Yikes. That was roughly 75 euros (about $100) — more than my entire monthly food budget back in Berlin. This was why James Bond was only a fictional character: He’d never be able to afford such jet-setting in real life.

Dorina smiled at me. It was highly disarming.

“Alright,” I began, “I’ll take it.” Damn. I’d succumbed to feminine charms yet again.

“Perfect.” Another smile as she typed some more. “Here is your key,” she said, handing me a massive metal contraption that seemed more suited for opening the front gate to a medieval castle. “Shall I show you to your room?”

“Sure.” I seemed to have a problem saying no to women.

Clutching my single shoulder bag that had seen more discount hotels than many so-called “women of the night,” I followed her across the lobby and up an elegant stairwell featuring stained glass windows and massive bronze plaques on the landings. If the bag could talk, it would probably be singing praises at the prospect of spending the night someplace a bit more upmarket than it was used to.

“What brings you to Budapest?” Dorina asked as we ascended the stairs.

“Business,” I replied (another half-truth), “well, journalism, actually.”

“You’re a journalist?” I sensed genuine admiration in her voice. Such admiration, at least if polls on the likeability of journalists worldwide were to be believed, was rare.

“I am.” She didn’t look like a North Korean political agent, so there was no harm in telling her.

“That is so cool! What kinds of things do you write about?”

I’m asked that question with such regularity I was able to rattle off several incoherent statements with the same robotic flatness of a basketball player explaining what he or she thought the best part of winning a game was.

“Anything and everything,” I started, “but news, fashion and travel, mostly.”

“So you’re a travel writer?”

I laughed. “I’ve been around a bit.”

“What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever been?”

That was another question thrown about far too often. And I still didn’t know how to answer it properly.

“That’s a good question,” I said. “Probably North Korea, I guess.”

Dorina’s face went white with shock. “North Korea?!” she stammered.

“Yes. I was there in June.”

A brief pause, before she exclaimed, “Wow! What was it like?”

Great, another question I had no idea how to answer.

“It was… incredible. Nothing at all like you’d think.”

We finally reached our floor and were heading down an ornately carpeted hallway, framed by antiquated wallpaper and bright lighting that screamed Gilded Age with all of its wrought iron and upturned brass.

“Sounds like a good experience,” said Dorina. “What other places have you been?”

“Oh, here and there…Georgia, Latvia, a lot of Eastern Europe really. I found myself in Iceland once.”

“Sounds cold!” she said.

“Not especially.” That was probably because I was in an airport the entire time.

She stopped abruptly in front of a surprisingly nondescript door, taking the comically large key from me and turning it inside the lock.

“Your room,” she said, opening the door and flicking on a light. Though not huge, it had a certain romance to it: richly carpeted and commanding an impressive view of a picturesque courtyard below, it was no wonder visiting royalty preferred the Gellért compared to the dearth of other offerings Budapest has by way of lodging.

“What do you think?” asked Dorina as I ogled the plushness of the extra-long twin bed.

“It’ll do,” I answered, adjusting my gray striped tie and morphing back into the calm and collected Mr. Benjamin the Businessman.

“OK, great,” she replied. “And, of course, you know about the baths.”

The baths…I’d forgotten.

The Gellért Baths are among the most famous in Europe. A thermal bath complex built between 1912 and 1918 and known for its gargantuan main hall and glass roof built, of course, in the Art Nouveau style. The baths, which contain large amounts of fluoride, magnesium calcium and chloride, are said to help treat degenerative joint problems, spine problems, neuralgia, circulatory issues, and even symptoms related to asthma and chronic bronchitis. Frequently on lists of “1,000 places to see before you die,” they are indeed the stuff of legends.

“Ah, yes,” I quickly stammered, hoping my momentary recollection had not been noticed. “The baths are quite famous. Is there an extra fee for hotel guests to use them?”

“No, it is free for all guests.” Free? I knew where I’d be later.

References to the baths go back as far as the 13th century, when a hospital was located on the site. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, baths were also built, called Sárosfürdő (“muddy bath”) due to the mineral mud settled at the bottom of pools, and nowhere near as opulent as the current incarnation. Eight pools make up the current complex, framed by stained glass windows, mosaics, and a domed ceiling in the main hall filled with marble statues that would make Julius Caesar feel right at home.

Less than an hour later, I was lying face up in the water as the last rays of the setting sun filtered in. The azure water smooth as blown glass, I let my body and mind completely unwind in numbing bliss. It was utterly silent. While free of any debilitating health problems, my body felt more relaxed than it had in ages. It was as if the years were literally being washed away. Just maybe there was some truth to the tales of the baths’ healing properties after all.

The hours can understandably fly by at the baths. That was certainly the case here, where, before I knew it, the magic hour of 8 p.m. rolled by, when the baths shut down for the evening. Though loathe to leave what might very well be the closest earthly connection to Heaven, I decided to oblige the request of the well-built staff member rather than risk permanent exile.

Heading up the stairs to the private entry and concierge exclusively for hotel guests, a familiar voice suddenly caught me off-guard.

“How were the baths?”

I whirled around in the direction of the concierge. A chestnut-haired woman with a sharp nose and wide cheekbones smiled mischievously: Dorina.

“Didn’t meet any North Koreans?” she teased.

I chuckled. “No North Koreans.” Feeling a little self-conscious, I tightened the top of my bathrobe and removed the swim cap all visitors to the baths are required to wear.

“So you enjoyed the baths, then?”

“They were marvelous.”

She smiled. “That’s good.”

“I’d like to think so,” I answered.

There was an awkward pause. If I was going to make a move, this was the time. I had nothing to lose, really.

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