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Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath    by Alexia Brue order for
Cathedrals of the Flesh
by Alexia Brue
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Alexia Brue takes her passion for baths all around the world in Cathedrals of the Flesh. The book's topic especially appealed to me - my fondest recollections of a mountain hiking trip in Japan were of its steaming baths (especially in the hot springs resort areas), though I found the scrap of towel provided for modesty at best symbolic. At the back of the book is a handy resource guide to public baths all over the world.

Brue soaked in the social side of bathing from the 'hamams' of Paris and Istanbul to the 'banyas' of Russia, the 'saunas' of Finland, and the 'sento' and 'onsen' of Japan. She even tried a 'Russian Turkish Bath' on East 10th Street in New York City. She found baths to be 'places for relaxation, regeneration, occasional childhood regression, socializing, whimsical debauchery, and most of all, just free-spirited fun.' Her aquatic journey started in the 'ornate Turkish steam baths' of Paris - apparently France's four million Muslims imported a tradition that is important both in their social life and to their religion (a 'code of hygiene' is detailed in the Koran). In Paris, Brue experienced 'gommage' (being scrubbed with a horsehair mitt), and she and her friend Marina dreamed of opening their own 'hamam', which of course inspired further dunking experiences in the name of cultural research.

Next came a variety of Istanbul hamams (where revolutionaries used to plot sedition) and a serendipitous encounter with an ancient bath's excavation in nearby Tulza. This fueled a desire to explore Greek and Roman ruins, which led the author to an archaeological dig in Isthmia, near Korinth. There she notes that the 'distinction between bathhouse and bordello has always been murky' (with erotic frescoes found at a neighborhood bath in Pompeii), but that baths also often doubled as healing centers in the ancient world. In Russia, Brue met 'banya witches' who wore kerchiefs to avoid split ends and flagellated with the 'veynik' (a 'birch branch bouquet'). She took lessons. The author calls Finland 'saunatopia' and introduces us to its 'savusauna' (the old style of 'smoke sauna'). She quotes a doctor who talks of the rise in endorphin levels caused by the sauna experience.

Finallly, Brue experienced both the 'sento' (public baths) and the 'onsen' (mineral hot springs) of Japan, where a friend tells her that 'the atmosphere of the bath makes possible a closeness rarely experienced otherwise in Japanese life.' The bath motif is a unique and appealing motivation for travel, a special approach to quickly breaking down cultural barriers. Read Cathedrals of the Flesh, which might tempt you into a bathing adventure of your own.

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