Thursday, 17 January 2008

More ideas for escaping the damp of West London

OK, so the festive season is well and truly over, and the weather is well and truly foul. The short days don’t help much either, as the post-Christmas gloom settles in. No wonder it’s the peak time of year for relationship breakdowns.

So, what can you do? Well, one idea would be to take a leaf from the books of our Romans forbears, and indulge yourself at a Spa. Coming from Italy’s sunnier climes, they knew a thing or two about dealing with our damp climate: by pampering themselves with lots of steam and hot water, massages, the works, as the magnificent remains at Bath testify. Going to a Spa has the added benefit of feeling indulgent, but guilt-free: there are no calories to put on, and it feels healthy, without the exercise. (OK, I suppose you could go for a swim, but no-one is going to make you...) What could be better?

It’s fascinating how many cultures have adopted the spa culture: as well as the Romans, Islamic countries have a long tradition of Hamams (and, of course, the Turks invented the Turkish Bath). They bequeathed this wonderful tradition to the Hungarians (visiting a Spa in Budapest is a must), but it has also been enthusiastically taken up by the Austrian and Germans. (In Germany, it was even possible to go to a health resort every year, paid for by the health system, until recently).

And the French have their ThalassothĂ©rapie, which is essentially a spa using hot sea water. But essentially, it all boils down to the same thing: lots and lots of hot water, steam, saunas, massages, and some nice skin treatments. There’s something very primeval about enjoying yourself with lots of water around – it really relaxes you in a deep, fundamental way – and not just if your star sign is Pisces.

My own favourite spa tale relates to a Hamam in Sousse, in Tunisia. My other half and I enetered not knowing quite what to expect, and not speaking a word of Arabic. The Hamam attendant didn’t speak a word of English either, so we were on equal terms. We started off in a steam room, surrounded by a group of locals. They nodded and smiled their acknowledgements, and continued their conversation with some energy, despite the sapping, damp heat from the steam.

We were beginning to feel a bit broiled and so made to leave, but the attendant firmly showed us back in. We were not ready yet. After another ten minutes, we were shown to a room with a large, hot marble slab. I was getting a bit nervous by this stage, as I’ve been given a very bad back by a few masseurs in the UK before now. But I need not have worried. He placed both of us on the slab, and then started gently pulling our arms and legs and feeling our muscles, testing how limber we were. He then gave us a no-holds-barred massage: rubbing, pulling, pressing, twisting, manipulating, massaging. The piece de resistance was stretching our spines with his feet.

After that, we were vigorously scrubbed down – ‘exfoliated’ doesn’t quite cover it – and hosed with freezing cold water. Just before I recovered my senses, we were plunged into a stone tub of incredibly hot water, and kept there just long enough to understand how a lobster might begin to feel. Just in time, we were hoisted out, dusted down with a towel, and wrapped in yet more hot towels to doze, pleasantly, for half an hour. I could happily have stayed like that for ever. I don’t think I’ve felt quite so rested. Wonderful.

Although we Brits have long neglected out Spa heritage, there are plenty of modern places to choose from around here, if you feel the urge. The Sanctuary has to be among the best known in London's Covent Garden, but many hotels have good spas, such as the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, the Dorchester on Park Lane and the Langham near Oxford Circus. (All are open to non residents, but phone ahead first.) But perhaps the pick of the bunch in West London is the Portchester Spa in Bayswater. This refurbished, Grade II listed survivor built in 1929 (originally known as the Turkish and Russian Vapour Baths) has an impressive interior, and is the best tradition of public spas, with both single-sex and mixed sessions.

Even the Romans would be happy!

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