Or: Going with the Flow
“Oh, dear! This isn’t the right street. We’ve gone too far!”
My main beef with Granada is that for a tourist centred town, they sure don’t put up many street name signs. B, L, and I are dashing, as fast as it is possible to dash in the heat of Southern Spain, to our 10:00 am appointment for the Hammam Al Andalus Arab Baths. The ever present church bells have just tolled the hour and we have arrived, just in time… to the wrong location.
Now we must dash back the way we came and search some more tiny narrow streets for the baths.
The Hammam Al Andalus Baths were built to service the people who lived in the Alhambra, way back when, and it was also one of the first baths to reopen after they were banned in the 16th century. I was expecting something grand, but even when we finally found the right door we weren’t sure it was the right spot. Sure the little sign outside looked the same as the one in the brochure but it was just an ordinary door leading to an ordinary looking building. Could this really be the entrance to the famous baths?
But then we entered. Immediately, things begin to change.
A pleasant woman takes our tickets and not a word, not an eyebrow is raised, at our being a few minutes late. She asks us politely, in English, if this is our first time. Is it that obvious? She points us to the change room and tells us that once inside the baths, Antonio (as I will call him) will explain more.
Oh, dear! I am nervous again. I’ve never been to any formal baths before. What if I don’t do the right thing? What if I accidentally break some unknown Spanish mores?
My first impression? It’s hot in here! Even in the dimly lit change room. How am I ever going to manage two hours of this heat? After our dashing about in the dry heat outside, to be hit by the wave of moist air is astonishing. However, we all bravely change into our swimsuits, put our clothes in the lockers decorated with Moorish designs, and head through the swinging doors, up the narrow passageway into the baths.
Just before we enter, we notice a sign that pictures a person going, “Shhh.” There is no talking in the baths. We all three look at each other. No talking? For two hours? Us?
Inside, it’s dark! I blink and try to see through the steam and dimness but all I see is candlelight. What happened to the building we walked into? This place looks like we are in a cave!
Suddenly, a figure emerges out of the gloom and there is Antonio, asking us (in a bare whisper) again if this is our first time. We really must look like English-speaking deer blinded by the candlelight! L answers and he proceeds to explain the different baths. I hear words like, “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” “tea,” and “important.” However, he is speaking so quietly and in such accented English, I doubt I could have comprehended it all if he were speaking directly in my ear. I do catch, “…but first, showers,” as he points down some marble stairs to an even darker room. Antonio then retreats back into the shadows.
Those stairs are slippery! Like they are filmed with both oil and hot dew. Luckily the handrail is solid and we totter down to the showers without incident. At least we think it is the showers; all we can see are alcoves. I actually walk too far and almost walk into the next room. I get an impression of near naked bodies (both men and women) face down on padded tables, each with someone rubbing their backs. Ah! The massage room! I will store that location for later.
Back in the shower room, I feel a little chirrup of victory as I am the first of us three to figure out that the alcoves are indeed the showers and the almost invisible button is what you press to make the warm rain fall.
L then repeats a lot of what Antonio told her and I ask if there is a special order in which we are supposed to use the baths. Is there a program? No. Not at all. Any order you like. Eventually, Antonio will find us again and tell us it is time for our massages.
So, together we head back up the slope to the baths. We are still a little leery of our place in this alien world of heat, steam, and candlelight so we stick together like three lost souls. First stop is the “warm” pool. This is a lovely deep rectangle full of softly rippling water, large enough to do a few laps, as the only occupant is doing. Columns rise from the water, supporting a wood inlaid ceiling. Have we been transported back to the Alhambra?
As my toe makes its first tentative touch into the water, my knots of tension start to recede. It is lovely and warm, hotter than a heated swimming pool yet cooler than a bathtub. Perhaps because it is water, it cools my skin just enough to sooth my impression of the over-heated air. I can’t wait to immerse myself.
All three of us are now in the water. We can’t talk, but we can share delighted grins. Yes! This is what it’s all about! I dog-paddle to the other end by the three trickling taps whose warm streams bounce on the marble slabs, filling the air with gentle water music. My feet float of their own accord and I lie back, supported by warmth. Suddenly, I am aware of warm droplets sprinkling my cheeks. Rain? No, I realize the taps’ water flow is splashing up a gentle mist. It is like the first drops of a summer shower. The rain-starved Vancouverite in me sighs as I lift my face to the falling water drops. Ah! It is time to lie back and breath in the scented air. Time to praise Allah or God or Mother Nature or Air Transat or what ever Power it is you want to thank for getting you to this place and letting you experience this peace.
At first I thought I would just stay here, in this pool, forever but eventually, with no words, the three of us decided to move on. We try the steam room but the heavy heat and the overly incensed steam are too much for us and we move on. Maybe if we had persevered we would have acclimatized, but to me it wasn’t worth the time. There were too many other areas of the baths to explore.
We try a hot pool. This one is tall and narrow. The walls are covered with Moorish tiles and the decorated marble ceiling boasts slanting, carved windows like skylights at dusk high above us. We really have been transported to the Alhambra! Only to a room where one of the fountains has taken over. The water, surprisingly, is not too hot. It is soothing, muscle melting, and supportive. By now, my eyes are acclimatized to the dimness and, as I lean back, I appreciate the beautiful wall and ceiling designs that rise up around me. I finally have the chance to do what I wanted to do in the Alhambra… to follow a line in the geometric patterns as it flows from a central star, out to another star, bends round a comet shape, out to the the corner and back to the central star but at a different point than before. At least I try to do this, but my eyelids grow heavy.
Slowly, the three of us start to drift apart. I discover a darkened little alcove where the hot water trickles in from a marble trough that comes from an even tinier mysterious alcove in the wall.
From then on, things start to blend together. I try each pool in turn, discovering the beauty in each one. Even the cold one has its glory, although I only dabble my feet in the shockingly chilly water, I find the cool, cave like room around it is the best place to sip and savour the honey sweet mint tea.
Since I don’t have a watch, and since there is no talking, I find time ceases to have meaning and all worries float away. There is no right or wrong here. Being late? It is of no consequence. The trouble I’ve been having with my cell phone? Unimportant. I just slowly drift from one pool to another, from cold to warm to hot, lounging on cool marble or floating in warm water as the spirit moves me.
Eventually, there is Antonio at my elbow, motioning me into the massage room where I wait my turn on a large, heated, octagonal marble stone. The masseuse gives me a choice of four essential oils: lavender, rose, red amber, or pomegranate flower. The latter, with its sweet but sprightly scent is my pick.
Oh! The Massage! This was not a deep tissue, muscle agonizing pounding but the most relaxing of rubs I have ever had. I swear there were times when my lady was using four arms!
Eventually, I was ready to return to the cool room and sip more mint tea. It was there we three met up again, each face alight with bliss.
All good things must come to an end and yet, with the zen-like understanding I had just gained, I knew I was ready to go.
However, I must admit, I moved rather slowly and peacefully the whole rest of the day.
B is going to do some research to see if there are such baths in Vancouver. I hope so. I am ready to go with the flow again!