I’ve got a thing for bath houses. While in Turkey I did my best to get a sweat, a steam, a scrub and a wet down everyday. I just think it’s the height of decadence, and cultural intimacy, to mix it with the locals in a watery way. And after communal bathing in Turkey, the Mid East, North Africa, Northern Europe, in Sydney and even once at the Paris Ritz I tend to think that the people of the world are much more at ease with nudity than is commonly thought. But I digress, because this post is about Spas, which are related to bathhouses in their water treatment way. And because there is an antique architectural element that attracts me to them both.
Caldas Da Rainha, the Hot Springs of the Queen, is a classic spa town. Spa towns always hint at a 19th century grandeur, where the monied would while away their days “taking the waters” and relaxing. These days the old spa towns are gracefully fading, and the ailing have moved on to detox and rehab. But the grand old hotels, gardens, tea rooms, and what used to be fashionable architecture, remain. Spa towns are quaint and gentle, and often very pretty. Caldas certainly is all of these things.
The Spa is a predominantly European phenomenon, but Katoomba in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney has exactly the personality I’m talking about. Cauterets in the French Pyrenees is a classic place, and I’ve been to a wonderful old pool/spas in Berlin and Stockholm. Luso in Portugal is also a favourite town of mine here, especially as the hospital-spa still offers many kinds of water treatments, like a “Vichy” hose down, steam inductions and a variety of strange massages. I’ve met delightful spa town in the colonies too. Dalat in Vietnam is a charming 19th century gem and I would imagine there might be a few ex-spas in India.
One day I’d love to do a tour of the great spas of Europe. I’d start in Budapest, certainly the bath capital of the world, and move south seeking them out in Switzerland and Austria. You can never be too clean.
Anyway back to Caldas… the first stop should be the hospital itself, located in two lovely old buildings just down from the main square. At the back of the main building is the gorgeous Nossa Senhora do Pópulo, which has a fabulous bell tower, and where patients can go to bolster their faith in modern medicine. Opposite the church and beside one of the many lovely Manueline palacetes in the back streets of Caldas, is the Hospital Museum. I can never resist a hospital museum, and although there’s nothing much macabre about this one it certainly reinforces the image of an olde worlde cleanliness and some hysterical hypochondriasis… fainting spells and smelling salts and that sort of thing. Quaint, rather.
Of course it made me feel like a lie down in a cool room followed by a good professional pummelling by Irmã Perpétua (or whoever the Portuguese equivalent of Swedish Helga might be). But alas! Unlike at Luso, the hospital isn’t open to people just-chucking-a-sickie – and seriously Caldas CM – this should change. Honestly they must have no idea how arduous being a tourist is and just how willingly we will shell out €15 to have someone in a white coat give us a rub down.
Actually it’s probably a good thing because there is really no time to waste if you want to see everything else that Caldas has got going on. The first thing you should start noticing is Caldas´ very special street signs. There aren’t many left these days so keep your eyes peeled, especially around the hospital area and along the park. The parque Dom Carlos I is gorgeous, with ponds and row boats and an excellent café/restaurant with loads of shaded outdoor seating. A wander around the José Malhoa Museum (naturalist / impressionist painter 1855-1933) inside the former park boat house is relaxing and mildly interesting. There’s also this enormous dilapidated building which they call the pavilões do parque, which appears to have been a former school. Stunning building, superb location and if this was Sydney it would have been turned into some seriously nice and expensive apartments by now. Looks like the pigeons will have it to themselves for a while longer.
Don’t let it get past midday or you’ll have missed the Caldas market. It’s on every day in Praça de Republica, right in the middle of things. It’s one of the nicest markets around, with the perfect balance of fresh veg, charcuterie, bread, sweets and stacks of different local handicrafts. But especially it has a spread of the famous ceramics of Caldas de Rainha. What you see at the market is not strictly Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro but it’s still fun and highly photogenic.
Just beside the market square is my favourite café in Caldas, Café Central. Here is a café as we knew them in the old country, a place that does proper lunch, as in, light meals with salad. The food is inventive and wholesome and there is serious gelato and cakes too. But it’s the interior design that does me. Like the Brasileira in Braga, it’s like the owner (I don’t know her name but she’s always there and I want to be her when I grow up) has done the most restrained renovation possible, simply restoring the original design and adding a fresh coat of paint and some new chairs. It’s a rejuvenation of art deco/ mid century elegance. It looks modern and vintage at the same time. Thoroughly divine.
And right outside the café is one of those unique street signs. Cute. On the same side of the square is Residencial Central which is where I like to stay. It’s a big homey oldie of course, run by the super welcoming Diogo and Fatima who have three great girls. Watch Diogo or that welcome drink will end up with you under the table. It’s the kind of hotel I’d like to live in, and it felt like I did. Still a bargain at €20 single, €35 double.
But the real reason I visit Caldas so often is to catch up with my mate Rafael. Caldas is a good place to get to know him, first in the Museu de Ceramica where you can see his work in context with the other wacky ceramicists of the era. Then at the Bordalo factory there’s another little museum which explains more specifically about Rafael’s life in Caldas. After that you can lose a couple of hours in the shop where there are new editions of bizarre giant fish and crab artworks, fresh copies of large scale commissions, figurines and of course cabbage things in all colours. But what else the factory produces is some of the most lovely table china I’ve ever seen. Opulent, classic, whimsical. Oranges, rabbits and palm trees. Funny and just pure elegance… and the most adorable little coffee cup sets in the world.
You’re bored? But there’s still the new cycling museum, Atelier-Museu António Duarte (1912-1998), some groovy Henry-Moore-like sculpture at Atelier-Museu João Fragoso (1913- 2000), the Museu Barato Feyo and yet more 20th century art at O Espaço da Concas. And a bunch of small interesting shops. And Mango. But never mind, you can always pop off to the beach at Foz de Arelho (20 minutes), a pleasant strip of golden sand and no swell to speak of, and if Caldas hasn’t tickled your cute inner pony enough you can clip clop up to Obidos (15 minutes) which will twee your tail off.