The sexiest thing you can do in Spain

  Winter has come and I'm hunkered down over the heater wishing it were June again and I was splashing about in the warm pools of the Aire Banos Arabes, a subterranean bathhouse built on the site of an ancient hammam in the historic Santa Cruz district of Seville.

I love a good hammam and you can't keep me away if there's one in a city where I'm travelling. I've been scrubbed with black soap in Marrakech and immersed in a high-tech hydrotherapy bath in France. I've swum under an ancient dome in Budapest, soaked in onsen in Japan and tapped myself with birch sticks in a sauna in Stockholm.

While traditions differ, the principal of steam, scrub, bathe and massage is common to most bathhouses. But now that bathing has become fashionable, there are a growing number of bathhouses that are so ritzy you might want to think about the label on your swimsuit.

The Aire Banos Arabes is one of them. It can be found within a network of narrow lanes in Seville's old Jewish quarter. The 16th century mansion which houses the baths is built on an ancient Roman bathhouse, so once a guest has checked in, been given a locker key, and descended into the candlelit crypt of the building, they're stepping into ancient history. The handmade brick walls, the low vaulted ceilings and the Moroccan lamps casting shadows make it lushly atmospheric. I'd even say sexy.

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That's obviously what the other bathers thought, anyway, as it was more like a nightclub than a bath, the three thermal pools and one hydrotherapy pool all full of embracing couples with beautiful bodies, wearing expensive bathing suits and tans.

Maybe I'd just arrived at an apres-siesta erotic moment, but I found it disconcerting. I admit I hadn't expected the Studio 54 of Arab baths.

Traditional bathhouses often separate the sexes, at different hours on different days. It's wise to ask about the local customs before you enter a bath, whether a bathing suit is required, for instance. In some places, when everyone else is naked, you just look silly in one. But, rather like when you lie down on a table for a therapeutic massage, you hope the sexiness is kept out.

I've been in a lot of pools and steam rooms over the years and have always felt hugely better for each visit. Those with thermal springs have significant benefits for bathers, including increased blood circulation and cell oxygenation. The elimination systems of the body are stimulated, improving the body's capacity to detoxify. Depending upon the mineral content of the waters, thermal baths can relieve many ailments, including hypertension, respiratory problems and chronic pain.

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We don't have a tradition of people using bathhouses regularly in Australia, although we do use swimming pools for recreation. Our cities developed at a later moment in history when private bathrooms were available, and so the need to share didn't exist on the scale it did in more ancient societies or in those where religious customs made them necessary. Many of the old bathhouses were just that, places to bathe, rather than places to relax.

Still, we have quite a few natural mineral springs in Australia and the concept of bathing in them has become more popular in recent years. There are now, among others, the mineral pools at Peninsula Hot Springs on the Mornington Peninsula, the Moroccan-inspired hammam at Hepburn Bathhouse and Spa, the Spa de Marrakech and Roman Bathhouse at Montrose, the Japanese Garden and Bathhouse in the Blue Mountains and the treetop mineral spa at the Lakehouse in Daylesford.

But these modern-day baths are luxury indulgences. In Seville, I paid €60 for access to the baths, which included a 30-minute massage. The price is considerably more in five-star hotels, where its now almost compulsory to offer a hammam to guests. The trick is to look for a genuine Arab bathhouse in an Arab neighbourhood, such as the Mosquee de Paris, and you'll pay less.

Perhaps the old-fashioned sea baths we find on many classic Australian beaches are our version of the hammam. They're places for people to gather as much as to exercise. There are plenty of minerals in the sea. But we're tough – few pools are heated.

This winter I shall have to be content with filling the bath with hot water and salts, running a shower to steam up the room, and brewing myself a cup of mint tea. Bathing suit optional.

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