Detailed review by fizzytom
Gateshead, United Kingdom
The legacy of the Moors in Spain is a subject that really interests me so, when researching things to see in readiness for a visit to Girona, the Arab Baths (in Catalan they are known as El Banys Arabs) caught my attention. I learned that the baths are not operational but are really the remains of a bath house; still, with my interest in things Islamic, I made a mental note to add the attraction to my itinerary.
The baths are situated in Girona’s old town in the shadow of the wonderful church of St. Felix. They are pretty well sign-posted so shouldn’t be too difficult to find. Just inside the modest arched entrance there is a ticket booth; we paid just €2 each and were given a leaflet which, on closer inspection, turned out to be nothing more than a series of photographs of what we were about to see. You are free to wander around the baths at your leisure, though the appropriateness of the word ‘leisure’ in this instance is moot. In fact, the most leisurely pursuit open to you will be reassuring your fellow travellers that at least you paid only €2 each for the experience.
Now for the shocker: the baths are not Arab at all. They are actually Romanesque, having been built at the end of the twelfth century. They were given the epithet Arab because they were built in the Arabesque style which was popular at the time; the bathing process carried out in this series of chambers was very much the Roman variety. There was virtually no information inside the various sections of the baths to explain what went on in each room; however if you paid attention at school you should remember something of the Roman bathing process. Fortunately, Mr Fizzytom and I being Geordies, we spent many hours at school studying the Romans and their habits, ablutionary and otherwise, and visiting piles of Roman rubble in rural Northumberland; ‘tis the educational law for north eastern school children.
These baths were damaged during the thirteenth century siege if Girona and then closed in the fifteenth century. During the sixteenth century the complex became part of a Capucin convent (monks, not monkeys!) and finally in the 1920s, the municipality of Girona bought them and restored them to what you see today.
The first chamber is the 'apodyterium' which was the entrance and changing area. You can see the cubicles built into the wall; in the centre there is a small fountain and above in the roof there are little openings which admit shafts of light and make the chamber look very atmospheric. Having visited a traditional (and rather ancient) Turkish bath complex, I could see, even with the condition of the baths today, why they got the name Arab.
The next room is the 'frigidarium' as the name suggests, the cold room; however, this is at odds with the Roman bathing process as I learned it, but I can only go with the labels the rooms were given. After a good steaming in the warm and hot rooms to open the pores and be scraped clean, the bathers would make their way into the cold room to cool down and have the pores closed.
This led to the 'tepidarium or the warm room and, after that, the 'caldarium', the hot room. In this room we were able to see the remains of part of the hypocaust, the underfloor heating system which would have created the heat in what would have been an exceptionally hot room (be warned, Russian sauna enthusiasts!). Here there would have been a large bath and also a flat area lounging while one worked up a good sweat before being washed with olive oil and scraped by some poor slave with a 'strigil'.
Outside, accessed by a metal staircase, we were able to see the remains of the furnace. I have to say, however, that the view over the roof tops of old Girona was infinitely more compelling.
So there you have it; short and sweet, just like our visit. Not the most exciting place I have ever visited, but moderately interesting and rather atmospheric. Would a guided visit have been more helpful? I don’t think so: I’m au fait with the bathing habits of Romans and knew what was in front of me. For the price I couldn’t complain and it was a fair enough diversion for twenty minutes or so. Children studying the Romans at school may be interested to see the baths but would probably need a few prompts to make sense of it. Not suitable for people with mobility problems, the floors are quite uneven and there are quite a few steps.