Hot Springs: An Ancient A Spanish Tradition
By Bridget Ryder
The Friday after Christmas we escaped from crowded Madrid and headed an hour and a half south to the Hotel Balneario Carlos III, just outside of Trillo, Guadalajara.
My husband Juan Gutierrez and I were spending our first Christmas together with his family, and of course, joined in the family ritual of a mineral springs resort weekend.
Let me be clear, it has no comparison with a Club Med or a weight loss ranch in Arizona. Rather, it harkens back to traditions as old as the Roman Empire.
In fact, locals had been bathing and drinking from the mineral spring near Trillo since Roman times, but in the 1700s some of the spring’s waters were diverted and channeled into a system of elegant outdoor stone baths which were then frequented by the hotel’s namesake, King Carlos III, and others aristocrats.
Since then Spain has passed from a monarchy to a free-market democracy and the resort has become part of BalnearioTerma Europa , a small chain that offers four-star mineral springs amenities at a very populist price.
Ruins of the eighteenth-century baths sit right next to the shiny new hotel where we had a room with three meals a day and unlimited use of the indoor mineral pool, steam room, sauna, and sala de relax for 80 euros a night.
After settling into our rooms, we went straight to the dining room for the midday meal.
Over several trips to the buffet for well-ordered courses of paella, goat chops, and tiramisu (just a few of the dishes on the buffet), I couldn’t help noticing that I was the only non-Spaniard around. It dawned on me, too, that I had not seen one written word of English anywhere.
Despite its amenities, history,and location only an hour-and-a-half from Madrid, the resort was not part of the international tourist scene.
Instead, the resort attracted a congenial variety of Spaniards from a young couple at a table for two in the corner to families with young children to older people easing their arthritis.
We fit right in with my eight and three-year-old niece and nephew, us thirty and forty-somethings, and my 75-year-old mother-in-law.
The hotel also offers complimentary babysitting in the morning.
As I finished the tiramisu, I mulled over the Menu de Tratamientos, a list of all the massages, facials, skin treatments, and more intense bathing experiences available in addition to our already paid package.
They included foot reflexology, six or seven massages, vitamin C facials, and numerous skin peels each promising to relax, invigorate, calm, moisturize or beautify. You could even have your entire body wrapped up in chocolate and then dunked in milk.
Tempting as a chocolate wrap sounded, I decided to try the bamboo stick and aloe vera massage for toning, remodeling, and relaxing. I also agreed to join my husband for a Roman bath circuit.
The Piscina Activa
After a siesta, we donned our swimming suits and the mandatory swimming caps for our first dip in the mineral pool.
The piscina activa, as it’s called, is effectively a water park for relaxation. At 30 degrees Celsius, the water is warm but not hot, perfect for a long soak.
A variety of streams, bubbles, and showers hit every body part with the pressure of the water’s relaxing composition of elements and minerals.
Carlos and I got in the pool and stuck my foot in the first jet I found. Ahhh, an almost painful relief shot from my toe through my head as the water pressure reawakened me from the numbness by pounding the pavement and cobblestones of Madrid over the previous days.
Other advantageously positioned jets untied the knots in my hips, shoulders, and neck. After 45 minutes, I was floating on my back savoring the effects of being gently pummeled with water. By the time the pool closed at 8:30 pm, the spa had worked its magic—I was relaxed and hungry for a late Spanish dinner.
The weekend wasn’t all water and massages, though. The resort sits squeezed between the Tajo River and the foothills of the Sierra Madrid. Its slight separation from the town of Trillo, the fisherman’s trails along the river, and a network of quiet roads through the hills also make it a nature escape.
The next morning, Juan and I decided to follow a paved road to a monastery a couple of miles away from where monks had cared for lepers but a community of nuns now runs a rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol addicts.
We reached the monastery in about half-an-hour and peaked inside the baroque chapel, unfortunately under construction, before we continued down the road to the old hospital, now abandoned.
A path vaguely etched in the dead grass led us back to the river. We took a minute to rest on a large boulder by the river bank and just taking it all in–the cool air with the tiniest nip, the blue-green of the Tajo, the vultures perched in the cliffs, and the smell of wild rosemary.
Aloe, bamboo, and Cellulite
That afternoon I had my aloe and bamboo massage. Just before the treatment started, I couldn’t help lifting my head form the massage table to ask how the treatment was going to remodel me as promised.
“It’s draining,” the masseuse replied. “‘In that sense is remodeling.”
She put the aloe essence right on the cellulite on the back of my legs, rolled the bamboo stick over it and continued down my calf.
Next, she patted my excess back fat into place first with the hollow bamboo branch and then with two thin, flexible bamboo sticks.
My shoulders and back got some attention, too. Initially, the experience left me unimpressed, but the promised reward would come a few days later.
The Via Romana
In the afternoon Juan and I ran the watery gauntlet of the Roman bath circuit. “Screaming is allowed,” our guide concluded the explanation of the 45-minute series that alternated between extreme heat and cold, supposedly to improve circulation and induce relaxation.
I admit to having a loud verbal reaction as I passed through the first archway spewing almost-ice cold water, but the physical tension it created only increased the delight I felt when I sank into a 102-degree hot tub.
Ten minutes too soon our guide made us proceeded to the next phase. This time, I endured the second cold shower more stoically.
Next, we moved onto the saunas. We first entered a 110-degree dry sauna to open up our pores before the humid sauna unleashed a full-throttled sweat.
Was enduring such heat a test of virility among Roman senators, I wondered? Few of the six of us could stand the full ten minutes in the heat, but Juan and I endured, barely. This time we lingered in the cold shower. After ten more minutes in a humid sauna, the final pool of 28-degree water felt like a perfect spring day.
After dinner, Juan and I made a touristic excursion into Trillo, a city with medieval origins built around a mill on the Tagus River. The row of 14th-century townhomes lined the cliff of the river bank look as if time has not passed over them and the waterfall in the middle of the central plaza adds obvious charm, especially when lit with Christmas lights.
The city also made a small mark on modern history by becoming one of the first hydroelectric mills in Spain. We concluded our brief tour by following the staircase along the waterfall up to a modern bar looking out over the quaint scene. In the spirit of Spanish tradition, a Tinto capped our evening out.
Enciso, It worked
The next morning, our last day, I was putting my swimming suit on and explaining to Juan how the bamboo massage was supposed to drain and remodel me. He gave my thighs a good pat.
“They are firmer,” he said.
Right then I made my New Year’s resolution: come back to this resort next Christmas.
The next year
Almost one year later, I was initially disappointed that I couldn’t keep my resolution. By the time we tried to book, the Balneario Carlos III was already full for the dates we wanted, so, we made a reservation for the resort north of Madrid in Arnedillo.
The essentials (a natural mineral spring and accompanying pools and treatments) are the same, but the Balneario Arnedillo has some distinct differences from the resort in Trillo.
First, location: the Balneario Arnedillo is located two and a half hours from Madrid in the Rioja, one of Spain’s most famous wine regions. It’s also situated within the small town itself, great for exploring the history of the old churches and castle, or local flavors.
In the bar Casa de Cañas we enjoyed a really unique tapa—a little packet of béchamel, mushrooms,and shrimp dipped in a savory whipped cream. At the same time, the space between town and country is small and a network of trails go out from the town to access the no-man’s-land of the surrounding hills tiered with olive plantations dating back to the Roman Empire.
Arnedo’s Shoe Outlets
Also nearby is the big town of Arnedo, known for its shoe outlets. In the other direction is the small town of Enciso where dinosaur fossils are dug up and displayed in a museum. You can even look for them yourself on the Cidacos trail. We found both dinosaur fossils and amazing shoe deals.
Second, the amenities: In addition to a piscine active, the Balneario Arnedillo offers an outdoor soaking pool, a wave pool, and mud baths. We also enjoyed the complimentary evening of wine and chorizo (Spanish cured sausage) in the family bodega, a traditional walk-in wine cellar built into the side of the mountain. The wine is a product of a local cooperative and quite drinkable.
Where will go next year? We might just have to try the Hotel Balneario’s third location in Tarragona.
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Bridget Ryder is a freelance writer and graduate student of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomasin St. Paul, Mn. When not torturing herself with philosophy and history, she loves exploring the world with her husband.
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