From rags to The Ritz: a European spa blitz

By Deborah Mangum-Copelli

You step back to circa 1741 Istanbul, Turkey upon entering the Marble Dome of Cagaloglu Baths, aka The Hamam, for a truly memorable “spa” experience! I don’t mean a relaxing, nurturing, de-stress session with a vegan Tai Chi-practicing therapist nurturing you from head to toe. But head-to-toe treatment you surely will get – and a scrubbing you will never forget. Doing my web research prior to my visit scantly prepared me for what I was to behold. Even Harbin Hot Springs, Napa Valley, California, circa 1975, enjoying the clothing-optional Watsu (water shiatsu massage) doesn’t hold a candle. Did I say scantly prepared? Perhaps a gross understatement.

The only comfort I felt was that of knowing I was not alone, but amongst other tourists, and that the likes of Cameron Diaz had supposedly also survived this ancient hot steamy, slippery lathering and splashing ritual. And all while wearing small slick wooden flip flops that had obviously been preserved from the Ottoman period just so Western guests could partake of an authentic experience.

After entering, the gate-keeper happily took my “special” tourist’s fee for the traditional lathering massage – performed naked, at centre-stage of the communal hot marble plinth, with a rag-like mitt called a “kese”. (Oh, and did I mention my female masseuse was also dis-robed?). I was given the option of having my own kese; which would be used for my soapy scrub or my masseuse could use the communal one… I don’t think so! This kese scrubbing mitt-rag was of utmost importance to the hamam ritual as they were sold at The Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, on the street and in the shops. Perhaps owning one or being seen purchasing one meant you were extra clean and still frequented the hamam.

While all us girls sat around the periphery of this ancient steamy dome inconspicuously perving on the poor helpless, naked tourist being soaped, scrubbed, pummelled, massaged, rolled, slip-slided and vigorously schlepped around, we were preparing ourselves for the inevitable by cold dousing from head to toe while sitting upon hot marble benches. It was a sight to behold! My masseuse told me I needed to douse at least 20 times before I was to go to centre-stage for my plinth ritual. I lost count after ten or so dousings, but it seemed the masseuse had disappeared for over 20 minutes so I had to “fetch and find” her as part of my experience in those comfy short, splintery wooden thongs; something most probably not covered in the traditional regime. So there was my 20 minutes of centre-stage and Hamam fame!

Home Hamam Spa Recipe: Heat up your largest marble-floored bathroom to 45 degrees, jump in the hot shower with your kitchen tea towel, grab the soapiest bar of soap you can find, turn off the water after the room is so steamy it’s like a dense fog, and soap yourself from head to toe, hair and all. Then take your tea towel and scrub-a-dub-dub. Keep lathering up and scrubbing vigorously until your skin turns crimson. Then get out of the shower all soapy and slippery and lie on your hot marble bathroom floor and wait until a 100-plus kilo naked woman comes in to massage your slippery soapy bod from head to toe. If you’ve had any knee or joint injuries that’s too bad but when you turn over you’ll be reminded of just how painful those were. Now turn over again so she can massage the front of your body; don’t be shy, but be sure you’ve had a Brazilian wax before trying this at home.

All humour aside, I wasn’t laughing on the day, but it was worth the experience, just to partake of this ancient communal cleansing ritual that is still enjoyed by modern Turkish people. There are over 300 hamams in Istanbul; some as old and historic as the one I visited and some very modern in five star hotels, like the spa at The Hyatt Regency where I stayed. But the communal bathing and massage ritual is still part of daily living just as it was in 1741, with the design of the centre-raised and heated plinth and peripheral benches with dousing sinks still a functional feature. For more information and photos see

From the bathing rituals of the 1700s to now, Europeans have integrated spa into their daily lives as part of the norm for ordinary folk as well as those more well off. They must think, “What’s all the fuss about? Spa and thalassotherapy is just part of our lifestyle”. If you take a look at the number of cosmetic companies in France alone you will know that skincare is taken very seriously, particularily amongst women, and as much a part of everyday conversation as food and wine. And trust me, that’s discussed and critiqued by the French pre-meal, during every meal and après meal. Every little village would have an institute of beauty or a salon where you could enjoy a weekly facial and massage.

With my Yankee enthusiasm I sought out some spa experiences in France to get a real feel for the way the French enjoy their skin and body care. First impression: very affordable! For 600 Euro you can enjoy seven days of six to eight hours per day intensive treatments. Hence, the demand in a country where a medical doctor can prescribe a four-week course of spa treatments for a patient with rheumatism, arthritis, kidney aliments, heart problems, respiratory illness or even “tired leg syndrome” and the list goes on. These spas are referred to by the French as, “cure spas” and they typically include mineral springs, both hot and cold, for bathing and drinking. Each cure spa is known for its mineral properties specific to the cure required. And the spa region is as well known for its mineral waters as it is for cheeses and wines. A patient might be sent to the cure spa near Toulouse, France for rheumatism and arthritis or to the Evian Spa, high in the alps, for kidney or stomach problems. And get this: the French national healthcare system can pay 60 per cent or more, depending on the nature and extent of a patient’s ailments and health problems. So, ordinary people might take two to four weeks per year to a different cure spa in France to partake of the healthcare regime, which normally includes some form of hydrotherapy, thalassotherapy, lymphatic drainage and massage for just a start. I am told by the French that Evian water is the national standard and the only water recommended for pregnancy, lactating mothers and for the babies post birth, because of its pure chemistry.

As I wanted to sample different treatments in France in various types of spa settings, for a start, I visited a country hotel spa that was adjacent to The Novotel, just outside Fontainebleau, about 30 minutes southwest of Paris. Here, in a lovely wooded location I tried their newest treatment, a Gemology Facial with gemology stones and products. Using pink rose crystals, oblong and smooth, these gems were designed to repair and moisturise the skin during the facial massage. The green gem, fluorite was used to reduce the visible signs of aging and a quartz crystal was used to help the moisturising serum penetrate the skin. It was a very relaxing treatment and administered with great care by my aesthetician, Elodie Delarue. A one-hour Gemology Facial would only cost me 60 Euro. You can learn more about, Le Spa at and for more indepth information about Gemology go to

Next stop: the Resort Spa of Thalazur in the Cote d’Azur town of Antibes, on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea in the south of France. This is a thalassotherapy spa and enjoyed by many French families and people seeking refuge and warmth from Paris and all over France. The spa is the main feature of this resort, where your treatment regime is taken very seriously by management, staff and guests alike. While the hamams of Turkey are strictly segregated by male and female domes; the French integrate genders in the change rooms, showers and even the toilets – so what’s the fuss?

At Thalazur, I first met with my registration consultant, Virginie, who asked me a series of questions about what I wanted and needed from my afternoon spa visit. She then printed out and handed me my spa regime. This was all enclosed in specifically designed and cut plastic sleeves and presented in a special hard plastic carry bag, also cut specifically for my program to fit and keep dry during my treatments. Again, this spa tradition is serious business for the French, and so it should be.

With an open mind and a keen attention to instruction from each spa therapist, I wanted to get into this French spa thing just like the natives. And, since my French language skills are limited at best, I needed to rely on the art of imitation and pantomime to communicate effectively with my therapists, most of whom did not speak English.

I would be starting my treatment portfolio with a Gommage Du Corps for 12 minutes, which was basically a total body sea salt exfoliation, to remove my dead skin cells and stimulate blood circulation. It was briskly applied and then rinsed off with a drench shower. Then I’d robe up and go out to the communal waiting area and my next therapist would collect me for the Enveloppement D’Algues Marine for 20 minutes; a strong-smelling and very olive green seaweed mixture applied on an ergonomic heated bed especially used for infusing the product into my skin. The bed was comfy but the room was really hospital-like and the therapist wrapped me in heated plastic and just left me there to cook, only returning when my time was up. A cool compress for my forehead would have been nice as the temperature of this wrap was almost intolerable. About 10 minutes into the baking session, I heard some relaxing music over the speakers; that definitely helped to take my mind off the itchy green stuff. Perhaps my therapist remembered about the music later.

I was told the timing of each treatment is administered to a science to maximise the benefit of the particular product and session. I showered off all the green goo from my hot wrap, went back out to the waiting area and was collected for my Douche A Jet Pomme. For the next 10 minutes a hydrotherapy specialist with a very long fire hose asked me what temperature I prefer from hot, to still too hot for me, and then from strong water pressure to still too strong for me. Of course, I chose the lightest and wimpiest for fear those who preceded me were evangelists and I the whingeing neophyte. But much to my surprise, I quite liked the hose job and my therapist really directed it at my muscles in a way that I could understand why they referred to her as a specialist. It was actually okay; except for the bottoms of my feet which she meticulously tried a hosing reflexology on and ouch – did that sting!

Following this was my Bain Hydromassant at 12 minutes. This hydro-jet bath was at a tepid temperature with added aromatherapy mineral salts to soothe and relax. Again, there was no intervention by a therapist at all; checking in on me would have been a nice gesture. The bath was programmed to drain at the appropriate time and I just lay there while I quickly returned to the effects of gravity; I kept expecting my therapist to come and retrieve me, so I lay and waited and then suddenly cold water gushed in which rose me to my feet; I’m still not sure if that was a self-cleaning function or intended to wake me, but either way I wasn’t laying around to find out. Après spa bath I retreated for a much-needed rest outside by the saltwater pool for one hour and 20 minutes. I would end my afternoon session with a Modelage Sous Affusion for 17 minutes.

This Modelage (Vichy) Shower Massage was administered with very slippery oil; the massage, however, was really fulfilling and relaxing. My therapist’s flow and rhythm was spot-on; she seemed very skilful and caring. I would question what type of oil was spread all over my body as it didn’t wash off easily; possibly safflower or some type of non-soluble vegetable oil. And those water jets were positioned right over my spine with no remorse and were never moved once during the massage. As I tried to enjoy the benefits of the massage I was reminded of how a Vichy can also be fluid when the therapist moves the jets during the massage treatment and integrates the jet rhythm with the massage, but that has not come to this spa yet.

Sliding off the table and into the “co-ed” change rooms I desperately scrubbed to remove that oil from every inch of me; not an easy task, I might add.

But after four hours of French salt and water dousing, Mediterranean sunshine and a flowing massage, I was thoroughly de-stressed and ready for a little nap. I’d highly recommend checking into this spa scene for the full one or two week package, but I can’t imagine how you’d assimilate back to reality. This spa has specials throughout the year, but just as a guide, my one and a half hours of treatment time only cost 100 Euro. Thalazur has many locations. For more information about lodging and treatments, visit

15 Place Vendome is the famous address of none other than, The Ritz Paris! It’s really like stepping into a palatial fairyland with every mural, fresco and jewellery case displayed to perfection. And the spa, located below ground level, is eclectic yet distinct in style with many concierges to serve your every need. A hotel club-spa by definition, the Ritz Health Club welcomes outside clients as well as members and hotel guests alike. As it was August during my visit, the spa was quiet so it was easy to book a treatment. Most Parisians are in the South of France at this time of year so it was perfect for me. My most lasting impression of The Ritz Paris was the branding; it was virtually everywhere, on the towels, plastic slipper-shoes, robes, towelling seat covers for the gold gilded chairs in the changing rooms, on the hair caps, every amenity at the vanities including the plastic paper enclosures, on the pens, the shoe horns, the laundry bags, the disposable knickers – you name it and there it was labeled Ritz Paris. They were not going to let you forget you’d been to The Ritz!

Oh, and what about my treatment? I had the Salt Scrub and Algae Wrap; referred to as the 2nd. Purifying, I’m not sure what the 1st. Purifying was but it’s most likely, “lost in translation”. I definitely enjoyed being addressed as Madame Copelli and guided through to my treatment area. My therapist, Nina, from Kazakhstan (remember Borat?) was very lovely but not French at all. She had come to Paris five years ago after studying aesthetics and massage in her country and now she was entering The Sorbonne to get her MBA. She was very experienced and quite pleasantly chatty, but then again I quizzed her continuously. She said that when the Hollywood stars stay at The Ritz they have their treatments in their rooms however when the French movie stars stay, they come down to the spa just like every other guest. She was quite pleased to let me know she had treated Madonna and Sharon Stone and that Madonna was tiny, but very athletic with a great body.

Back to reality, my treatment was pretty much your standard salt scrub and algae wrap, however I was not actually wrapped like I was at Thalazur. Perhaps Ritz guests did not like the wrapping bit, so they adjusted the treatment to suit. It was nice but not exactly what I’d expected. The electronic table was very comfy and warm and they placed a soft paper over the plastic; I’d have preferred one of those Ritz branded towels, but maybe the green goo was a laundry challenge. A nice, fluffy branded pillow was placed at my head, but I asked it to be removed, as I preferred the face cradle. I could tell this threw Nina a bit, but she agreed it would be more comfortable even if she didn’t prepare it for me with a towel, per the norm. But being a sympathetic spa operator myself I could understand why Ritz did certain things the way they did. With a few whining princesses, they probably were adjusting to guest preferences regularly.

“And do you know Daniela Steiner?” I was asked on several occasions. I did not know this skin and body care range, but wow, did it smell fragrant with the finest French perfume; I was very surprised the Ritz did not have their own branded range given their propensity for name presence. But the Daniela Steiner Care Suite is something I must now know. Visit or for The Ritz, visit

From the kese of Istanbul to The Paris Ritz with over 300 years of spa, what still remains top of mind is the “experience”. If passion is the potion then my hamam therapist in Istanbul wins the gold medal as she truly involved her body, mind and spirit into the ritual for which she was definitely a part. And if technique and operational efficiency are of utmost, then Thalazur in Antibes, South France has it down. Each spa visit had its own memorable moments and if you are looking for “posh and polish” then be sure to visit The Ritz next time you are in Paris. It’s really all about those caring, nurturing hands though isn’t it? From the moment you are greeted, to being treated and then departed, what you really want is kindness, respect and professionalism from your experience each and every time you spa.

Deborah Mangum-Copelli is Managing Director of Cogum Enterprises Pty. Ltd., an International Spa Design, Development, and Consultancy Company, Owner-Director of Zen Day Spa Pty. Ltd., Sydney, Owner-Director of SpaFision, Inc., USA. Deborah’s experience spans hotel, resort and day spa projects in Asia Pacific, the U.S. and Europe. You can email her on

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