On these cold winter days when a hot bath or a cup of tea aren’t enough to warm up, a trip to a day spa seems like the optimal way to revive the body and the spirit. The times I’ve had a chance to spend a few hours in a hamam (Turkish bath house) or natural hot springs, I left feeling calm and refreshed, perplexed at the power of this seemingly common liquid. The contrast of temperatures in the pools, the osmosis between the body and the water, the steam sauna — all water in its various forms — felt like nature’s massage.
Throughout history, many cultures and religions have considered water a purifying substance, often using it as part of religious rituals. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, bathing played a major role in society. The Greeks, the Romans, the Turks and the Arabs all created and enjoyed quite ingenious bath houses used both in the private and public spheres. The oldest record of western bathing practices comes from the Ancient Greeks, who established balneums next to the gymnasiums where people could go cleanse and relax. They also praised the curative and soothing powers of natural hot springs, around which they built sophisticated bath houses and mythological stories. The Romans adapted the Greek bathing customs and, as they expanded their empire, spread the culture of bathing around the greater Mediterranean, making the thermae the center of social and recreational activity.
Above are images of Girona’s Roman bathhouse, which consists of an Apodytarium (first image at the top of the page), a Tepidarium (top left), two Caldariums (top right), a Frigidarium (bottom right), and a Furnus (bottom left) — which was located below the Caldariums. The Apodytarium was the room for undressing, where the people left their belongings. From the Apodytarium, the first room was the Tepidarium, which had a constant flow of warm steam, and the bather could prepare the body for the hot baths. Next, he would continue into the Caldarium, where he would immerse himself in a hot water tub before continuing to the ice-cold Frigidarium pool. The order could be changed and repeated, if the bather wished to go through the sweating process. The bath was usually followed by a massage and a good scrub-down. They had bathing down to a science.
Spain was under Arab rule for over 900 years, and they left a lasting legacy in Spanish culture. Throughout the south there are still hamams which were constructed replicating the order of the Roman Baths (with the Tepidarium, Caldarium, and Frigidarium). They were essential to muslim life as well as an important part of social life. The Califal Baths in Córdoba are some of the most impressive surviving today, and have been turned into a museum. One can still enjoy a good arab bath in more contemporary and well designed spaces — such as Aires de Sevilla (above), and its northern equivalent Aires de Barcelona, where Jacopo and I have enjoyed going.
Although bath houses originated in the Mediterranean, natural hot springs are by no means exclusive to this part of the world. They have been used and exploited around the world, often considered to have therapeutic qualities due to their very high mineral content.
The above is an image of the the geothermal spa Blue Lagoon in Iceland, where the water’s temperature is 37-39°C / 98-102°F. The seawater originates 2000 meter/6562 ft beneath the ground where it is heated by earth’s natural forces. The temperature at its point of origin is 240°C/464°F and the pressure is 36 times the pressure on the earth’s surface. The geothermal seawater comes into contact with cooling magmatic intrusions and captures the earth’s minerals.
In the Big Sur region of California, there are impressive cliff-side natural hot springs, where the ancestors of the Esselen tribe already thrived 6000 years ago. On the same site, there now rises the Esalen Institute, a retreat made famous for their alternative education center as well as for the breathtaking location. (Image below, left)
In Japan, one of the most striking onsen, or natural hot springs, are the Nanki-katsuura Onsen, which sit on the coastline of the southeastern region of the country. (Image below, right)
The thought of spending a day at a hot spring or a Roman bath, makes me sigh with delight. It is one of those small extravagances — some of the places mentioned above are about 30-50$ for a few hours — worth the investment. These places are some of the most luxurious in the world, the richness of their natural resources having been created completely by nature and merely ornamented by man.