Saturday, June 1, 2013

Antique


X for Xamam
Located just within Greece are the hamams of Loutra Agistro (Aggistro / Angistron / Angistro / Agistron / Agkistro or simply Άγκιστρο).

Agistro is a small village on the northern flanks of Serres region, with view of Bulgaria. Even though it's hid from the rest of Greece by the Agistro and Orvilos mountains, it's easy to find, not a difficult route at all. Take the last turn off the main motorway from Thessaloniki to Sofia before the border at Promachonas and follow the winding road for about 7 km. In Agistro village itself, take a road right and continue to the end about 500m. 

There you will find the Hotel Xamam.

Byzantine baths
Hotel Xamam is a small rural, but modern hotel (opened in 2007?) built around the sole remaining ancient hamam bath. This bath stakes claim to date from the mid-Byzantine era, around the years 900-1000, making it over a thousand years old.

The recent reconstructed hotel has expanded and updated on the Byzantine baths theme. 

Using the original spring and adding several dome like structures there are now 7 or 8 hamams, each containing a 4 by 4 meter bath complete with hot water fountains. 
The newer domes themselves imitate their ancient ancestor in maintaining atmosphere with high temperature and high humidity; the ceiling of the dome contains a few open spaces for air to escape and light to come in.

Despite the absence of naturalness, a half hour soak (5€) is great to unwind. The baths are clean and contain a changing room / toilet. 
The baths are supplied by gushing water from two spouts, great for massage. Really wonderful.

Four by four meters, but five star ambiance

Besides the hamam baths and normal hotel facilities, Xamam hotel (& spa) also offers a real (Scandinavian) sauna and massage services.

Turkish
It's typical when thinking of a hamam to think of Turkish baths with their distinctive layout of various cooling and heating spaces. However the tradition of the hamam pre-dates the Ottoman empire and has it's roots in the Byzantine era when the then rulers successfully maintained the Roman traditions of bathing alive by creating and evolving their own type of bath houses. 

In reality there are actually not many hamams with original hot water sources. And bath tubs are certainly not integral to what we now understand as a Turkish hamam. However there a few hot springs in this part of Greece, here in Agistro and in Thermes (Xanthi) which claim both to be a hamam and have a hot spring as source. 
Also the tell-tale sign of domed roofs which are an essential part of the Turkish bath process of keeping the steam condensation in, are thus traced to the Byzantine era. 
For more info on Hamam's and their history seek out the excellent pages by cyberbohemia or just wikipedia.

Shadows
The hotel website itself adds (in Greek) quite a lot on the local village and it's historic ups and downs. 

Tripadvisor though, is not so positive on the hotel ... 3 stars out of 5, but only based on 1 stay. Possibly not the best place to stay overnight. But to bathe I would  5 stars!

Hotel Xamam should not be confused with Pararaia Hotel, also in Agristo. It's web site adds (in English): 
'Agistro has a natural hot water spring, with a stone-built Byzantine bath dating back to 950 A.D. Water temperature is 38°C (100°F) and each of the eight spa baths available is rented for half hour sessions to couples, families and groups. Dense vapour, reflections and shadows are the stepping stones to a watery world.
The atmosphere is dreamy, mystical, transcendental. Serenity, relief, relaxation, revitalisation a newfound body sensation as you immerse gradually into the warm comfort of the 38° C water. Reconcilement and total identification with nature, transcending material existence. Savour it all by yourself, as a couple or in the company of friends, any hour of the day. Experience the sense of peacefulness and relaxation provided by the thermal spa and its therapeutic mineral water'.

The original hamam adjacent to the new building.

This website adds:
'Initially built in 950 and later modified by the Ottomans, the Agistro hamam was recently restored and has since acquired considerable fame among spa connoisseurs'.
An experience blogged by Rice, beans and pistachio:
'We got undressed and opened the door to the bath and steam rolled out the door. The room was lit only by a blue light. The water was gushing from 2 separate spouts out of the wall into the bath. It was absolutely a dream. We got into the bath and the water was so warm I was relaxed almost instantly. I could feel the minerals in the warm water soothing my aches away'.
More photo's here.

On a minor note, the warm water also helps a local trout farm (source).

Thermalgreece.com is a commercial company which does the following:
'Thermal Greece has been established to offer health and healing holidays in selected natural hot springs and spas across Greece'. 
Amongst it's offerings are the baths / hamams of Agistro:
'Agistron natural thermal spring is situated in a beautiful mountainous area in Macedonia, north Greece. In antiquity, the greater area of the spring has been famous for iron and gold mining. The spring first became known during the age of Alexander the Great, (356 – 323 BC). Since then it has remained in use, with an interruption only during the second Wold War, when the village was almost completely destroyed. Until today, the steam (Hamam) building and the tower of the village, constructed in Agistron during the Byzantine times in 950 AC, remain intact and serve as cultural land mark monuments of the spring’s region.
...
Agistron hot spring ιs considered to be among the best in Europe and the underground water at 40.5°C is ideal for many disorders. Among them, rheumatism, arthritis, displaced spinal disc and muscle pain. The water contains sodium, calcium, potassium, sulphuric acid, hydrogen carbonate and iron. It is characterized as oligometallic and hypotonic therapeutic thermal water'. 
Then follows a chemical analysis of the waters. Costs are nearly 700€ for a 7-day stay, hotel full board.

What else is hot?
Besides visits over the border to Bulgaria and hikes up the surrounding mountains, the main attraction in this area is the Kerkini Lake which shimmers in the heat and reflects the surrounding mountains. Kerkini Lake is home to huge amounts of breeding bird life, in particular the Dalmatian pelican.  

Access to the bird colonies goes via the village of Kerkini in the northeast corner of the lake. For 7,50€ one is taken by boat across the lake to a flooded plain with trees brimming with nests. And a number of platforms for the top cats of the reservation, the pelicans.

 Nesting Dalmatian pelicans

Located between Kerkini and Agistro is another hot spring; that of Sidorokastro:
'The Sidirokastro Hot Springs have a temperature of 45°. They are just outside the town to the north, near the Strymonas River railway-bridge, on a hill that offers panoramic views of the area. Thousands of people go to these hot springs every year, both for recreation or therapy, especially since the recent renovation of the area's tourist facilities' (Wikipedia). 

The hotel (& spa) website adds:
'Spa resort has been well-known since the ages of Byzantium. Elvia Chelebi, a famous traveler witnessed them been used in 1667, when Turkey ruled the area and 19 years later they are honored by Nicolas Shoinas (in its work "Traveling Notes") for their sanitarian benefits'.
Still within Serres region, but much closer to Thessaloniki are the hot springs of Therma, Nigrita. What's more?
'The Nigrita Thermal Springs are known throughout Greece for their mineral water, which is bottled locally and sold nationally, and the springs themselves are believed to ease gastrointestinal ailments'.
There is also a mention of Megali Vrisi hot springs in the neighbouring region Kiklis (to the north of Kiklis town, which itself is just north of Thessaloniki). 

Nearby this hot spring is a different kind of hydro-therapy, Lake Pikrolimini, just south of Kiklis  town: 
'It is estimated that treatment based on sulfur mud that comes from the neighboring Pikrolimni. It is also said that Alexander the Great brought his army here in the course of baths in the East.
This is the only salt lake in Greece. The peculiarity of this lake is that both the clay and the water, contain valuable minerals and trace minerals with significant therapeutic and rejuvenating properties due to sulphates and nitrates of clay found in the lake bottom'. (source)
If only I had known ...

Euro soaks visited