Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Suffered modifications


Die Hard
Traditions die hard. And Europe's love to it's thermal bathing traditions are no exception. 

In spite of the world moving on, many of Europe''s hot springs remain stuck into enclaves of pre-WW II practices of being enticed by the waters. Appealing to citizens with time on their hands, a hot spring resort in Europe seeks to entertain soakers by offering a plethora of water based activities overlaid with medical thoughtfulness. And the thermal establishment will determine what you will get. And did you know that the waters are natural? Because they are, even though we have built, rebuilt and redecorated everything such, that naturalness is not something we connect with thermal bathing ...

Steeped in traditions such as Calvinism and Catholicism, actual enjoying while soaking in Europe seems to be an afterthought. Appealing to the new generations, which are a slightly more hedonistic and in for new experiences, is totally dismissed.

Caldes de Montbui, located just outside of Catalunya's capital of Barcelona, (north-east Spain) seems to be world's away from that magnet of everything hip, happy and hopeful, Barcelona itself. Spend a day in Barcelona you will be touched by its' diversity, its' youth, its' connection to the past and its' positivism. 
Built with cement, Barcelona combines a vibrancy which is evoked in it's football, architecture, avant-garde art, sports and cuisine to name a few. 
It manages to combine a non-descript natural setting into a home for the lotus eater. Just take a look at its' beaches, late afternoon, where everyone (with exception of the traditional tourist, still caught up in a spiritual fervour to stand in line at one of the paid attractions) can be them-self: an individual.

But Caldes is none of this.

Located only 30 km's from La Rambla, there's precious little evidence to link it to that metropole. Even the bus ride out to Caldes takes near to an hour, adding to the air of distance. 

The town of Caldes de Montbui is essentially a small village which caters to many professionals of the outer Barcelona suburbs. 
With the exception that it is steeped in history and is still seeking to run this same gambit. 
Gone are the Romans which set up store in Caldes to take advantage of the thermal waters. 
But where will the new tourists come from? The search continues ...

The use of the thermae of Caldes de Montbui dates back long ago, even to before the Romans arrived. But at least the Romans put in an effort to construct something lasting. Even today these can still be evidenced (they are the best kept Roman thermae on the Iberian peninsula), but a fence around the ruins precludes further exploration. 
Behind the fence one can witness a large (but empty) pool, an arched roof and off to the side further rooms (?). This was the hottest part of the thermae (caldarium) and excavation has revealed that what remains was just a small part of what once existed.

The main square of Caldes de Montbui: straight ahead are the renovated ruins of the Roman thermae, adjacent to the left is the museum. Right the Boquetas spa hotel.

Inspired by their remains (and supposedly some hefty sums of subsidy), a small museum has popped up next door, aptly named Museu Thermalia. Inside are located the local tourism office, a number of local products for sale as well as a two story exhibition on Caldes' thermal past and a floor devoted to Picasso insider and sculptor Manolo Hugué who lived in Caldes de Montbui for 17 years, where he also died.

The exhibition on the thermal past includes a number of scenes set to re-create of what is believed to be the living past. Below are a number of plates from the exhibit which give a better overview of what the place would have looked like and show the womens (?) sudatorium (vaulted steam room, top left; did they have separate bathing facilities?), individual baths (top right), the gymnasium (bottom left) and the apodyterium (entrance) supposedly in use (bottom right).

Contemplating afterwards, to me, the museum is quite interesting. 
But I've seen this before in Spain at the Termas de Bande: museum and all, but no other visitors besides myself? Is it just a chicken and egg situation? Or not?

Directly opposite the museum and the adjacent Roman thermae is the Font del Lleó (Lion fountain). This spring gushes forth very hot (74º C) water. Built in 1581 and renovated later in 1822 (source) the current set up dates from 1927.

The lion gushing forth.

Behind the museum lie some medieval walls as well as some left-overs of what look like watermills, dating back to the 1500's. The subsidy programme has afforded to construct a walkway along the banks of the small Boquetas stream, culminating in a washing place, otherwise known in Catalan as safareig (which literally translates into English as laundry room).

Safareig or their equivalent in Spanish, lavadero publico (see above), are phonomena found in and around the Pyrénées and the rest of Spain. Water streams are diverted into tubs with big washing stones adjacent. 
Though a safareig could also refer to larger water reservoirs.

In Caldes, the Safareig de la Portalera, one of the two remaining reservoirs (the other the Safareig de la Canaleta), is a long pool, approximately 10 meters by 2,5 meters wide. All around this is a ledge made to assist in the washing process. 
Typical of the nineteenth century (source), the safareig was restored just a few years ago (source) a feature which got highlighted on national television. Sourced from the aforementioned Font del Lleó, it means that the temperature of this bassin is still quite high. This source also mentions that the waters are refreshed daily.

Somewhere in the past this safareig was heavily used, but not anymore. 

A different kind of use can by found from the Catalan Way blog. It describes a visit to Caldes de Montbui. During the visit there is also an art performance in the Safareig de la Portalera itself. On it's past use, the blogger mentions the following:
'This performance took place in a Safareig - a communal wash house that uses the natural hot water and has a large central stone tub where women used to come to wash their laundry and talk. There is a Catala phrase 'fer un safareig' which means to gossip - a word that in English has some negative associations but which I think also describes a vital and caring way of passing on news about your friends aquaintances and family. Womens communications - so many words that are pejorative - nagging, bitching, gossiping....
This town now also has a large community of people from Mali and some of these women have begun to use the Safareig as a meeting place and for washing clothes again. There are three Safareigs in Caldes and one of them seemed derelict and sad although as part of the project it was being used as a grafitti house where you could write your desires on the walls.
At the end of the performances people were invited to have a hot bath in the tub - I dangled in my feet and legs but wasn't tempted to plunge in when it started to fill up with hot steamy bodies'. 
Safareig de la Portalera

Well, there were no steamy bodies other than the steamy body of water. An elder man did emerge from a garden nearby to collect a can full of water. But no evidence of anyone doing their washing here. The pristine surroundings would suggest that a plunge is not entirely a common practice.

There are quite a few video's available on the subject of Caldes' safareigs, such as this one: 

Time to retire
We wandered back to the village square past the Termes Victoria. It's website adds to our growing knowledge on Caldes:
'Water comes out at a temperature of 74ºC, the highest in the Iberian Peninsula, but the most important thing in the mineral medicinal water is the minerals it has. In our case, the waters contain sodium chloride and fluorides. These kinds of waters are best for stress therapies, fracture recovery, rheumatism, degenerative osteoarthritis or arthritis'.
On history of the Termes:
'The origins of the Hotel Termes Victòria go back to the 17th century, although no one knows exactly when it was built. Initially, it took up several medieval buildings and even part of the old walls. Throughout the years it has suffered many different architectural modifications, but it preserves original elements such as the vault of the baths, from the 18th century.
Despite its modern facilities, the hotel is still run familiarly, since the 1850s, by the family Anglí-Palaudarias.
The Hotel Termes Victoria has maintained a selected and loyal group of guests. From King Alfonso XII to painters and writers in search of peace and tranquility for their inspiration. It has also been an ideal place for the meeting of teams such as Ladislao Kubala’s FC Barcelona. He loved thermal treatments'.
What we don't gleam from the above is that in it's heyday there were no less than 8 facilities available for thermal treatments in Caldes de Montbui. Now however, this has dwindled to three: the above and two other places both part of the Boquetas group. Which in fact comprises just those two.

The Vila de Caldes hotel seems quite a flash place and the prime part of the Broquetas group. Located away from the old town square visitors, the hotel web site fails to provide much other info, than that a room price and some vague references to thermal treatments. Hotel booking site gives this it a  7.1, in comparison to Victoria's 7.7. Both on the negatives as well as on the positives there is little between the two. Do note Victoria's guest Vincent's negative:
'Guests very old felt more like a retirement home than hotel'
I doubt the other thermal venues would be any better. Bathing in thermal waters is apparently something of earlier generations ... Europe-wide!?

Tripadvisor also puts Victoria ahead of the other two, 4 stars. But do note this visitor, msr38 comments:
'Another negative is that the average age does not fall below 80 years, which makes the services offered by the hotel are only aimed at this sector of the population'.
Tripadvisor does note a huge difference, giving Vila de Caldes just two stars ....

If only we had known the following on forehand, we might have never tried out the Broquetas hotel spa. Tripadvisor hands out 3 stars, there being a mention or two of geriatric clientèle / staff .... comes to an mediocre average of 7.3.

View of the town square looking onto the Boquetas spa hotel.

Balneoario de Boquetas looks a little less smart than the Victoria and we saunter inside. The receptionist is busy on the phone and decides then and there that we must be soakers and points out that we must go around the back of her office.

Behind her office is another desk, that of the bathing receptionist, who also manages some English. She explains that in spite of some of the bathing possibilities on offer being over the 20€, the going tariff today is two treatments for 16€.  Even that is quite steep, but who knows there are also personal touches making it well worth the hand-out. Our number one choice is of course a thermal bath (they have no pool?), number two is less clear. After a lot of consideration by us and the bathing hostess, we all settle on the high pressure water massage.
Everything is added up (use of bath robes are free, but we need to pay for slippers) we are then directed to return to hotel receptionist to settle the outstanding amount. She is still busy on the phone and after I hand her a note of 50€ I neatly receive 50€ in return but in notes of smaller denomination. Bathing receptionist lady sighs and settles the payment herself.

The formalities out of the way, we are directed to two small changing facilities, down a hall, down another hall and there we are. The main hall is apparently Catalan modernist and looks very nice, but also dated. But who knows when something is dated and when it returns in vogue?
Anyway, after changing in the barely enough space for 1 person changing rooms, we are directed to a door on the side of the long hall. Behind the door lies an L-shaped pool, approximately 4 by 4m. We are allowed the privacy of our private bath, bathing lady turns on a switch which will mean that we will have 20 minutes of jets and fountains in which to soak. Instructions are to report back in the hall afterwards.

Not quite the Roman sized bathing pool: what you see is what you get.

After the 20 minute soak we report back in the hallway and we are afforded entrance to the water massage room. The 5m long room has a chair on the door side, a contraption resembling a fixed fire hose and on the far side are two aluminium brackets, a meter high. An explanation follows: the volunteer is put up against the wall and bathing lady fires water thereby simulating a massage experience. At set intervals one is told to turn, so in the end one is blasted from all sides.
'Naked or not?'
Up to ourselves, which is both a relief and a concern. The answer lies in the lead photo ...

Anyway in the end it is quite relaxing having a high pressure massage, something different at least. I note that this kind of therapy is quite common in some less up to date centers of wellness. Think Eastern Europe.

The hotel web site adds some info on the past:
'The activity of Broquetas Spa began in 1729 when its founder, Salvador Broquetas, built the first bath house where the current spa is located, giving it his name.
The first still-standing reconstruction is from 1770, when the initial spa was enlarged after acquiring the Can Vincenç hostel. 
Initially the spa was a building with three floors that towards the end of two centuries of existence it had once again been enlarged in order to include even a private park for our clients.
The predominantly modernist style harmoniously melds with the more heterogeneous areas that resulted in successive transformations'. 
The web site Balnecat adds:
'In 1729 Salvador Broquetas built the first bathhouse in the current spa called Spa Broquetas since then. The modernist building has some areas of great architectural value and is part of the overall architectural monument protected in Caldes de Montbui.
Inside, there are many elements that betray the influence modernist (scales, the Hall gallery bathrooms and balconies), with a spectacular mix of stained glass, lamps and marquetry. Sculptures, tapestries, paintings, and especially one of the largest collections of owls known, the most generous of Spain, are other interesting elements that can be found'
In total the fun has lasted an hour, it's time to find out where the changing rooms were, dress, admire the owls (?) and get ourselves a lunch.

And lunches in Caldes de Montbui turn out to be surprisingly easy and tasty. Back to return to Barcelona!

All-in-all, Caldes is a nice break and quite interesting in itself. Don't however come here with a thermal treat in mind. You might just be disappointed. It seems that the bathing facilities are yet to catch up with the 21st century, both in ambiance and in service. 

Having bathed in hot springs on 3 continents, I still fail to see why thermal baths are required to be small cubby holes and I have some questions on the pureness of the water, it certainly wasn't filled why we were waiting ... 

Probably for too long, thermal retreats have been able to make ends meet by focussing on an ageing clientèle. Not so any more. From many of the remarks in the reviews I noticed that the reviewers were young and were out of sync with what was on offer.

Getting to Caldes de Montbui is not too much of a trouble, the Sagalés bus company drives there half hourly from Barcelona's Fabra i Puig bus station, the journey taking up to an hour.

On youtube I found an overview of the sources and safareigs:

Inside the thermae 

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