Stressed? Soak up some relaxation in a hammam

New experiences make the best presents.

My brother-in-law and his wife gave me and my wife gift certificates to Madrid’s biggest hammam, or Arab/Turkish bath.

I’ve always liked hammams. The ones in Turkey, with their cold, warm, and hot sections, are reminiscent of Roman baths. I’ve also tried them in Iran, where in poorer neighborhoods that lack plumbing they aren’t just for relaxation, but also literally for bathing. Those aren’t as relaxing because most people are just popping in for a quick shower instead of lazing away the afternoon with some steam and a massage.

Last week was the first time I tried a hammam in the Western world. They’re getting more popular, cropping up in many cities as a cheap alternative to a spa. The one we went to was in an old water works that had been remade to look like a Turkish bath, complete with piped music and fake skylights. In contrast to their Middle Eastern counterparts, most Western baths let in people of both sexes. Bathing suits are required, unlike certain Parisian hammams a female friend of mine goes to!The hammam had a warm pool that felt like a bath, a hot pool that felt wonderfully relaxing but made me sleepy if I stayed in too long, and a reinvigorating cold plunge. Supporters of hammams say that making the rounds between warm, hot, and cold baths relaxes and rejuvenates you, improving general well-being and opening up pores to improve the skin.

The attached picture shows a Turkish hammam, where the water is in basins, but the hammam we went to had actual wading pools filling large rooms. Some people even swam laps!

This particular hammam, like many others, also has a steam room and massage therapists. My wife and I both got expert fifteen-minute massages. The whole experience was very soothing and the perfect way to unwind after a hectic holiday season. The only off note was some of the customers. Spaniards feel the need to speak loudly absolutely everywhere, including during movies, an unforgivable sin, and also in hammams that have signs saying “Silencio, por favor” hanging on every wall. In the Turkish and Iranian baths I’ve visited silence always reigned, and the hushed atmosphere added another level of relaxation and otherworldiness to the experience.

Most of the customers were couples in their twenties, thirties, or forties. While this is not a place for picking up members of the opposite or same sex, the warm air, trickle of water, and dim lighting does create a sensuous atmosphere. It’s perfectly acceptable to snuggle up to your partner and kiss, but the guy who was nibbling his girlfriend’s toes went a bit too far in my opinion.

Hammams are getting more popular in the West, so check out if there’s one near you and get your in-laws to treat you. You won’t be sorry.