For my most recent European trip aimed at studying and experiencing international spa trends, I decided to devise an exercise in contrasts. To that end, I chose to visit two diverse places: the Eternal City of Rome, with its opulence, timeless attractions and long-lived traditions; and Berlin, a hip, thriving European capital that emerged from the Cold War with vigor and has been on an energetic trajectory ever since.
Rome, I reasoned, is where spa began. Romans were enjoying communal bathing, or balneum, as early as the second century B.C., and Roman thermaes were eventually constructed throughout the entire empire, which extended from England to Africa, and evolved into central entertainment complexes offering sports, restaurants and various types of baths.
In ancient Rome, according to spa expert Mikkel Aaland, a typical routine might begin with a workout in the palestra, followed by a visit to three progressively warmer rooms. The first would be the tepidarium, where the bather was anointed with oils; the next would be the smaller caldarium, with its choices of hot or cold water; and the final room would be the steamy laconicum, featuring massage and an early form of exfoliation performed with a curved metal tool. The ritual concluded with a cool dip in the pool of the frigidarium. And with that background, so steeped in history, I wondered how today’s Roman spa experience would compare.