Budapest used to be home to a thriving culture of river bathing. Now a campaign group, Valyo, is working to bring it back. OSS Director Beth Pearson talked to the group’s Lilla Kammermann about their dream of a swimmable Danube.
The history of river swimming in Budapest was actually heavily influenced by England. During the Hungarian Reform Era (1825-1848) Stephan Széchenyi, a statesman, was fascinated by the rapid modernisation of Britain and adopted many of its infrastructural features, including bridges, boat houses and river baths. He also swam in the Danube regularly – to the great surprise of Budapesters since this activity was highly uncommon – and even took swimming lessons in the Seine in Paris and swam in the Rhine during his travels. The first military river bath was established in 1817, and almost two decades later the first public one opened in 1836. In the same year on 10th July the first open water grand outdoor swim event was organised from the swimming pool to the royal salt house, which soon evolved into a crossing through the whole city from Margaret Island to Csepel Island until the 1860s.
In 1836, the first open water outdoor swim event was organised…which soon evolved into a crossing through the whole city from Margaret Island to Csepel Island
After that, swimming became more institutionalised. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were nine river baths in the Budapester Danube and open water swimming started to decrease, mainly due to river regulations associated with building projects. During the Second World War, most of the remaining river baths were damaged. The city council intended to rebuild these as soon as possible, but there was a shortage of timber after Budapest’s siege in the country. Afterwards, people still swam in the Danube, but due to industrial pollution swimming within the city borders was completely forbidden in 1973.
Forty years later, in 2013, our association Valyo (City and River Association) started its campaign to save one of the last sandy riverbanks in the city at the Roman coast. The area used to be the focal point of swimming and rowing culture, and a dam was about to be built on the floodplains, cutting access to the river. The successful campaign to ‘Let the trees stay on the Roman Coast’ resulted in a free beach opening in 2019. Since 2021, the local municipality has managed it every summer and it is still the only free beach within the city along the Danube. Last year, Budapest celebrated its 150th unification anniversary and we dreamed even bigger – a swimmable Danube has always been the goal of Valyo – to swim in the UNESCO World Heritage city centre and establish a river bath again. The First Budapest Biennale of Contemporary Public Art took place: Valyo launched a River Bath Campaign, with a river bath installation, a trail along the Danube and a dry swimming performance session with the Viennese textile artists Hybrid Dessous.
Outdoor swimming is currently prohibited in the whole city, except for the abovementioned free beach in the summertime and another private beach in the South. The water quality of the Northern part is good according to the European Bathing Directive, but it only contains biological markers and there’s no regular measurement data. Also, during heavy rains the rainwater tanks overflow and the sewage ends up in the Danube, which is not an unknown problem in many European cities. We decided to exclude swimming itself from the official River Bath Campaign programme and went for a guerilla outdoor swimming session – getting nearer to the city centre than the official free beach area. A few weeks later, following a drought at the same location, the former Gas Factory started leaking again. Greenpeace has been campaigning there for years but all the deadlines for the government to restore the area have passed and nothing has been done on the matter yet. Also, since the outdoor swimming culture ceased in the 70s, not many people have personal experience of being in the river. It’s a new learning curve to bring citizens back into the Danube.
…since the outdoor swimming culture ceased in the 70s, not many people have personal experience of being in the river. It’s a new learning curve to bring citizens back into the Danube.
With Valyo, we argue that the historic quay structure is completely suitable for entry points for the river baths, just like they have been for centuries. Last summer, in cooperation with the City Municipality and the Budapest Brand office, we managed to open the inner city quay for pedestrians and bikers only, closing it down from cars. The main idea is to give locals the possibility to use the area and develop a sense of belonging. The next step could be a river bath. 2024 is an especially good time to advocate for this because of the Paris Olympics. Outside of the centre there are several archipelagos which would be more than suitable for outdoor swimming – a district municipality even developed a framework for something called “sport water”, where swimmers, rowers and boats could peacefully coexist.
Under the Green-Socialist city government, a participatory budget initiative has been launched. Valyo has been submitting ideas from the start, and this year we applied in the main category with the idea of a river bath. The application is waiting for professional endorsement, in order to get into the development phase. In the autumn, all the citizens of Budapest will vote on all the eligible projects. For now we are campaigning to make sure that the city council understands that swimming in the Danube is not just a dream but a feasible possibility we should embrace.
Valyo, as the City and River Association focuses on the Danube and its tributaries, but there are some lakes in Budapest. A growing ice swimming community visits the Lupa lake on a daily basis, and the Rákos creek which flows into the Danube has an ongoing renaturalisation project which is already drawing some people in to bathe. Budapest is also the city of thermal baths which flow back into the Danube from the bathing houses, and people love to take a hot bath in these outflows at the interface of the quay and the Danube river. Valyo built out a “natural jacuzzi” at the world renowned Gellért Bath, so you can sit in the thermal water at the river level.
We dream of a river used like our statesman Széchenyi described in his journal 200 years ago: He was canoeing through the city, taking a swim, visiting bath houses, drinking the thermal water and taking sunbathes at the quay. We believe the 2020s and 2030s are the right time to reintroduce all these in a contemporary way: river baths in the centre, sport water in the side arms, rowing, canoeing and SUP facilities – and by means of all that reintroducing micromobility to the Danube. An old dream is to establish a promenade on the river level. We continue to work hard for a swimmable Danube in the long term.