Bath, UK: Enjoy the thermal baths, from Roman to modern times
Soaking in the rooftop pool at Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England, watching the steam rise and then dissipate through the air as muscles soften in response to the heat, it’s easy to shift back in time, picturing yourself a Roman soldier seeking conversation, a soak and a good massage, or a Roman lady making offerings to the goddess of the spring in return for some favor.
For while the Romans might not have had the same view of tiled roofs and Bath Abbey, and they definitely lacked in the blue pool noodles now used as modern floating recliners, the thermal waters flowing into this modern spa do come from the same spring the Romans tapped into for their bathing complex 2,000 years ago.
Celtic tribes had settlements around Bath in pre-Roman times and seem to have been using the hot springs as a shrine, and human settlement in the region goes back much further.
But as far as recorded history goes, Bath’s beginnings are around 60 AD, when Roman invaders discovered Great Britain’s only natural thermal waters and, knowing a good thing when they saw it, built a temple that over the centuries turned into a massive bathing and worship complex and town surrounding it, called Aquae Sulis.
Nowadays, the visitor in search of healing has two stop to make in Bath, which is an easy 90-minute train ride from London. First is the Roman Baths Museum, where you can learn about the history and archeology of the site, walk around the reconstructed complex and even take a drink of the waters. Be sure to pick up an audio guide and leave yourself plenty of time for silent musings as you wander from point to point, picturing the site as it would have appeared in ancient times.
The first thing you’ll realize is that the Romans really knew what they were doing when it came to engineering. For while the upper levels of the building date from the late 19th century – yes, Roman-style columns and statues and all – the lower levels, including pipes and floors, are original vintage. The biggest pool, the Great Bath, is built of stone lined with lead (one reason not to take a plunge), with steps on all sides leading to an ultimate depth of just over 5 feet. And while today this large pool is open-air, in Roman times it was indoors, with massive ceilings reaching up to 130 feet, creating a space that was open for the time yet still a dark, steamy, cozy interior that, one can imagine, would easily have felt otherworldly.
Walk into the rooms on either side of the Great Bath and you’ll come to the East and West Baths, which would have included heated rooms and smaller pools of varying temperatures, including the frigidarium with its icy cold plunge pool. As they do today in similar establishments, bathers would cycle through the hot, cold and warm pools for therapeutic reasons, to invigorate the body and improve the skin.
After all this talk of baths with nothing to show for it – that huge, steaming, blue-green pool, however inviting, is off limits to visitors – you’ll be hankering for your own taste of the millennia-old tradition. Sample your spa water, hand in your audio guide and head through the gift shop and across the street to the 21st century’s version of taking the waters. The city’s baths closed in 1978 due to a health scare but demand never went away, so the concept for Thermae Bath Spa was developed, and the spa finally opened in 2006.
It’s a popular destination, so you’ll want to book ahead, especially during weekends and peak times of the year. And while the spa offers the usual pleasurable complement of facials, massages, body treatments and (polish-free) manicures and pedicures, plus a restaurant menu packed with tasty and healthy selections, the highlight of your visit will no doubt be the baths themselves, those same waters that have been enticing visitors since the Iron Age. So pack a bathing suit, switch your clothes for a robe and slippers, leave the cellphone behind in your locker and head into the spa to get away from it all. Sample the five different scented steam rooms (our favorite was sandalwood), the warm and cold showers and the indoor Minerva Bath, the largest in the complex. But most important, save time to savor the rooftop pool. Grab a pool noodle, find a quiet corner and let your imagination run wild as you gaze across the rooftops and the heat of the mineral-rich waters soaks deep into your bones.
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