Tucked away under the Elizabeth Bridge on the Buda side there is a door, and above it hangs a sign that says Ivócsarnok. It's easy to miss. I lived in Budapest for years before I discovered it. Behind the door is a drinking hall where guests enjoy warm thermal water bubbling up from deep below Gellért Hill. Budapest is famous for its thermal waters. Millions of gallons percolate up from its mineral-rich springs everyday. There's only one woman who works at the ivócsarnok. Her name is Erika. Recently, I spoke with her over a mug of soothing H2O about what it's like to be an attendant at one of Budapest's best little secrets.
How long has the drinking hall been here?
"About 50 years. It's been here since 1964 or '65 when the new Elizabeth Bridge opened."
Why is it that many people have never heard of this place?
"They don't advertise. Recently two men came in. One was English and the other from Budapest. The Englishman had read about it in a guidebook. The Hungarian had never heard of it."
Can you tell me about the water?
"The water here comes from three different springs: The Hungaria is good for the stomach, the Attila helps respiratory problems, and the Juventus is for hypertension."
Do you drink the water?
Who comes here generally?
"Usually old people. They stand at the counter and tell me all about their woes while they drink their water. They come in mainly to talk."
So you're like a bar tender.
What do you enjoy most about working here?
"My favorite moments are when someone who was ill comes in and says they've gotten better from drinking the water. They're convinced that they recovered faster because of it. There was one woman who was trying to get pregnant and finally did. She swears by it. Just last week, a man came in with his wife who had an inflammation in her intestines. They'd bought a jug from the Attila spring. She's doing much better now."
Has the number of visitors changed over the years?
"Yes. It has declined. Before there was mineral water in the stores, we had huge lines out the door. Also, doctors used to recommend thermal water more. Now they prescribe more medicine. We used to bottle this water, but not anymore."
Do you have regular visitors?
"Oh, yes. Some come everyday. Others visit once a month. There's one regular who has been coming here since he was 50. Now he's 94. He does not look that old."
You think it's because of the water?
Erika smiled. "It must be."