Confession: I am obsessed with hot water. Soaking in it. For hours.
When my friends ring their first question is: Are you in the bath? Because I often am, at all times of the day or night. My criteria for choosing a hotel or renting an apartment is always: Does it have a bath? And a good hot water system.
One of the reasons I left Australia was the lack of water. Some fatalists say the country will be uninhabitable by 2025 due to the current, persistent drought. And having a bath has certainly become a luxury in a country where some places have had no rain for more than three years. Melbourne’s water storages are at around 30%, Sydney’s around 60%. Keep this in mind next time you travel there and turn on a tap!
For me, bathing is about relaxing, about releasing stress from both body and mind and letting ideas flow. It’s rejuvenating. Some call me Princess, others Piscean. Sometimes I am just waterlogged. But very, very happy and so relaxed.
Spas in the UK
Where else to begin but Bath! Home of the famous Roman Baths. The Romans really got the whole joy of bathing. They believed in the health giving properties of thermal and mineral waters and went to great lengths to harness them all over Europe. It was all about community and ritual. As well as health and hygiene.
Ironic then that on my first visit to Bath, there was nowhere to bathe. All I could do was wander through the historic Roman Baths, read the history and imagine happy Romans chatting and bathing.
Now, after 28 dry years, Bath has the Thermae Bath Spa, opened in 2006. But I was actually a little disappointed. There’s a big swimming pool of warm waters in the basement but the air temperature was so cold, it was unrelaxing. Another pool in the open air on the roof has great views over green hills, and all the usual shoulder pummeling jets and spa areas so popular in these modern, theme-park reimaginings of bathing culture. There is also a second separate bath in an open-air historic building, the Cross Bath on the site where the Celts worshipped their goddess Sul. I had this bath to myself – it was raining – but it was lovely and relaxing and I felt very healthy afterwards. If a little tired.
This is Britain’s only natural thermal spa and is worth a visit, especially because Bath itself is such a pretty and historic town. Thermae Bath Spa is a day spa, so you need to book accommodation elsewhere but the town is full of hotels and B&Bs, and there’s easy train connections to and from London.
Spas in Austria
A similar idea but undertaken in a much more indulgent and unique fashion is the Rogner Bad Blumau Spa in Austria. This is one crazy place, totally designed by the Austrian architect Hundertwasser (1928 – 2000), a man with an allergy to straight lines. There isn’t one in the whole place. Grass and trees grow on top of buildings. Brightly coloured pillars and walls hold the place together.
It’s located in the small town of Bad Blumau, not far from Graz and, if you are staying in the hotel, they will organise a car to pick you up from airport or Graz train station.
We stayed two nights and I could have stayed much, much longer. There are a number of pools, all large swimming pool style, outdoor and indoor. My favourite was the Vulcania pool. It was beautifully warm and I managed to build a floating chair from the coloured foam spaghetti and relax to the point I nearly melted. At night they had fires burning around this pool and I floated and looked up at the stars. Magic.
The massages were not really worth the extra cash because they were a bit tentative and cosmetic rather than therapeutic. But I would return anytime to float, and float, and let all my troubles dissolve in the waters.
Spas in Hungary
Budapest is, of course, famous for its thermal waters; it has 118 springs and bores and historic bathing right in the centre of the city. The best known of these are: Kiraly Thermal Baths dating from 1565; Gellert Baths, Lukas Medicinal Baths, Rudas Medicinal Baths, and the Szechenyi Baths, which is one of the largest bathing complexes in Europe. Most of these were developed in the early 1900s and they still have a lot of the era’s grandeur.
I stayed at the Gellart Hotel and discovered that the entrance to the actual baths is around the corner in the street. Strange, but perhaps they were doing some renovation to an entrance direct from the hotel. Or perhaps my Hungarian is just non-existant! Anyway, I found the baths and fulfilled a life dream of swimming in the magnificent indoor pool which I’d seen a photo of about ten years earlier. Bliss!
On the Saturday night the outdoor pools were open late, and I sat in the warm waters with all the courting couples and stared up at the stars. Divine.
My room at the Gellart was small, old-worldly but functional. And let’s face it, when you travel to a city like Budapest, you usually spend more time outside the room exploring (and bathing) than in it so it didn’t matter.
I have plans to head back to Budapest soon and sample some of the other baths. Szechenyi is top of my list; I’ve seen photos of floating chess boards – these are my kind of people. I hope they have floating bookstands.
Spas in Slovenia
One of my first thermal adventures in Europe was at Terme Catez, near the border of Slovenia and Croatia. Friends had flown here for a weekend from London and highly recommended it so I drove up from Zagreb for the day.
Arriving, we were a little confused; it seemed to be a large complex of outdoor pools and kids kids kids everywhere – not totally relaxing. Then we found the hotel and finally the spa. And the Irish-Roman Bath experience changed my life. If only because the name was so delicious – and still a little confusing.
We were indeed given sheets to wrap around ourselves toga style, and next to one of the pools was a large platter of fruit which was divine decadence. The process took about two hours and was a slightly baffling series of saunas and baths and plunge pools. Naturally we abandoned the togas after they got soaked for the first time. The final stage was a body polish, then we were sent to a sleeping room. I want to go back there! Now!
Highly recommended. The hotel looked a bit 1970s peach, but I did not stay there. And my friends loved their whole weekend.