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The Axis of Relaxation

By: Bryan Durocher
Posted: July 23, 2008, from the August 2008 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

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.

Moving north, since its reunification in 1990, Berlin has risen like a phoenix from the ashes, evolving into a dynamic, sexy, creative city with much to experience, including world-class clubs, opera, theater, shopping and dining. Ultra-modern and immaculate, the city’s only graffiti that is sanctioned is found on the Berlin Wall monument, and the high-tech, sleek, fashion-forward German metropolis is truly one of the most astonishing examples of reinvention in modern times. How, I wondered, would this trendsetting European city interpret spa?

Focused, flawless and golden

My first stop was Berlin, where I settled into The Ritz-Carlton at Potsdamer Platz. Adjacent to the iconic Sony European headquarters, this Ritz-Carlton offers a traditional counterpoint to the glass-and-steel Sony building with its Art Deco style of architecture. The Potsdamer Platz section of Berlin is also a popular tourist destination, a commercial and entertainment hub that is easily accessed by underground and surface railways.