When travelling, it’s always fun to stumble upon both famous and lesser-known local bathing spots. However, while I love to be surprised by historical and natural baths in different destination, not everybody likes surprises, and the bathing experiences found on the road are often hit or miss. In fact, in my experience, local baths get misnamed, over hyped and overlooked. Here are a few cases in point:
The Namesake: Bath’s Roman Baths
The Roman Baths in England are so famous that a city was named after them. Bath, in the west of the country, has been frequented for centuries by visitors in search of soothing waters and supreme relaxation. The city of Bath became so popular that in the 19th century, it was the place to see and be seen in the high society of Jane Austen’s novels.
Nowadays, though, the original Roman Baths are nothing more than a splendid tourist attraction with murky green waters. When I visited Bath last year, I sadly learned that visitors are no longer allowed to take a dip in the original pools. There are some newer spas open for bathers to soak in geothermal splendour, but if you’re looking for a high-society remedy at the original baths of Bath, I’m afraid you’re a few centuries too late.
The Ornate: Budapest’s Thermal Baths
Budapest, by contrast, is a city where even the most famous baths are definitely open to the public. In fact, all of Budapest’s thermal baths, which are scattered throughout the city, are accessible to and frequented by locals and tourists alike.
Most visitors to Budapest head straight for the Széchenyi or Gellért thermal baths, and rightly so, considering they are the city’s two most famous and most opulently decorated. Situated in the middle of City Park, Széchenyi has indoor and outdoor baths housed in a magnificent and imposing Neo-Baroque structure surrounded by meticulously kept gardens. The Art Deco-style Gellért Baths are equally prestigious, but located near Gellért Hill in Buda, close to the Liberty Bridge.
Both the Széchenyi and Gellért can get very busy during the peak tourist season, especially in July and August. For a more local experience, head to one of Budapest’s other baths, like Király, which I visited a few years ago. We were easily the only tourists in there, and while the architecture and decor was far less impressive that of Széchenyi or Gellért, it certainly felt like a more authentic thermal soak.
The Ethereal: Iceland’s Blue Lagoon
Geothermals are one of Iceland’s many natural resources. As such, they have been used by generations of Icelanders to stay warm in the winter and keep their skin soft against the dry air.
Iceland has many hot springs, thermal baths and spas throughout its volcanic and rugged landscape, but the one that most people visit is the luxurious Blue Lagoon. Buses frequently cover the hour-long trip between the capital, Reykjavik, and the spa, making it easy for city tourists to indulge in some relaxation and pampering.
Despite not being a devout spa-goer, I had been looking forward to time at the Blue Lagoon on my trip to Iceland last year. It was one of my most memorable travel experiences, particularly since the thermal bath was only sparsely attended, and because the waters are simply incredible. Soft white clay coats the floor of the lagoon, and the pale cobalt waters release a wispy, ethereal steam. The surroundings easily allow visitors to turn off and pretend they’re in a completely different world.
The Dirty Dip: Aguas Calientes
Unfortunately, not all spa experiences are created equal. A few years ago, in Peru, I was determined to take a dip in the hot baths of Aguas Calientes, the aptly named town at the base of Machu Picchu. While the other members of my tour were enthusiastically heading off to the pools, my mum suggested that I skip the dip and wander with her through the town instead.
I politely refused and joined our tour mates. What I found was less luscious than expected. The baths weren’t ‘caliente,’ or hot, as the name promised. They also weren’t particularly clean. After a short time I decided that Mum was right and I didn’t really want to be in the baths anymore.
As I left, not only did I find someone else’s long black hair on my leg, I even saw local Peruvian men shaving and performing other ablutions in the showers next to the baths. It wasn’t until later, during our tour of Machu Picchu, that I also learned that when hikers return from their Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, many of them make their first stop at the hot baths of Aguas Calientes to soak away four days of…well, everything.
There are some baths you can’t go to, some baths you definitely don’t want to miss and some baths you should avoid altogether… unless, that is, you’ve just finished the Inca Trail.