Spritz, spritz. What’s that lovely scent? L’Air de Panache floating lyrically in the air, the favorite cologne of hotel concierge M. Gustave in the movie “Grand Hotel Budapest.”
Already a cult favorite, the movie has inspired a collection of memorabilia on eBay.
But it's pure fantasy; there never was a Grand Hotel Budapest. Not in the city or a mountain resort as shown so splendidly in the movie.
The authentic grand hotel in Budapest is the Gellert, an Art Noveau palace on the Danube River. Opened in 1918, it featured the grandest of thermal swimming pools and a health spa.
Partly destroyed by the Nazis when they retreated at the end of World War II, the hotel
and bath were quickly rebuilt as a sign of national recovery.
Introduced to Budapest’s bathing traditions by Gabor Olah, a great Washington hotelier from a prominent family in Hungary, I found the Gellert flourishing during the Communist and Cold War eras. Ancient bathhouses built during the Turkish Ottoman occupation, and extravagant outdoor pools for thousands of bathers, provided the people of Budapest with respite during those years of shortage and hardship.
Mr. Olah ran the Watergate Hotel much like M. Gustave in the movie. Meticulous attention to detail, personalized service, and an international panache distinguished the Italian-built hotel
on the Potomac. (And we hope will again when The Watergate Hotel reopens in 2015 under French management.)
Today in Budapest, the Gellert bath and hotel have different owners, separate entrances. Hotel Gellért is a member of the Danubius Hotels Group chain, Central Europe’s largest operator of classic spa hotels. The bath is run by Budapest Thermal Waters Co. Ltd., preserving an open-air pool where pre-war machinery generates waves, as well as the vast indoor pool, now completely co-ed.
The Gellért Spa is open to the public, worth a visit to admire the decorations, pools, and colorful statues. Offering wellness treatments (such as balneotherapy, electro-therapy, mud wraps, physio-therapy, and inhalatorium) as well as massage and a beauty salon, it is close to the city center and the castle hill. Hotel guests get a free pass for their first visit to the Baths; book a treatment and entry is free any day.
Don’t expect luxurious lounges or complimentary refreshment. Even a towel and soap costs extra (or bring your own). But it’s a memorable experience in spa history.