The Aguas of Aragón

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The main thermal fountain echos the 14th century castle that towers above the village

You’ve almost certainly heard of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, and perhaps the Roman Baths in the (aptly named) English city of Bath, but many don’t know that you can also indulge in a therapeutic soak right here in Spain.

Natural warm springs are caused by water seeping through cracks in granite rocks and being heated by the Earth’s core (and that’s all the science you’ll be getting – this is a history blog after all!). Ourense in Galicia is the most well-known spa town, but La Rioja, Catalonia and Granada are also home to a few hot spots. 

Last week I was in one of these resort towns: Alhama de Aragón. Nestled in a narrow canyon along the Jalón river, the village has always been well positioned on important trade routes. Now on the main road from Madrid to Zaragoza (with cargo trains rattling through almost 24 hours a day) its healing waters were first documented by the Romans. Sadly, none of the facilities of Aquae Bilbilitanorum as they called it survive today, but I was fortunate to enjoy bathing in somewhere almost as historic. 

A dip with El Cid

The Baño del Moro y la Mora have medieval walls, but have probably been enjoyed since Roman times

Underneath the hotel we were staying in, lies the Baño del Moro y la Mora: the Baths of the Moors. These two green and white stone grottos with natural waterfalls have been used since at least the 11th century. It’s no surprise that the famously bath-loving Islamic rulers of Spain found this place, and enjoyed its benefits until their defeat by King Alfonso I in 1120. In fact, the village’s name Alhama, comes from the Arabic word for bath: hamaam. 

The baños’ waters (at a constant 32°) contain salts, magnesium, calcium and potassium, and claim to reduce blood pressure, heal skin and boost circulation. I certainly felt better after my 30 minutes of wallowing, as I’m sure did previous visitor and historical celebrity: El Cid. More myth than fact surrounds Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar: the military leader who exploits saw him fight for both Christian and Muslim rulers. However we’re fairly sure that in the 1080s he and his soldiers enjoyed these very same baths, in between raids, battles, and other activities that worked up a sweat.

A Luxury Lake

The hotel has a large complex of 19th century buildings; some open, some in various states of repair

The next high point for Alhama was in the 19th century when the trend for bathing in miraculous waters swept once more across Europe. The largest hotel in the village still stands as a testament to this health boom. Built in the 1860s, the Termas Pallarés Spa still has an air of faded elegance, from a time when ladies with white parasols could take a respectable plunge, surrounded by Classical statues and crystal chandeliers, while getting very excited about taking a ride in one of Spain’s very first elevators!

You can walk freely around the lake, but have to pay a fee to go in

Once frequently by Spanish royalty, this ‘balneario’ can also boast the largest thermal lake in Europe. This two-hectare natural pool has crystal blue clear water and would have been tempting if it hadn’t been 9° outside, blowing a gale and raining most of the time. My fault for visiting at Easter when the weather is traditionally cold and wet.

(Not) getting your hands dirty

The laundry is decorated with photographs of local women dressed in period costumes, which is a nice touch.

The waters here aren’t just used for leisure though, but have a practical purpose. I was very excited to come across a ‘lavadero’: a traditional laundry. Recently renovated, this long, roofed building contains a deep trough with sloped slides, where women would dip and scrub clothes and household linen. It’s still used occasionally to demonstrate this centuries-old skill; backbreaking work probably made slightly easier by having warm, healing waters to work with. You can watch a video of a similar laundry in use here by Spanish ethnographic filmmaker Eugenio Monesma.

Like many Spanish villages, Alhama has suffered from declining tourism and a lack of investment, all too evident in the empty, rundown buildings and quiet streets (the population has halved in the past 60 years). As I’ve talked about before, these little corners of Spain have great potential, both for heritage tourism and as a gastronomic draw (the local specialty is Frutas de Aragon: candied fruit covered in chocolate). With the added benefit of having thermal waters, Alhama should be poised to have the visitors flow in once again.

Pablo Zárate’s mural has been given a cheeky addition…

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