This is the season for renewal, and what better way to feel good, enliven the spirit and the senses than with a visit to a spa that embraces the basics. By Mary Bemis
Bathing rituals are as old as civilization. The Egyptians practiced water therapies, the Greeks introduced cold-water baths, the Persians were busy creating steam and mud baths, the Turks followed with lavish baths built during the Ottoman Empire and in 1326, a curative spring was found in a little town in Belgium. As it turns out, this was the very spring frequented by the Romans before 100 A.D. and named “Sulsu Par Aqua.” Hence the name of the little town: Spa.
All ancient cultures recognized and paid homage to these basic elements—water, earth and fire—and spas are where those elements have always come together for healing, for relaxation, for rejuvenation. Here’s a quick list of places where these elements reign to add to your bucket list.
Hydrotherapy is essentially the use of water for enhancing health and wellness. Water therapy comes in many forms including mineral baths, jetted tubs, Swiss showers, Vichy showers and the old-fashioned, high-pressure Scotch hose. Perhaps one of the most quintessential spa towns is Baden-Baden, Germany, which is home to the elegant Brenner’s Park-Hotel and Spa. Founded in 1834, it is one of the first European spas to modernize its facilities successfully and now offers a topnotch ex- perience for today’s spa-goer. Baden-Baden is also home to Friedrichsbad, a public 125-year-old “temple to the art of bathing.”
Native people everywhere had their sacred sweat lodge. They were used for many pur poses from religious and spiritual to purification and ritual. The Mayans had their temazcal, the Russians their banya, the Finnish their sauna, the Turkish their hamam. These are all basically steam or sauna rooms. At their very core is water and fire.
The Turkish hamam is an ode to the steam bath. A beautiful, often ethereal space with ornate mosaics, octagonal pools, domes and fountains—this is where one would come to socialize while being scrubbed with a special black soap, bathed and massaged. The classic hamam is made up of three interconnected rooms of varying heat. The hottest room is home to a large marble slab that’s situated in the center and referred to as the “belly stone.” This is where one lies, relaxing and soaking up the steam and where one is thoroughly scrubbed.
There are a plethora of places to experience all the different versions of hamam, but Turkey reigns supreme. For example, the Spa at the Park Hyatt Istanbul offers five in-room spa suites where you may opt for a traditional experience in total privacy. On the menu here: A Turkish Hamam Deluxe package that starts with a traditional hamam ritual, followed by a good scrub and foaming rose massage. It’s wonderful, not only for removing dead skin and buffing to perfection, but a good boost for the circulation, as well. For ultimate luxury, the Spa at Four Seasons Bosphorus offers a 120-minute Private Hammam Moments service, packed with the aroma-therapeutic benefits of traditional attar (essences of rose, pine, sandalwood and lemon). While in the old city, recently renovated Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam—which sits on the site of the ancient public baths of Zeuxippus (100-200 A.D.), between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, in the area that once housed the Temple of Zeus—offers a once in a lifetime experience.
Water and earth make mud, and mud—via body wraps, masks and packs—has been ap- plied to the body for eons. The ancient Roman physician Galen wrote about mud treat- ments for arthritis and rheumatism. A good mud wrap can work wonders, as it has exfoli- ating, detoxifying and firming properties, among others.
For thousands of years, people have flocked to the Dead Sea, famous for its curative mud and waters. This landlocked salt lake between Israel and Jordan is one of the saltiest bod- ies of water in the world. It can actually be called one of the world’s first health resorts, thanks to Herod the Great, who used it as such. My husband, who had hurt his knee climbing the nearby fortress of Masada, was cured in a 45-minute mud wrap, much to his amazement. This area is also a major supplier of salts and minerals for a variety of personal care products.
One of my favorite places to meander in the mud is the volcanic island of Ischia, about 20 miles from Naples. It has long been revered for its fantastic volcanic mud and hot springs. One of the island’s nicest hotels is the L’Aubergo della Regina Isabella, where mud is made right on property and used in authentic spa treatments.
Mary Bemis is a leading spa and wellness expert. The founder of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com, and the co-founder of Organic Spa Magazine, she saunas at least three times a week and believes in the benefits of a cold plunge.
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