Here’s a little secret the tourism establishment won’t tell you: the Mediterranean is sort of awful in winter. From Tel Aviv to Ibiza from November to March, there are sunny spells to be sure, but also many days of storms which consist of mean rain, awful winds and frigid temperatures…at times you’ll feel like you’re stuck in a washing machine on an endless cold wash cycle. Greece is part of this frosty midwinters’ mix, which is psychologically damaging (dreams of summer are just that) and biologically offensive (having to wear a scarf in any Mediterranean country must be some kind of crime against some kind of god). But at least they have hammams, these storied locales.
Sure, you’ve been to the sauna or steam room at your local gym or boring corporate hotel that we won’t mention here by name. But the hammam steam bath with ancient traditions, from Rome to Istanbul, and something of that old soakin’ spirit lives on even in Athens, where I recently had the pleasure of experiencing the Polis Hammam. While there is another hammam in Athens, the one I can categorically recommend is Polis Hammam. Here are 5 reasons why:
• It’s immaculately clean. Wherever you are, you don’t want your hammam to be simply clean. You want it to be spotlessly, I-think-I-could-even-lick-the-floor kind of clean (not that you would). Trust us on this. Polis Hammam is that level of clean.
• It’s large. There’s nothing worse than walking into a steam bath wearing little more than towel around your waist to find yourself surrounded by a bunch of other people in a cramped space. That’s no way to luxuriate. And despite what they might say, it’s not that sanitary either. At the Polis Hammam you’ll be immediately impressed, as I was, by the vast expanse of the bathing area, all clad in gleaming white Pentelic marble with gold-colored faucets and fixtures. If you’re with friends, fine. Steaming solo? Perhaps even better.
• You’ll get a good soak. The heat and humidity of the central hammam area is just the start. You’ll be given a little brass bowl that you fill with warm water, then you pour it all over yourself and perhaps add a bit of special spa soap. Stretch out on a marble slab. Rinse. Repeat.
• OMG, these massages. So you think you didn’t need a massage? Exfoliate that hesitation away and just do it. The staff at this place know what they’re doing, and your poor tired aching feet will only thank you. Plus, unlike at some other hammams, the massage area is separate from the bathing area, meaning it’s warm, dry and brilliantly decorated. Is this Marrakesh? Nope, heart of Psyri, my favorite neighborhood in central Athens.
• Tea and nibbles. At one hammam I went to in Athens, upon entering they forced me to put these ridiculous plastic things over my shoes and offered me a glass of water. I thought to myself what is this, a hospital? But at Polis Hammam, you’re greeted with a lovely warm tea-like potion. And after you take the steam (but before you have your optional massage treatment), you’re offered more tea, and can also order a range of locally-sourced nibbles from a carefully curated menu.
Bottom line: After all that, you’ll hit the busy streets of Athens warmed up, revitalized and ready for almost anything Mother Nature throws at you. You’ll want to return to delightful and restorative time warp that is Polis Hammam again and again. If you have a free afternoon in Athens or need to relax before or after travel, this is the spot.