That a city famous for its spas and its nightlife should decide to combine the two will come as no surprise to those who have visited Budapest.
The Hungarian capital, comprised of the districts Buda and Pest, split by the river Danube, sits on a fault line. As a result, its numerous and architecturally varied thermal baths are fed by 120 hot springs, and are ideal destinations for both tourists and locals intent on relaxation. At the neo-Baroque Széchenyi baths, the city’s residents chat breezily, while octogenarians gather in groups around floating chessboards in an image as identifiably Budapest as the magnificent parliament building. But once the sky darkens and the spas close, the city’s hedonistic side comes to the forefront, with various basement bars, clubs, and – of course – Budapest’s famous ruin bars (kerts) all beckoning.
So it makes total sense that a Hungarian party producer should have the bright idea to combine the two and organise a massive rave in a spa. And that is why my boyfriend and I are here: to Sparty.
We arrive at the Hotel Palazzo Zichy in downtown Pest two nights ahead of the Sparty, and are pleased with its pretty location near Krúdy Gyula utca, where students from the nearby university sit drinking in the unseasonably warm sun (and in local bars that open their doors in evening).
The hotel is within walking distance of the Great Market Hall, the Hungarian National Museum and the Jewish quarter. There, on our first night, we have a delicious dinner at Spinoza, accompanied by a cheerful pianist, with the matzo ball soup, goulash and strudel proving why the restaurant is something of an institution. The hotel is also opposite modern Russian restaurant Matrjoska, which serves excellent pelmeni (dumplings), as well as various vodka tasting options.
Over the next couple of days, we combine the sights with atmospheric meandering, and daytime stints in the thermal baths (most have women- or men-only days, though some are always mixed, so check online before visiting). The art nouveau Gellért Bath, which has one of the most beautiful swimming pools I’ve ever seen, is my favourite. Our time there is so tranquil that it’s difficult to imagine a spa acting as a backdrop to hundreds of drunken partygoers. We’re not sure what to expect from the Sparty – would it be a crazy continental piss-up, or a “lads on tour” nightmare?
‘It’s difficult to imagine a spa acting as a backdrop to hundreds of drunken partygoers.’ Rhiannon’s favourite spa, the Gellért Baths.
After a couple of martinis at the hotel and some more sensible drinks at local bar Darshan Udvar, we head for Lukács at around 11pm. I’ll admit I’m slightly concerned about claims online that the Sparty’s gender balance is in no way 50-50 (the phrase “sausage fest” is used), but I’m reassured by the fact that all-male stag parties are not admitted.
After queueing for a short time, we are allocated a shared, lockable cabin in which to get changed and, clutching our drinks tokens ( plastic cards that you can top up, to avoid using a wallet), we head to the bar.
As soon as we descend the stairs, we are surrounded by drunk semi-naked people drinking lethally strong mojitos. It’s freezing cold and raining a bit but we’re fine once we’re in the water – which is so hot it creates a cloud of rising steam above everyone’s heads. If it weren’t for the pumping music, the flashing lights and lasers, it would be a bit like having a beer in a hot bath, which is not unpleasant. The crowd itself is young – I spot one bemused couple in their 50s, but generally everyone is under 30. People come from all over Europe, and there are quite a few Brits, though not many locals (a Sparty is obviously a bit of a tick box on the Interrailing itinerary).
We have a good dance but, as the night wears on and the pool becomes even more packed, we decide we’ve had enough. My boyfriend says he senses the atmosphere change as people get more hammered. Certainly on TripAdvisor there are posts mentioning problems with groping, and condoms in the pool. We don’t witness any of that and the organisers take security very seriously, but as I’m accompanied by a 6ft 3in bloke who goes to the gym, as opposed to five of my twentysomething female friends, I’m not really one to comment.
Having decamped to a ruin pub called Instant to dance out the remainder of the night, I reflect that, while I had fun, I probably wouldn’t go again, nor make it the central focus of a trip to Budapest. The fact that I enjoyed the Russian avant-garde painting exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery more than the Sparty is probably a sign I’m getting old. But if you’re under 30, enjoy dance music, alcohol, and ogling other partially clothed under-30s, you’ll have a good time. A Sparty in Budapest is certainly something I’ll only experience once in a lifetime.
•Accommodation was provided by Hotel Palazzo Zichy (doubles from £70 B&B, hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu).