Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Arab Bath

But for Stockholm and Copenhagen; Sapporo, Japan and Portland, Oregon, all cities are unnecessarily filthy, smell of refuse and decay, and tend not to deliver what they promise. People like them, I guess, for the shopping, the fresh pastries, and the proximity to indoor plumbing. Seville is such a city too, but it also has its finer points: its beauty is drawn forward from the distant past—Roman, Visigoth, Moorish and Christian. It is a wilderness of masonry and stone settled on a river port, punctuated by bright oranges hung in the trees like Christmas bulbs. People are everywhere in the streets, a lively, gay parade of dark lovely hair and bright voices. But better than any of this—it has an Arab bath.

At calle Aire 15, just beyond Iglesia Santa Cruz, you enter Aire de Sevilla through an unassuming portal in the narrows where the music, its mellifluous flutes and strings, calls you in along with the sensuous warmth of burning incense. You cannot pass that door without turning in, which is what befell me just the other day, strolling through town, minding my own business, gazing up at this and over at that. Of course, I had also made an appointment, which is essential—the number of bathers is limited to prevent over-crowding and preserve the sanctity of your experience.

So in I went, and took a seat to wait my turn, just as Christ waited at the gate for Mary Magdalene (or don’t you read Kazantzakis?). The bell struck 4:00 pm, and I dressed down to my swim trunks and entered the bath.

You cannot believe such bliss lies just beyond those doors. The soft candle light releases your heart from the weary week as you enter first, the sauna. You can see nothing through the steam, walking blindly in until the benches introduce themselves at your knees. You sit. You breathe that gentle good earthy air. That music you hear is the main theme from House of Flying Daggers—I guess the Moors love that movie too. You settle in. The steam washes you from the inside out, and you sweat and sweat and breathe deeply again. Water, condensed on the ceiling, splashes onto your head and thighs. When the futbol players arrive and shatter the silence, you head for the bathing pools.

When the Moors ruled most of Iberia (711-1492, roughly), the bath was not just for personal hygiene. It was central to social life, and functioned too as an informal meeting place where men conducted state business. It so complemented the affairs of state, that in Granada’s Alhambra, the bath is located close to the entrance to the Hall of Ambassadors, the first door on the eastern wall of the Courtyard of the Myrtles. As friendly as it was, a bath warden stood by to quell any escalating disagreements.

From the sauna, you find your way from pool to pool up and down a system of wooden stairs—the soft quiet pool, the jet pool with the ceiling fretted with stars, then through the resting room to the big one, which conceals a much hotter pool in the back, next to the cold bath. This is what you’ve been searching for—you go hot then cold, hot then cold, hot then cold, and return again to the sauna. Now the sauna is empty. And so are you. After all, you’ve been cooking in steam for an hour and a half. A couple arrives and seeks out the darkest corner, vanishing into the mist. You leave them for a cup of cold tea in the resting room.

You’ve booked a 45 minute massage, instead of the usual 15. Might as well go all the way. Don’t worry—you’re just getting a rub down. Lance Armstrong gets one every day. The masseuse leads you up two flights of stairs to a private room—what the bath didn’t take out of you, she does. You leave feeling like a million bucks, and you’re down only about 60 euros. The problem is you’ll probably come back.


  1. Wow, that sounds fantastic. I wish public baths would catch on here - it is the one ritual I miss about Japan.

  2. I need a couple of hours of such love. Just returned from Boquillas Canyon and could my body could use such a treatment. I guess I will let the dry west Texas air and the tub of 23rd and Chicago work it's magic.

  3. Wow, absolutely beautiful.

    Have you ever checked out the Roman Baths in Bath (UK).


  4. Wish there would be such here in singapore. Guess this is one way to escape from the hassles in the city. fortunately, we have here condos that have sauna yet not as good as it appear in the picture as yours.