Spa talk Hammams - vaulted, marbled steam bathhouses - date back to the Romans and they really are the business.
Sweating out your troubles
My life's been rather hectic for the past six months, and when I'm not in the mood for my daily walk, I go and sweat out my stress in a steam room. My local is of the practical, uninspiring variety - just a box with plastic seats, really, none of your mosaic tiles, eucalyptus infusions or fibre-optic lights that change colour in the ceiling. But when it comes to keeping me sane, sustained sweating is up there alongside cups of green tea and yoga sessions, and I can't always be fussy. After 30 minutes, I exfoliate in the shower, rinse with water as cold as I can bear and emerge feeling practically human again.
A good long sweat helps boost the skin's natural cleansing processes, getting rid of dead cells and the unwanted toxins in our system. Like any detox, it also calms busy heads and clears negative minds. There's a sense of ritual to it - go in dirty, aching, angry and indecisive; emerge clean, soothed and a tad more in control. My husband loves the sauna, but I need wet heat, and the most effective place I've found to get it is in a hammam. These vaulted, marbled steam bathhouses date back to the Romans and Byzantines and they really are the business.
My first experience of a public hammam was with my friend Vanessa, who was living at the time in Istanbul. She took me to a tucked-away little outfit where she would often go with friends to sweat and chat. After heating up nicely in the sicaklik (hot room), I lay on a toasty stone slab for my treatment with a strong-handed, smiling masseuse. The soap was a 100 per cent natural black cleansing bar that doesn't lather, but instead turns to a cream as soon as you add warm water. It cleanses and hydrates the skin and helps to strengthen hair.
After a 10-minute rest I got the mitt treatment, watching through the steam as tiny rolls of dead skin were stripped away. My masseuse, still smiling, then chucked buckets of ice cold water over my head continually for a good five minutes. This felt just as great - if you've got hot enough in the steam, you'll find it a welcome refreshment rather than a feat of endurance. The whole process had the effect of a chemical peel without the chemicals, and later, in the sogukluk (cool room), my skin felt as soft as a banana smoothie, my mind as sweet.
After that visit, I graduated to the hammams in hotels and resorts, which are always smaller, more sweet-smelling, and 100 times the price. Vanessa treated me to a luxurious sea salt and olive oil version of the traditional scrub at the Kempinski Hotel in Bodrum, where the Six Senses spa has two beautiful hammams with skylights. Chiva Som in Thailand has a giant hammam I rather like, and no hotel I've been to in Morocco has ever failed me. The back-to-basics, romantic Kasbah du Toubkal, perched above the village of Imlil, has a rough and ready hammam that uses rubber tyres as water buckets, with the coldest plunge pool I've ever teeth-clenched my way into. The most delicious, however, was at the exquisitely designed Riad El Fenn in Marrakech, where after my scrub, an attentive therapist split an orange in half and squeezed its juice over me, then poured a stream of delicious-smelling rosewater from an elegant jar all over my head and face.
So far, so good. Sipping sweet mint tea afterwards, sitting beside a pomegranate tree, I vowed never to return to my soggy-smelling steam room and pathetic excuse for an exfoliating mitt. Alas, the power of the sweat always gets the better of me. Next time I get really stressed, I'm going to head to Siwa in Egypt, where for more than 400 years, locals have been experiencing the hammam ramal, burying themselves neck-high in desert sand to sweat out their ailments. That should sort it.
Caroline Sylger-Jones is the author of Body & Soul Escapes, a travel resource book of over 450 places around the globe where you can replenish mind, body and soul. See www.carolinesylge.com.