The Reluctant Spa-Goer
Maybe I’m the only one, but I’m not much on spas or massages. I’m sure it partially has to do with the fact that I’m not as comfortable with my body as I should be. I’m particularly uncomfortable in a bathing suit, less so with being touched by strangers, even if they’re trained professionals, and absolutely mortified at the thought of being touched by strangers outfitted in a paper thong.
So it comes as no surprise that there are gaping holes in my blog content, as well as my Barcelona Guide for Afar.com when it comes to health and beauty. This year, Calla, a childhood friend who came to stay with us in Barcelona brought it to my attention when she asked me about my recommendations for spas and self-care in the city.
You’d think after 10 years here, I’d have a clue, a tip of some sort . You’d be wrong.
I could make excuses all day: I don’t love my body in a bathing suit; my first massage in the Szechenyi baths in Budapest was traumatic—all I remember is peeling down the top of my one piece and a middle-aged woman muttering at me in Hungarian under fluorescent lights while she beat at knots in my back, but the reality of the situation is I’m scared and embarrassed. Scared of being that chubby girl that grosses out the other spa-goers, and embarrassed about how I look, and feel about my body.
I could talk a big game about facing my fears, living life to the fullest and Health at Every Size, but what really pushed me into working on this project was helping a good friend find a spa.
Once I’d committed to the daunting task of finding some spas to recommend in the Catalan capital, I couldn’t just back out .
Aire de Barcelona
I visited the first spa, Aire de Barcelona, with Calla. Read more about her experience, here. Having her there made the experience more comfortable than it would have been. It didn’t hurt that the massage and body scrub were very thorough head-to-toe affairs, and very relaxing once I got past the idea that I was topless in a semi-private space. After the treatments and the salt bath, my skin felt like silk. I also loved the steam room, the water circuit and the unlimited grapefruit water and mint tea. With the exception of the ice-water pool, there wasn’t much I didn’t like about Aire de Barcelona. It was beautiful, clean, and comfortable and had me thinking I might like spas after all.
The second spa, at Hotel Omm was a compact but elegant spa circuit that I visited with a local friend. I was pretty comfortable there too, but since we were the only two guests on a Sunday morning, it’s not surprising. The steam room and luke-warm pool with loungers were calming and there was a strange little hallway of different temperature jets of water above stone-pavers that made me think of an obstacle course. I don’t care how good it is for me, or how hot it is outside. I don’t like cold water.
At Spaciomm, I skipped the massage. My friend scheduled one and seemed to enjoy it , though. She seemed a little surprised when the attendant handed her paper thong to change into, and announced she would have a male masseuse. While she was getting her massage, had hot tea and water in the reception area and read fashion magazines in Spanish. After her massage, we were both shown to a room with what looked like dentist chairs that flopped back and forth like boats in the water. The cup of tea in reception was definitely more my speed, but what do I know. All in all, I wasn’t wowed but I wasn’t unhappy, either.
The third spa, Rituels d’Orient was by far the biggest challenge to my courage. Why? Because I had to go alone. Hidden in plain sight beyond an unassuming storefront just off of Barcelona’s main thoroughfare of Avinguda Diagonal, these are the city’s most “authentic” Turkish baths.
On the way down the stairs, past the dressing room and a Middle-Eastern lounge, I can already hear water splashing on pavement. A young woman in a black bathing suit with a white Turkish towel slung around her hips throws copper bowlfuls of water onto heated benches. She smiles at me as I clutch my own Turkish towel tighter. I take a seat on the bench and a sip from my tiny bottle of water.
A sixty-something guy lingers on the bench a few feet away, and there’s a group of three Germans—two girls and a guy, alternating between the soaking up the heat in hot room, and the plunge pool. Every time they open the door to the hot room, the hinge protests. Finally two attendants come in, one escorts the older gentleman upstairs for his massage, and the other beckons the two girls through an arched doorway for their scrub. To use the spa facilities here, you have to sign up for a treatment. It’s certainly a graceful way to keep crowds under control in an atmosphere meant to be calming.
The wrought iron scrollwork barring the windows is perfectly reflected in the puddles on the floor and I spend a few minutes staring and wondering if my iPhone would capture it—no matter I’ve left it in my locker. The hot room is gorgeous behind its squeaky glass door. Mottled brown-black walls and benches beaded with silver drops of water make me think of stars on a hot summer night.
And it doesn’t matter how unlikely gawkers are, I’m the kind of girl that has always worn shorts, or a sarong, or a t-shirt over my bathing suit and forget about bikinis, much less going topless. Ten years into living in the Mediterranean I haven’t changed that much.
After a lackluster scrub—that made me itchy all over, but skipped over priorities like elbows and feet, I was led upstairs for my massage and given the dreaded paper thong . Once I got past my ruminations on how one size doesn’t fit everyone the same, the room and music were relaxing. The area beneath the face window on the masseuse table was even staged with a small floral arrangement. The masseuse was soft-spoken and after I picked out the essential oil, I didn’t hear anything at all until she was telling me I could get dressed.
Back in my white terrycloth robe, I was led into the lounge for Moroccan mint tea and a honey and pistachio pastry. I sat there for a few minutes, sipping tea, and wishing massages burned calories.
When I first set out on this mission, I’d planned to visit at least 5 Barcelona spas, but Calla is long gone, and I think I’ve had enough of paper thongs and public relaxation for the time being.
*Aire de Barcelona and Rituels d’Orient invited me to try out their facilities free of charge, but all opinions are my own.