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Roman bathhouse ritual in New York

Roman bathhouse ritual in New York

There’s a lot to love about New York, but winter doesn’t make the list. After a week spent exploring the city’s boroughs in subzero temperatures, my skin began to resemble a dead leaf. It was time for some serious pampering.

There are plenty of day spas and even a couple of bathhouses across New York, but none is as pretty as the freshly minted Aire Ancient Baths, an import from Grupo Aire and the company’s first venture outside Spain. In a one-time textile factory dating back to 1883, the refurbished Tribeca space is warm and inviting at street level: dark wood, the aroma of lavender, candles. But it’s what lies beneath that I’ve come for.

The building’s cavernous stone-and-wood basement has been transformed into a bathhouse taking its inspiration from the ancient Ottoman, Roman and Greek bathing rituals. Back in the 5th century BC, washing was a social affair, and large groups would gather to gossip between their dips in the tepidarium (warm-water pool), caldarium (hot-water pool), lanconicum (steam room) and finally the bracing frigidarium (cold-water pool).

I’m encouraged to do the same at Aire, although in a much more exclusive setting: only 20 people are permitted in the bathhouse for each 90-minute bathing session, and talking – even in hushed tones – is frowned on.

In fact, the only sounds are the jangly notes of the ambient music, the rush of air into the hammam-like steam room with its aromas of mint and eucalyptus, and the tinkling of water over the edge of Aire’s six baths, carved from marble and ringed by Moroccan lanterns.

Each bath is heated to a different temperature, from a brain-numbing 8 degrees to a scorching 39 degrees. One comes with 350 water jets and another is filled with salt water, inspired by the flotation properties of the Dead Sea. I could spend the entire session here, drifting around the pool and enjoying the piped underwater music. But a tractatores (masseuse) is on standby for the second part of Aire’s experience.

Lobster-pink bodies line up in a glass-walled spa suite where petite-but-powerful massage therapists offer treatments lasting from 15 minutes to an hour. Those looking for a more intimate experience can book one of the wine-themed rituals in a private room: the red-wine and cava therapies have you soaking in a bath of each antioxidant-rich beverage before enjoying a four-hand massage incorporating, perhaps, pindas (heated herbal compress) or organic olive oil.

And if you are lucky enough to book in on a Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, you can elevate the experience even further with a complimentary yoga session (every Thursday and Friday morning) and live flamenco music (Tuesday and Friday evenings).

When you have all this to look forward to, suddenly winter doesn’t seem so bleak any more.

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