A Unique Spa Day at an Ancient Roman Bath
This article was written and scheduled for posting earlier this month before the Sousse tragedy occurred. Our thoughts go out to the families of the victims and to the Tunisian people. Incidents such as this are not only devastating for the families and friends of those involved but are tragedies in the damage it does to the tourism industry.
I’ve always read about how the bath was central to Roman culture and society and am amazed at the engineering and architecture of a Roman bath. You can find them in practically every Roman site from the largest cities to the smallest hamlets. So when we found out that one of the things you can experience in Tunisia is an ancient, but still functioning, Roman bath, I just knew we had to go. We had traveled to the farthest reaches of the Tunisian frontier, to the border Kasbah city of of Le Kef. Now we were heading for the ancient Roman bath, Hammam Mellegue on the banks of the Oued Kseub river, west of town. As with other lesser known destinations in Tunisia, the map was not much more help than giving an idea of where our destination was located. After a little trial and error, and one or two wrong turns, we were soon meandering down a peaceful valley in the direction I was sure would eventually lead us to the baths.
Our little rental car had no problems circumnavigating the few deeper potholes and overall the road was quite pleasant. We eventually came across a lonely farmhouse overlooking a winding stretch of river with old stone ruins across the field. This must be the place! The farmer and his family were working out in the garden and looked up briefly to give us a wave and a smile as if seeing a car load of American tourists out here in the middle of the Tunisian Tell Atlas range is completely normal. To be fair, it probably happened often enough; there was a camper van from France parked alongside the road nearby.
We pulled the car off the road near to the ruins and got out for a closer look. This was indeed the baths and there was a small room built onto the ruins with an open door and a sign written in Arabic that seemed to indicate they were open for business. Looking at it from the outside it was hard to imagine that somewhere in this pile of rocks and ruins there could be a bath let alone two. In fact, there are both a men’s and a women’s pool with separate entrances. We split up along gender lines and entered the dark and steamy changing room. There was no electricity when we visited so the only light was coming from a tiny window slit high up on the rough stone wall. It was enough to find a small plastic stool and a hook on the wall so I was soon heading, towel in hand, deeper into the recesses of the cave like interior. The bath was down a short, dark, crumbling tunnel and I found myself wishing I had brought shower shoes or sandals to navigate around and over the sharp pebbles and sticky mud.
The bath itself was a rough pool carved out of the bedrock with stone walls extending up to an arched and vaulted ceiling. Again, the only light came from far overhead through the small slits above. Shafts of light penetrated the clouds of steam lighting the room in an eerie, foggy glow. The water was hot with a heavy iron smell, and, despite the darkness, I could make out one other bather already soaking in the water ahead of us. We aptly nicknamed him “the snorkeller” as he liked to lie face down in the water and force bubbles out of his nose and mouth.
Luckily, the snorkeller soon tired of his activities and left the bath to us. We found the floor drain and the head of the spring with it’s rushing hot water pouring into the pool out of a lion’s mouth. I would have liked to have had more water in the pool, as it was only two feet deep and had plenty of room for more. But I think they had recently drained the bath for cleaning and it was slowly refilling. It was relaxing, stretching out and soaking in the mineral rich, steamy water. I don’t suffer from arthritis or anything but I’m sure the hot waters have been a relief for those who have visited the bath over the past several hundred years seeking the healing powers of this rustic Roman bath.