style.
This isn't just any party, this is Sparty, a wildly successful club night organised by Cinetrip (cinetrip.hu) - a Hungarian company famed for its riotous parties. Its spa parties pop up regularly in some of Budapest's finest thermal spas. I'd started to hear wild tales last year, stories of hundreds of hedonists, fire dancers and acrobats. Urban myth or ultimate clubbing adventure? There was only one way to find out.
My night begins before the first reveller arrives, perched on a marble bench with Eszter Makara, a newcomer to the Cinetrip family. The air is buzzing all around us as some 150 staff dash around to get everything ready in time. This month's event is at the Rudas ("Magic") Baths (10 Hadnagy Útca), a gorgeous building set right on the Danube. Dating back to the 16th century, it's one of the oldest Turkish-style thermal baths in Budapest, with marble interiors, dizzying ceilings, and steam rising from the warm waters. Traditionally, this spa was reserved for men, Eszter tells me, a rule enforced in the city since Roman times. But in 2005, a law was passed that allowed women to use the spa on certain days.
We walk through the entry hall that will soon transform into a bar, and see the stunning 10m-long octagonal bath, held up by eight pillars. Night has already fallen, so light no longer floods through the star-shaped holes in the domed roof. Even though no-one has arrived yet, the atmosphere already feels sultry and steamy. "Just wait until the Turkish dancers start," Eszter laughs, "you won't be able to move in here."
As we head through the maze of corridors towards the large swimming pool-sized bath, Eszter tells me about the history of Sparty. It was the brainchild of Laszlo Laki, a creative mastermind who 13 years ago decided to throw an unusual party in a small garden in the hills just outside of Budapest. Showing silent movies and hiring DJs to control the beats, it was an instant success with the city's movers and shakers. Laszlo wanted to move the party into central Budapest, but while local cinemas refused to host it, the thermal baths were open to the idea. Out went the screens, in came the water and the Sparty club night was born. The event is held at different spas throughout the city, including Rudas and Gellert (4 Kelenhegyi Útca), while in summer, the glorious open-air Széchenyi Spa (11 Állatkerti Körút) sets the scene.
But whichever bath is hosting the beats, the party is a guaranteed sensation. "There is something special about the whole atmosphere," Eszter says when I ask her to define its success. "Everyone is wearing swimsuits and sarongs, it is like summer and people feel that they can party. You feel really free. We want you to walk in, stand still and be amazed. The idea is to take people out of reality."
Just then, a man walks past with huge boxes of beer. Wait a minute, so you can drink while relaxing in the thermal waters? Of course, Eszter says, it's all part of the party. As I turn to go and get changed I ask what I should expect from tonight. "It's going to be crazy, really crazy," she laughs.
She isn't kidding. An hour later I walk back into the main pool and can't believe the transformation. The far end of the room is now a towering wall of screens, flashing red and black, and in the middle of the action, a DJ is pumping out house tunes. Glamorous groups of girls in bikinis dance on the balconies; young men leap into the water, gleefully shouting and throwing their hands in the air.
Leaning over the first-floor balcony to get a better view, I meet Liza and Sara, both 20 and on holiday from Liverpool. They read about Sparty online and flew to Budapest just for the event. "There's nothing like this at home," Liza says.
I step into the warm water and, lying on my back, watch the steam rise into the dome. As the hours come and go, this bath seems to have more people in it than water. I meet a gang of 20-something revellers. "We're from France, Australia, America, Denmark," James from Canada tells me as he sips a beer. "We came straight from our ski trip in Austria. This is incredible!"
The atmosphere is even more like a carnival in the bar a few rooms along from the main baths. It's packed with people in swimsuits buying beers and sandwiches, and as I wait to catch the barman's eye, I see a man in a huge rubber ring and swimming cap. He's from Spain, he tells me with a huge grin, and this is his second time at Sparty. Why the ring? "Why not?" he laughs.
Just then a rumour starts to circulate that there is something happening by the large pool, so we head that way. All eyes are on the ceiling, where directly ahead, a woman is dangling from a hoop. Below her the crowd cheers along to the music, and each swoop and dizzying leap is met with louder exclamations. Then, fire dancers appear, circling and spinning flames in time to the ever-faster beats. The partygoers go wild, and with good reason: I've never seen anything quite like this.
Just a few hours later I am back in the water, doing another lazy backstroke and gazing up at another traditional spa ceiling. But there are no fire dancers or booming bassline here, just the peaceful luxury of the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa. As I sit in the hot tub, I wonder: what has this trip taught me? Then I realise. Budapest's spas are amazing. But for the perfect weekend, you definitely need one for the party, and one for the morning after!
Entry to Cinetrip's monthly Sparty is HUF7,000 (€26.50). The next event is in July. See www.cinetrip.hu for more information
FIVE STRANGE SPA EXPERIENCES
This unusual spa treatment in northern Israel sees people paying to have snakes draped all over them, letting the reptiles' slithering movements act as a massage. Ada Barak's Spa, Talmei Elazar
At this unique centre in the Czech Republic, guests float in baths of beer to increase heart activity and circulation and to absorb vitamins and proteins. Pravé Pivní Lázně, 107 Pivovarská, Chodová Planá, www.chodovar.cz
Guests at this Italian spa are wrapped in herbs, grass and hay, which encourages the body to sweat, strengthening the immune system and stimulating the metabolism. Hotel Heubad, 13 Schlernstrasse, Völs am Schlern, tel: +39 0471 725 020
Brave clients of this Turkish spa immerse themselves in pools of water and let little fish nibble away at their dead skin. Kavak Köyü Mevkii, Kangal, Sivas, tel: +90 (0)346 469 1151, www.balikli.com
Good-quality French wine is not just for drinking. Vinotherapy uses vine and grape extracts in a number of pampering spa treatments, including baths, wraps, massage and a Crushed Cabernet Scrub. Chemin de Smith Haut-Lafitte, tel: +33 (0)5 5783 8282, www.sources-caudalie.com
WHERE TO STAY IN BUDAPEST
For comfort on a budget, this boutique hostel has spacious en-suite rooms with free use of the fully equipped kitchen, lounge and internet. Doubles from €40, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
ATRIUM FASHION HOTEL
A winner in the style stakes, this modern four-star is close to the main shopping areas and transport links. Doubles from €81, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
CORINTHIA GRAND HOTEL ROYAL
Lap up five-star luxury in this beautiful hotel, where the superb spa facilities include tropical rain showers. Doubles from €192, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com