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Saturday, March 06, 2004 - Page updated at 03:03 P.M.

Hungary: 'Mediterran' thermal spa water park

By Kristen Schweizer
The Associated Press

BELA SZANDELSKY / AP
Csaba Kovacs and his daughter Luca splash into the water from a slide at Mediterran Elmenyfurdo, or Mediterranean Bath Experience, in Debrecen, Hungary's second-largest city.
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DEBRECEN, Hungary — It's pretty cool for a place that's designed to make you sweat.

The air is kept at a steamy 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit — body temperature — inside Hungary's first indoor thermal-water park. But the heat is of no concern to the waves of children plunging into the bubbling waters.

"Here you will really feel and sweat like you are in the Mediterranean," said Istvan Oros, marketing manager for Mediterran Elmenyfurdo, or Mediterranean Bath Experience, which opened for business last summer.

The thermal park is located in Debrecen, Hungary's second-largest city three hours east of Budapest, and situated next to the Hortobagy National Park, an arid region home to Europe's largest bird refuge.

A large glass dome encases the 99,000-square-foot Mediterran and seals in the maintained tropical air.

Beneath the dome are handfuls of whirlpool baths, spiraling water slides, an underground water cave and a rock-climbing wall. Tropical plants and palm trees are everywhere and interior walls are painted in Egyptian-style murals.

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Getting there: Debrecen is accessible by train, bus or car. Trains from Budapest to Debrecen — about a 2-1/2-hour trip — run throughout the day. By car the trip takes longer as the main road between the two cities is two lanes and heavily trafficked.

There is only one tram line in Debrecen, which starts at the train station and ends at the door to the Mediterran theme park. Tram tickets are available at kiosks at the station and around town.

Lodging: A private "pension" room for two in the city center starts at $18 while a luxury hotel costs up to $135.

Things to do: Debrecen is Hungary's second-largest city and sits at the edge of the Puszta (Great Plain), Hungary's answer to the cowboy and his way of life. The Puszta and its most famous village, Hortobagy, are about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Debrecen and can be reached by car or bus.

Inside Debrecen, the Mediterran park is open daily from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. An all-day pass for children runs $10 and $11.75 for adults during the week. Prices are slightly higher on weekends.

The wooded area surrounding the Mediterran is also a great place for boating, relaxation and a visit to the Debrecen Zoo.

Information: www.hungarytourism.hu

"We consider the park to be elegant and hope this will be a meeting point for young people to rendezvous," Oros said.

Hungary has a rich thermal-water culture that spans two millennia, and the government — which heavily subsidized construction of the new $9.6 million park — is trying to woo tourists with the country's scores of spas.

Hungary has an estimated 1,300 underground thermal springs, a third of which are used at various spas across the country, said Adam Ruszinko, spa tourism manager at Hungary's Economic and Transport Ministry.

"When you think of Hungary, we want people to think of thermal waters and a spa culture," Ruszinko said.

Only Japan, Iceland, France and Italy boast similar thermal-water capacity.

People have used thermal waters for thousands of years for cleansing, relaxation and easing aches and pains.

The chemical absorption of minerals contained in thermal waters is believed by devotees to be beneficial to the human nervous system, muscles and skin.

Fans of the practice also believe that drinking thermal water that has been properly cleansed and tested for mineral content also can help aid gastric and respiratory problems and increase metabolism.

The Romans were the first to capitalize on Hungary's thermal waters in the first century, when they built baths on the banks of the Danube River.

When Hungarian tribes migrated here, they established themselves in the same region, known today as northern Budapest. The tradition was continued under Turkish rule of the country during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Hungary's oldest surviving bath, the Rac, is located in Budapest and dates to the 15th century.

As the development of thermal baths continued in Hungary, the United Nations took notice and in the 1970s established a "thermal project" institute in Budapest charged with promoting development of the baths and planning programs to introduce them in other countries.

Today, there are more than 100 spas and bathhouses across Hungary, though many are in need of major renovation, with uneven quality and insufficient hotel space.

But Hungary, which is set to join the European Union next spring, has been paying special attention to its tourist sector.

Over the past two years, it has spent about $118 million on spa development, including a $9.6 million spa facility in Hajduszoboszlo in eastern Hungary and a $39.1 million spa complex in the well-known northern wine region of Egerszalok.

"We really should be the land of spas and of health remedies through our natural use of water," Ruszinko said.

At the Mediterran, managers hope to welcome more visitors from Scandinavian countries as well as from neighboring Austria and Ukraine.

Debrecen Mayor Lajos Kosa said his municipality is investing $6.5 million in a nearby former Soviet military airport and negotiating with European budget airlines Ryan Air and Denim Air to start weekly flights there.

Oblivious to all this behind-the-scenes planning was 16-year-old Attila Komari, who sped down one of Mediterran's spiral water slides after winning a free ticket through a local radio station.

"By far the coolest is the water slide and wave pools," he said, describing the entire park as "awesome."


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