Relaxation comes in many forms: a drink in the sun, a snooze on a hammock on the beach, a chat with friends. For me, though, nothing beats the relaxing powers of the Arabic baths and an afternoon at the hammam is my ultimate vacation treat. The last time I went to the hammam was last weekend, when I spent a fantastic hour and a half in the charming Madrid ‘spa’ that is the local Arabic baths.
I first discovered the pleasures of going to the Hammam in Seville, in the South of Spain, and since that first time back in 2009 I have made a point to go every time I find myself near one: so far, I have been to the hammam in Madrid (twice), Cordoba and Seville and I can’t wait to arrange a trip to Morocco and Turkey to see how they are done over there!
What is a hammam?
A bit of history
Hammam is an Arabic word originally meaning ‘bath’ and now used to describe a public bath house, a communal facility where men and women of all ages can go to bathe, get steam baths and massages. The expression ‘communal bath house’ may sound off-putting, but hammams are a truly pleasurable experience and have a lot in common with a modern spa, with the added charm that comes from a long history and usually beautiful architectural structures.
The tradition of the public baths dates back to ancient history: the Romans were famously fond of their thermae and the use of these communal spaces spread with their conquests. Examples of Roman baths can be seen in many parts of Western Europe, but it’s in the Eastern part of the empire that the tradition of the bath really took hold and survived. There, the Roman tradition mixed with Turkish habits and Islamic cleansing practices and the hammam became an important part of the cultural tradition that then spread together with the Moorish conquests.
What to expect in a hammam
A hammam is similar in concept to a spa. The word ‘spa’ means ‘salus per aquam‘ (health through water) and the whole idea behind the baths is that a mix of tepid, hot and cold water baths is good to tackle many heath problems, including circulation and stress. Going to the hammam is first and foremost a relaxing experience made of water baths, steam and silence, but the exact layout and function of the hammam varies with the establishment: some of them are mixed for men and women, other have separate areas or separate days for the two different genders and, depending on this and other rules, some require you wear a bathing suit while others offer the option to be without.
You can go to the hammam alone of with a friend, or many, but it is very much a personal, individual experience: to guarantee maximum silence and relaxation, you are asked not to speak or, at most, to whisper and unless you book a massage you will be left alone to experience the different areas at a pace that is right for you. There is no right or wrong way to take the bath: I personally tried all the areas (even the really cold one, which makes you feel amazing afterward) but if you are not attracted by one, you don’t have to go.
The most charming spa in Madrid: the hammam Al Andaluz
I found ut about the existence for the Madrid hammam thanks to a very simple internet search for ‘amazing spas in Madrid’ (I am pretty basic with my search terms, but it works!!). I knew that the tradition of Arabic baths was common in Andalucia but I had no idea it would stretch as far to the centre of Spain to reach the capital, so this was a very welcome discovery.
I had a look through the good website of the bathhouse and made a booking: the hammam works on timeslots to make sure at any given time there is enough space and silence, and showed up for my bath and massage at 4 pm on a Friday afternoon. If you can choose a slot, I find that the second part of the afternoon is the best time to go as you then leave relaxed and as if you had felt behind all the worries of your day.
Madrid’s hammam is in the city centre, not far from the hyper-busy Puerta del Sol square and on the buzzing C/ Atocha, but as soon as you enter you can see that everything has been designed to create an oasis of calm, sheltered from busy city life. I got there a few minutes early and I was offered a seat in the reception area and a cup of tea from a Middle -Eastern looking tea set.
The whole lobby decor exudes exotic charm: colorful tiled floors, elaborately designed dark wooden shelves, Moroccan style lamps all contribute to the ambiance, the soft piled up towels on the shelves the only give away that you are at a health spa rather than a Moroccan tea room. While waiting, we were given instructions on the use of the premises (in English), a towel, some shoe covers and at 4, we were let in.
Madrid’s hammam is built into what used to be a cistern for water: the main body of the building is below street level and you reach it through sets of stone steps. The first room is the changing room: the hammam caters for both men and women but the changing rooms are gender specific: here you are expected to change into your bathing suit (compulsory) and leave your belongings. Lockers are provided and can be operated with one euro coin and you are given a bracelet with a key not dissimilar to what you get in a swimming pool.
Once you are changed, you are asked to shower and are then allowed into the main part of the hammam, where you are free to use the facilities in the order of your preference. You have a bath with lukewarm water (about body temperature) a hot one, a really cold one, a steam room and a relaxation area where you can sit and have tea from a tea fountain (!).
All bathing areas are connected to each other and overall make for a truly beautiful structure. As I mentioned, the hammam is under street level and the only light comes from some windows in the ceiling, that let in diffused natural light, candles and soft electric lighting. The structure of the old cistern is still visible in the vaulted ceilings and their peculiar shape make all sounds echoes: the hammam requires its users to be silent or whisper and this means that the only noise you hear is the one of the lapping water and of the small waterfalls cascading onto into the main pool from the wall mounted taps. The dominant colour here is dark red: the walk are painted in warm, dark, Pompeian style red and this makes for a relaxing and dare I say sensual kind of atmosphere. Photos are unfortunately but understandably not allowed inside.
The bath and packages
Madrid’s hammam offers the option of just using the facilities or to also book a massage. Since I was on holidays and was in the mood for a treat, I went to the full package and, while I was soaking in hot water, was gently approached by a lady masseuse who showed me the massage rooms. First, I was asked to choose between four fragrances: each of them had specific property so you could decide whether to do go for something relaxing or energizing I went for red amber, which promised ‘balance and sharpness of mind’ (!) and took my place in the first massage room. This part of the massage happens with water: you lie on a tall stone bed and the masseuse pours tepid to warm water on your and gives you a first exfoliating massage with a glove. I heard that the exfoliating in Turkey can be quite strong, but here it was pleasant and relaxing.
After this, I was moved to a different room to massage table and was given an oil massage with the essence I had chosen before.
Finally, relaxed and pampered, I went back to the hot pool. There, immersed in hot water from the tip of my toes to the lobe of my ears, I let time pass me until the delicate sound of a gong marked the moment when I had to go back to reality, ‘come outside and see the stars’
- Practical info:
- The hammam is located on C/Atocha and all specific info can be found on their website
- Children under the age of 5 are not allowed in: older children can enter the hammam with the parent’s authorization
- Swimwear must be worn at all times, one towel per person is provided
- Long hair must be tied up, no swim cap necessary
- No shoes or any kind of footwear is allowed inside the hammam
This review reflects my personal opinion about this Hammam: is is unsolicited and unbiased and I did not receive compensation in any form for it