AcquaMadre: Thermal baths are a true taste of La Dolce Vita from Ancient Rome

AcquaMadre began 10 years ago but reflects what thermal baths were like 2,000 years ago.

I am face down on a long bench and incapable of moving a muscle after two steam baths in 113 degrees (45 celsius) with 100 percent humidity. A young woman is fiercely rubbing my back and shoulders with a scratchy mitt. It feels as if I’m being licked by a very amorous dinosaur. The process is called “peeling.” It’s a way to remove dead skin left from steam baths that allegedly jettison toxins and excess water from the body.

I turn over and see the brick archways and ceiling, all eerily lit by red and white candles. The only sound I hear is the peaceful melody of cascading water. If this woman was wearing a toga, I could open my eyes and feel as if I was in Ancient Rome. Maybe in a previous life I was a Roman senator (I turn 60 Tuesday. I’m certainly that age.) relaxing after approving another war. Maybe I was a soldier, washing off the mud and blood after a long march back from a foreign campaign.

I ask myself, Is this how the Ancient Romans lived? It’s a small sampling but yes. This is how Romans bathed, relaxed and socialized 2,000 years ago. I’m in AcquaMadre, a thermal bath in the heart of modern Rome. It is only 10 years old but once you walk past the modern lobby and descend into the soothing pools below, you’re transported into the depths of Roman history.

Two millenniums ago, when Rome was the most powerful empire that would ever exist, these types of baths covered the city. They were called “thermae” or “hammam” and were the direct descendents of our modern spas. Most of the citizenry cleaned themselves in places like this. The wealthy Romans, the landowners, the rulers, the ex-generals, had their own bath houses on their estates. I once took a bike ride up Appia Antica, one of the original roads that led from Rome to the Adriatic Sea. To this day, you can see remains of ancient baths on estates long turned into ruins.

The one thing Ancient Romans knew how to do almost as well as kill people was relax. They turned bathing into an art form. Thermae were not just for the aristocracy. The rank and file were frequent visitors, too. According to Swedish archaeologist Axel Boethius, in the year 354 A.D., there were 952 thermal baths in the city of Rome. The Baths of Diocletian, located just west of the Colosseum, covered the equivalent of many city blocks and could house 3,000 bathers. In its place today is the basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. However, the ruins of the Baths of Caracallas from the 3rd Century AD still remain just southeast of Circus Maximus where I did a jog last Sunday  You can still wander around the towers and pass under similar brick archways I find myself under now.

Some of the baths were highly elaborate. They had food, perfume booths and a reading room. Stages were set up for theatrical performances. Some had palestras for exercise. Slaves worked the baths to provide massages and the kind of rub the woman is giving me. Rome was tagged “La Dolce Vita” well before Gregory Peck came around.

Not to sound like a commercial, but the AcquaMadre experience is very similar to what I’ve learned about bathing rituals in ancient Rome: The different rooms, each increasingly hotter. The opening of the pores. The cooling down. The quietness. The solitude. And the Romans sit around still bitching about the same things: the economy, the government corruption. If someone sat down near me and started grousing about the savage Gauls, I know I would’ve thought I’d stepped into a time machine.

AcquaMadre is located less than a mile from my apartment in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto. I walk past restaurants with menus in Hebrew and apartments with Hebrew letters on the doors. It is here in 1555 when Pope Paul IV sequestered the Jews, who were once turned to slaves after the defeat of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The confinement lasted, off and on, through World War II when on Oct. 18, 1943, on these same windy, narrow streets, 1,270 Jews were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Of those, 839 were murdered in gas chambers.

AcquaMadre is located in the heart of Rome's Jewish Ghetto.
AcquaMadre is located in the heart of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto.

Off the Ghetto’s main drag of Via Portico d’Ottavia, lined with kosher restaurants, I come to a tiny, secluded quiet street and see two modern glass doors framed by a lush green hedge. When I walk in, they hand me a towel, plastic flip flops, a locker key and a red, fingerless glove with a rough, mottled surface. In a tiny, modern locker room, I change into my baggy black gym shorts that double as a swimsuit and walk down a flight of stairs. I’m greeted by the young woman in a big marble room called a tepidarium.

This experience is not the least bit sexual. There is no “happy ending.” The woman in her late 20s is cute but she’s wearing baggy shorts, a T-shirt, her hair in a ponytail and her feet in the ugliest shoes ever invented, Crocs. As I sit on a long marble platform, she dips a copper bowl into a bigger copper bowl and pours soothing warm water down my back. It feels like honey. She then dips her hand into a smaller bowl and rubs a black olive soap all over my back, shoulders and places I can’t reach. She leaves me to my own devise.

The tepidarium.
The tepidarium.

Three other men sit around doing nothing. Two are elderly and obviously too senile to know that after a certain age you should not wear Speedos. I rub myself with the black soap that melts into my opening pores like syrup. I don’t know how clean I am but I smell good enough to eat.

I walk out and into the steam room, called a “calidarium,” where the heat and humidity envelopes me like a toxic cloud. It’s suffocating. I lay my towel on a bench and try to breathe. It’s almost painful. I lay down and the sweat is dripping horizontally down my body. Is this Rome in March or Atlanta in July? The woman told me not to stay in more than five minutes. However, after a couple I start getting into the perspiration. I can’t move but I don’t want to move.

Then I remember a chapter in Rick Reilly’s 2010 book, “Sports From Hell: The World’s Dumbest Sports” in which he writes about Finland’s annual sauna contest. Men gather in skin-torturing temperatures and the last man in wins. A few months after the book was published, a Russian died after five minutes in a sauna heated to … 230 degrees. That’s not a sauna. That’s a backyard barbecue.

I last my five minutes and leave — under my own power — and repeat the process: Sit in the tepidarium, rub myself with black soap, wash myself off with warm water and hop in the steam room again. After losing the fluid equivalent of about two bottles of wine weight, I hop in a cool shower and lie face down for my rub down. I’m not into massages. At all. I’d rather give them than receive them. I don’t do happy endings in Asia. This particular massage, this peeling is different. When I finally open my eyes, my chest is covered with pieces of shredded skin. I look as if I’m covered in toasted coconut.

The frigidarium.
The frigidarium.

I then climb a few steps and pour myself into the cool pool. The frigidarium is heated at 82 degrees. It’s a bit like slipping off the sand into the Caribbean Sea. The pool is about three feet deep, just enough where I can float on my back, look up at the bricked ceiling, listen to the water cascade around me and remember my answer to the parlor game. Yes, if I could live anywhere at any time in history, living in Ancient Rome in about 150 A.D., one of its few periods of peace, would be it. But then, I’d want my own thermae.

The coconut shake at Pascucci.
The coconut shake at Pascucci.

After a shower with all kinds of gels, I retire to a lounge area where I lay back in a rattan lounge chair curved perfectly for my butt and back. A woman serves me black tea with sugar and I start re-gathering my senses. I feel cleaner than I have in a long time. I feel more relaxed than I have in a long time, which is major accomplishment when you’re retired in Rome. I also recall not thinking about anything for the last 90 minutes but my own relaxation.

AcquaMadre has other services.There is a whole series of massages — from oil massages to shea butter massages using a nut from an African tree.There are facial treatments with sugar cane and sandalwood oil. The basic service I took is probably overpriced at 60 euros. I ask why there isn’t a hot Jacuzzi, similar to the ones I experienced in Marianske Lazne, the Czech Republic town with a spa in nearly every hotel. The woman tells me that the cooler bath is meant to close the pores at the end. A Jacuzzi doesn’t do that.

I reluctantly accept the answer. My Jacuzzi is one of the few things I miss about America. I then walk out of the Ghetto and past Torre Argentina near where Julius Caesar was murdered and stop at a little shop called Pascucci. Here I have a fresh coconut shake for 3.30 euros, the perfect Modern Rome nightcap to a day in Ancient Rome.