Monday, September 28, 2009

Cleopatra in Bath

(Caroline Lawrence's review of the Thermae Bath Spa in the town of Bath)

After my talk at the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, I thought it might be fun to try out the new luxury Thermae Bath Spa. Built of glass and stone, it is surrounded by Georgian Buildings. You book your session in advance and if you get one of their 50 special ‘treatments’, you get two hours in the baths as well. I studied the options as listed on their website and plumped for the ‘Cleopatra goat’s milk bath flotation and foot massage’. After all, this session was for research purposes.

You pay for your session in advance (I’m sure Cleopatra had a gold card) and you turn up half an hour beforehand with your swimming things. If you book a treatment, the Spa loans you a white robe and towel for no extra charge, and they give you white terrycloth slippers to use and keep. (If you just visit the pools and steam room you have to rent these three items or bring your own.) Upon entry, you are given a plastic bracelet called a ‘SmartBand’ which you use to open and close your locker and to pay for meals in the restaurant. Most efficient. I think Julius Caesar would have approved.

The partitions between the changing rooms and shower cubicles are a made of frosted glass in eau-de-nil (pale Nile-water-green). At first glance they look as if they might be see-through but thankfully, they aren’t. After changing into my swimsuit and stowing my belongings in locker number LXXI, I don the white robe and terrycloth slippers and shuffle off to the lower ground floor. You can get to different levels by lift or stairs.

There are skylights and glass walls everywhere, so you get a delicious sense of space and light. Well done, Vitruvius! (Or whoever designed it…)

For treatments, you go to the Minerva Bath on the lowest floor and follow a ramp up. The glass walls allow you to see people frolicking in the Minerva Bath as you wait. The Minerva Bath is a big curved swimming pool with a circular section for a whirlpool and a fan shaped downward-pointing spout for an intermittent jet of water. As I fill out a brief medical questionnaire and wait for my treatment, I notice lots of cuddling couples in the pool. Plus ├ža change. The Romans knew very well how sensual a few hours of steam and water and massage could be. I imagine Cleo and Anthony would have enjoyed that big warm pool.

At precisely 6.15, the time of my appointment, one of the therapists comes to get me. She is dressed in blue uniform like the scrubs they wear in American hospital TV shows. Natalie takes me into a private room with ambient generic new-age mood music. There is a ceiling fan, a shower and a treatment table.

Natalie is charming. She asks me a few questions based on the questionnaire, then tells me to ‘Take off your robe and swimsuit and lie down on the table, please.’

‘Naked?’ I ask.

‘No, you put on these paper panties.’

I notice the massage table is covered by two sheets of plastic, a towel and some alarming looking pieces of blue marsh grass.

‘Are you going to whip me with those first?’ I ask.

Natalie laughs as she removes them. ‘No, they’re for decoration.’

As she leaves me to get ready I wonder if Cleopatra ever wore papyrus panties.

Alma-Tadema Roman bath
I lie face down on the bed, with a towel over me. Natalie comes back in and gives me a rather cursory dry skin brushing with a natural fiber brush (camel hair, perhaps?) Then she slathers me with a warm mixture of goatsmilk, ‘minerals’ and aloe vera. I guess a whole bath of the stuff would be terribly expensive, but I am a little disappointed. I imagined myself descending into an Alma-Tadema circular marble bath filled with warm goatsmilk as muscular Nubian slaves fanned me with peacock feathers. Oh well…

The goatsmilk mixture gets cold very quickly and there is a lot of tactful faffing about with the towel to preserve my modesty. (When I had a hot fango mud treatment in Ischia, my female therapist encouraged me to slather my modesty myself.) After I am more or less coated in this quickly cooling milky mixture, Natalie wraps the two plastic sheets around me and puts a warm, rosemary filled eye-mask over my eyes. Now for the floatation bit. A cushion filled with warm water rises up around me as the platform beneath my back sinks down into its base. I can feel the cushion’s warmth on my arms and cheeks, along with a sensation of floating. This reminds me of waterbeds from the 1980’s, only the warmth makes it much nicer. Nicer still is when Natalie gently massages my feet – the only part of me still sticking out - with ‘Oriental oil’. This is good because otherwise the water-filled flotation cushion might be a bit claustrophobic; the gentle foot massage gives your mind another point of focus. The ambient music is still playing. Although I wish it was more exotic and Egyptian, this part is blissful. I even drift off once or twice. The bright yellow chime of a yoga bell brings me back to the here and now.

I feel ‘stretched out’ as the panel comes back up and the floatation device melts away. Most of the goatsmilk and aloe vera mixture should have soaked into my skin, but Natalie massages in the last remnants to make sure it is all absorbed. After the delicious warmth of the floatation cushion it is uncomfortably chilly as my naked back is exposed, and I ask her to turn off the ceiling fan. She removes the plastic sheets by having me lift up my back and then my legs and finishes massaging in the mixture.

A final chime of the bell marks the end of my session. Natalie says she will get me a glass of water and that I can then dress in my own time. She reminds me not to forget to put on my ‘SmartBand’. I have just finished dressing when she comes back with a plastic cup of water. She shows me an area where I could go to have a herbal tea and relax, but I forego that because I want to go up to the rooftop pool and see the sunset.

Eheu! I’m too late. The sun has already set and it’s a bit overcast now. But never mind. The town of Bath still looks lovely from up here, with the Abbey floodlit and the sky not quite dark. Again, I notice lots of canoodling couples in the water, most in their 20’s. Suddenly, some bubbles start to rise up. ‘Here they come,’ says a hairy-backed man to his girlfriend. The bubbles are pretty feeble. Nothing to write home to Julius Caesar about. And the pool isn’t as warm as I’d expected. When you get out it is quite chilly. Not as nice as the hot pool in Bamff, surrounded by snowly peaks. Another flaw is that the terrycloth slippers soon get sodden and cold. White plastic flip-flops would be better, but probably not as cheap to produce.

a Nile blue lotus
Next I go to the steam room one floor below the rooftop pool. This is a huge steamy room with a central shower and four large cylindrical frosted glass pods full of even more steam. In one of the pods I see a couple alone and embracing. Edepol! This place really is like Baiae, the ancient mixed baths of Rome. Baiae was notorious for bathing establishments with mixed sex bathing and the inevitable debauchery that went along with that.

Most people are up on the rooftop pool, so apart from the embracing couple and one or two others, the steam pods are empty. I find one pod for myself. A circular bench of stone is very warm, but not too hot to sit or lie on. I try out the frankincense steam, the lavender, and the breathless eucalyptus. Of course, eucalyptus is from Australia and was unknown in Roman times. Cleopatra would have enjoyed saffron, rose or lotus. The foot massage pools around the side of the room don’t seem to be working. For some reason the plugs don’t stop the water going out. So I have to forego the ‘gentle water massage’ on my tootsies. By Isis! This is not good.

not the Thermae Bath Spa, but Pamukkale, Turkey
There are three hot baths in the complex, including the Cross bath at a slightly removed site, now closed for the evening. In actual fact the pools are warm - not hot - and as it s a cool September evening, it makes it slightly a chilly exercise as I descend three floors to the Minerva Bath. The water in this pool is only lukewarm, too. I wish it were warmer, like the baths I tried in Pamukkale in Turkey a year or two ago. I wonder if this is the natural temperature of the springs. I remember seeing the milky green water in the great pool of the Roman bath next door steaming in the cool air above it and I suspect not. I wait in the lukewarm pool under the fan-shaped shower for the massage jet. One of the bathers tells me that it comes on unexpectedly. This seems a bit pointless. I wait for ten minutes and am finally rewarded with a powerful jet of lukewarm water. Would be nice if it were hotter. But I suppose that might lead to people overheating and health and safety issues. Hmf. Cleopatra never had to worry about health and safety.

Now I am getting hungry. I decide to visit the Spring Restaurant. You get two complimentary hours in the baths with any treatment, and if you eat in the Spring Restaurant they add on 45 minutes. Suddenly I realize I left my ‘SmartBand’ in my therapy room. Doh! That wasn’t very smart of me. Luckily Natalie turned it in at reception and they hand it back with a smile. The restaurant could be warmer, too. But I find a table by a window and sit down in my damp bathing suite and toweling robe. I blink in surprise as a man and woman in Georgian costume walk by on the night cobblestones below me. Apparently Bath is popular for Jane Austen-themed weddings.

I long for my notebook or iPhone so I can make notes, but have to content myself with sipping my glass of house white and watching the other diners. It is quite a surreal experience to be dining in a room full of people wearing white robes and slippers. One bespectacled man has tucked his dark green paper napkin into the neck of his robe. I think of Fellini’s great film 8 1/2, with all its great spa scenes.

My crab cakes with sweet chili sauce and lemongrass salad arrive. Ugh! The sauce and pineapple in the salad are cloyingly sweet and the crab cakes too fishy. I should have ordered the Greek salad in honour of Cleopatra, who was Greek not Egyptian. She would have dined on crocodile steaks and ibis tongues, no doubt.

Another flaw in the Thermae Bath Spa is that you have to go right to the lowest level to shower, then back up a floor to the changing rooms. And the showers demand that you constantly hit their buttons, otherwise they only give you ten seconds of water. Annoying. Chop off somebody’s head. (right: the Pink Panther and Scooby Doo outside the baths... don't ask!)

What would Anthony and Cleopatra think of the Thermae Bath Spa? Well, apart from the absence of oiled Nubian slaves with peacock-feather fans and full immersion pools of goatsmilk (wasn’t it asses’ milk, anyway?) they would have loved the look of the place: the pale Nile-water-coloured cubicles, the light, the glass, the water and the romantic atmosphere. They might have enjoyed a steamy embrace in the frankincense pod and a luxurious couples’ massage in the therapy rooms. But if I were Cleopatra, heads would roll about the following flaws:
1. Too chilly
2. Soggy, clammy terrycloth slippers
3. Foot massage pools malfunction
4. Cloying crab cakes
5. Too many hoi polloi! I want it all to myself!

You can book a treatment at the Thermae Bath Spa by phoning 0844 888 0844, or by visiting their website

And you might enjoy my blog about Ugly Cleopatra.

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans, Greeks or Egyptians as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]