Dozens of clammy bodies are crammed into the Alhambra sauna, waiting for … I’m not sure what. Then a woman places a ball of crushed ice on the coals, which releases delicious tangerine and grapefruit aromas as it melts. She uses a towel to waft the hot, fruity air around the room and makes “healing sounds” with a rainstick. She repeats the ritual with lemongrass-infused ice, then spearmint and eucalyptus. At the end, we all applaud, then rush out for a cold shower.
This is Aufguss (infusion), a Germanic sauna tradition championed by the Therme spa group. Therme opened its first spas in Germany in the 2010s but I am trying its most recent addition, Therme Bucharest in Romania. The country has a long history of mineral springs and thermal bathing, but nothing quite like Therme, which also has two spas under development in Asia, one in North America and, excitingly for Brits, one at Trafford City, Manchester, opening in 2022.
What’s so exciting about a spa? First, the sheer scale: Therme Bucharest is a 4,000-capacity, 37,000 sq m glass-and-steel temple to wellbeing, with 10 pools, Romania’s biggest sauna complex and Europe’s biggest urban beach. Therme Manchester will be even larger.
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Then there is the incredible value. All-day, access-all-areas entry in Bucharest costs 100 lei, or about £17.50 (£19 at weekends). And all day means all day: 9.30am-11.30pm on weekdays and 8am-midnight at weekends. Shorter sessions, such as a three-hour evening special (£12), are a popular after-work choice for couples and groups of friends. There is even a free shuttle bus doing the 30-minute run from the city centre eight times a day.
Entry includes daily themed activities, from yoga and workouts on “energetic Monday” to massages on “indulgent Friday”. On “healthy Wednesday”, I miss the aqua gym session but make it to pilates in a transparent dome, with three students to one excellent teacher.
The 10 saunas and steam rooms range from the huge Hollywood sauna, with nature documentaries on a giant screen, to a pink Himalayan salt sauna; Bavaria, the hottest sauna, reaches 90C. Each has at least one free Aufguss ritual every half-hour, plus other treatments. People arrive promptly to bag a space – I am too late for a Liquid Gold treatment, where I could have smeared myself with honey, but make it to Arabica Peeling in the Rainforest sauna, to scrub myself with a blend of sugar and coffee, apply a chocolate face mask and let the heat do the rest. One-on-one treatments cost extra, but are far cheaper than in the UK – a 45-minute massage is less than £20.
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It’s great for families, too. In the UK, kids’ waterparks and adults’ spas are usually separate; here there’s Galaxy for family fun, the Palm for relaxation and Elysium for treatments. (Manchester will have a fourth zone, Genesis, offering therapies from around the world.) Galaxy is heaven for children, with 16 waterslides, indoor and outdoor pools and a beach. For parents, there are saunas, whirlpool baths, hydromassage beds, infrared armchairs and a swim-up bar. (All-day use of the Galaxy zone is £12 adult/£9.50 child.)
The adult-only Palm has similar facilities (minus the slides), plus three mineral pools. I float in each of them, G&T in hand, soaking up the supposed benefits of lithium, calcium, magnesium and salt from the Dead Sea. Each area also has its own restaurant. I try sushi (£4.50) and grilled seafood (£7) for lunch at the new Humboldt fusion restaurant in the Palm, and have dinner at the Mango Tree in Elysium. The latter usually serves Thai food but the head chef is adding dishes from his native South Africa; I’m impressed by the Cape Malay bobotie (sweet and sour minced beef with an egg crust) and Durban curry with chickpeas and black beans.
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Another selling point is the spa’s eco credentials. It was the first new building in Romania to get top rating from the Leed (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) programme. Instead of using chlorine, the spa’s geothermal water goes through a five-step purification. The building is full of greenery, with 1,500 palm trees and hundreds of other plants; more than 1,000 trees have been planted in the car park and two parks (open March to September) are home to hundreds of varieties of plants and trees.
The Manchester complex will also focus on sustainability, set around a biodiverse garden, and reached by new footpaths and cycleways or the Trafford Park Metrolink.
I am planning to spend the next day seeing Bucharest, especially the old town, Lipscani, with its entertaining Kitsch Museum. But as I sip a cocktail in a warm, bubbly outdoor pool, snow starts to fall, and I am tempted to return for another 14 hours of relaxation instead. I content myself with a final Aufguss session – lavender and geranium this time, and a guided meditation to prepare for a good night’s sleep. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble dropping off. Roll on 2022.
• The trip was provided by Therme Bucharest
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