I love Rome. I really do. I love Rome because it’s Rome, and also because, as a native Chicagoan who now lives in the bucolic Umbrian countryside, I sometimes miss the chaotic land of my youth with its noisy bustle, friendly gesticulating populace, simple stick-to-your-ribs food, and vibrant music and arts scene. Which is why I often hop a train to Italy’s capital — in many ways so much like “the City of Big Shoulders” — to soak up some urban life for a day or two.
That said, even when you are looking for bustle it can get a bit overwhelming at times. So when I need a respite after a day of touring, eating, walking, shopping, and general cosmopolitan living, I pop into my favorite secret haven in Rome: Acquamadre Hammam. Tucked away in the old Jewish Ghetto, just steps from the charming Turtle Fountain (Fontana delle Tartarughe) in Piazza Mattei, this Turkish bath has been built into a series of antique vaulted brick underground chambers and the ground level winter garden of the palazzo it occupies. As soon as you step through the door, you feel your muscles begin to relax as the soft sound of running water, the light scent of incense, and the low lighting make it seem as if you have been suddenly transported a universe away from the frenzy of Rome.
The friendly receptionist gives you your kit with slippers and exfoliating glove and guides you to the changing rooms, where you can either choose to don a bathing suit (if you didn’t tuck one in your suitcase, they have them on sale at the reception desk for 10 to 15€) or, if you are there on a women-only Wednesday or Friday, simply wrap yourself in one of their big, soft towels (I have done both, and been there on both women-only and mixed days. Ladies, rest assured, there is no creepiness. And I have a very low creep threshold.) and head downstairs to the tepidarium.
There, after a hot shower, you relax on a low heated marble bench, slowly pour bowls of warm water over yourself, and languidly rub yourself down from your own little dish of creamy olive oil soap. If you are there by yourself, the slow rhythm becomes almost meditative. If you are there with a friend, some great girl talk goes down. This, I know.
When you are ready, you head to the next room where the calidarium awaits you with its oven-like temperature and tropical humidity. In this intense steam bath, you feel your pores open with the heat, your bronchial tubes open with the eucalyptus steam, and your mind open with the sensation of sweating out every last bit of toxins, stress, and smog that Rome — or life in general — has thrown at you. I find slowly pouring cool water over my legs and feet while in the calidarium prolongs the time I am able to stand the 45 degrees Celsius.
This tepidarium/calidarium cycle can be repeated for as long as you like (I usually repeat it twice or three times, depending on how much time I have). Next, you are led to one of the massage tables, where the staff scrubs you down with your exfoliating glove (I love this vigorous massage which leaves my skin amazingly soft) and then on to the frigidarium — a cool jetted pool with a small waterfall. This last soak gets the blood flowing again and tones your muscles and skin.
Finally, you climb the stairs to the winter garden where you can spend as much time as you like relaxing in their reclining chairs and sipping herbal tea. Bring a book, and make the most of it!
A full cycle lasts about two hours, though if you request one of their extra services (the hammam offers special massages, body and facial treatments, and packages) you will be there longer. It’s a good idea to book ahead, which can be done by phone or in person (English is spoken). For more information, hours, and prices, take a look at their very informative website at www.acquamadre.it.
P.S. – When I come out of the hammam, I like to immediately restock my depleted toxin count by partaking in one of the most delectable dishes Rome has to offer which, as luck would have it, is indigenous to the Jewish Ghetto: carciofi alla giudea (Whole fried artichokes. With salt. This is how we justify trips to the hammam, my friends.) Sure, the hammam is for the soul, but one also needs nourishment for the body! Walk a block to Via del Portico d’Ottavia, where the Rome’s historical kosher restaurants will send you right back to bliss.
— Rebecca Winke