Thalassotherapy in Tunisia: a spa treatment with French origins

Tunisia has a long-established culture of bathing. The Roman-era Memmian Baths at Bulla Regia, in the north of the country, is just one of the ancient sites providing evidence of that, a living heritage that can be experienced in the country’s hammams and thalassotherapy centres.

Just a few years ago it was, more often than not, the souks – bustling bazaars crammed with traditional character as well as with a broad range of wares – and the historic medinas – such as the twelfth century walled town within Tunis, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – that attracted people to Tunisia. The Tunisian Revolution, of 2011, has caused many people to think twice before booking to travel to the country, meaning that bargains are to be found for those willing to book.

Tunisia’s spa and thalassotherapy centres

Tunis, Hammanet and Djerba all host state of the art spa centres. The luxury spas are winning people over by offering high quality treatments at prices lower than comparable centres in Europe. With 49 thalassotherapy centres, Tunisia is regarded as one of the world’s top destinations for that particular genre of spa treatment.

Thalassotherapy is currently experiencing a wave of sustained popular recognition. It doesn’t seem to be just another of those chic trends that come and go in the faddish and ever changing world of wellness treatments. Yet thalassotherapy is by no means new. Its origins can be traced to France in the second-half of the nineteenth century.

The origins of thalassotherapy

The first recorded use of the word “thalassotherapy” was during the 1860s, when Dr de la Bonnardiére coined the term to describe the use of seawater during treatments with medical purposes. In case you’re wondering, it is the concatenation of two ancient Greek words; thalasso meaning “sea” and therapeia meaning “care.”

Given its geography, perhaps it’s unsurprising that Tunisia has become one of the leading lights in the world of thalassotherapy. The country has 800 miles of coastline, of which 700 miles are beaches, and a sun-blessed Mediterranean climate.

France is the only country which can claim more thalassotherapy centres than Tunisia. One of those is the Institut Marin de Rockroum, at Roscoff in Brittany, which is recognised as the world’s very first thalassotherapy centre. It was opened in 1899 by Dr Louis Bagot, who advocated the use of water-based treatments for a range of ailments.

The benefits of thalassotherapy

Over the years it has been claimed that thalassotherapy can treat not only back problems, joint trouble and muscle pains but can be help people recuperate from injuries. Assertions have also been made that it can help alleviate stress and treat conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and arthritis.

Almost inevitably, such claims have been greeted sceptically by some members of the medical profession, who have raised questions about the efficacy of alternative therapies in treating chronic ailments. Yet there are patients who swear by the success of their thalassotherapy treatment. And many more people enjoy thalassotherapy simply for being sensual and relaxing; a form of treatment that brings about a sense of well-being.

The early French thalassotherapy centres can be seen as an evolution from tradition of spa treatments and seaside bathing that became popular in Europe during the late nineteenth century. The use of seawater in spas was given a further boost when a scientific argument was provided in its favour just over a hundred years ago.

Rene Quinton and thalassotherapy

The scientist Rene Quinton, also a Frenchman, discovered that mammalian blood plasma shares a number of characteristics with sea water. Quinton summarised his findings in his book L’eau de mer, mileau organique (which translates as “Sea Water: Organic Medium”), published in 1904. His concept is central to thalassotherapy treatments. Quinton argued that, when heated to body temperature, seawater helps accelerate the absorption of mineral ions into the bloodstream while also aiding the transport of toxins out of the body.

This was one of the factors which helped popularise prolonged treatments at European spa towns as a method of de-stressing, losing weight and recovering from injuries. Interestingly, a number of people who once took spa treatments in Europe are now travelling to Tunisia to do so. A sizable number head to the country from Germany, Switzerland and France; countries in which taking spa holidays is long-established.

Tunisia’s hammams and bathing heritage

Tunisians can, of course, add that bathing is also an integral part of their nation’s cultural heritage. For Tunisian men a Friday evening visit to the hammam – the public steam bath – is very much a social tradition. The hammam acts as a social meeting place as well as a location where people wash, relax in the heat and receive massages.

Hammams can be found throughout the country and usually consist of a series of rooms at varying temperatures. Bathers are expected to wear a cloth wrap known as a fouta around their waist. Many visitors to Tunisia find that a traditional hammam visit is a memorable experience and very affordable, even if travelling on a tight budget. It’s common for people to stay in the heat of the steam room for as long as they are comfortable.

Tunisian spa architecture and design

The architecture of traditional hammams has inevitably influenced the design of some of Tunisia’s leading spa centres. A fleeting look at the pastel colours within the pillared and arched hall of the Thermes Marins de Carthage at the Residence Hotel is sufficient to evoke thoughts of the country’s traditional steam baths. Yet modern spa centres are equipped with technology that the traditional hammams do not have, including underwater jets within heated pools. The jets apply pressure to the body, comparable to having a massage, which help the muscles pummelled by the water to relax and, more generally, to reduce stress.

It is possible to visit one of Tunisia’s thalassotherapy centres and to take a one-off treatment lasting about an hour or a half-day but many people find the greatest benefit comes from a series of treatments over the course of four or six days, sometimes even longer. Such courses start with a consultation. A doctor assesses the condition of the person checking-in to take the thalassotherapy and recommends suitable treatments.

Massages and detoxing in Tunisia

These might include massages, algae or seaweed wraps (recommended to stimulate the body’s metabolism while aiding detoxification and deep cleansing of the skin), applications of ghassoul (a mineral-rich clay which leaves skin feeling soft while also helping the body to detoxify) and even aqua aerobic sessions. It’s common for the sessions to be held over four or so hours on consecutive mornings.

“The entire experience is very nice and relaxing but later you feel tired as it does take quite a bit out of you. That’s why it can be helpful for weightloss,” says Ffion Davies, who has travelled to Tunisia a number of times.

It is a misnomer to think that thalassotherapy therapies appeal only to women. Men might play down the idea that they enjoy being pampered but statistics do not lie; roughly 40 per cent of the guests visiting spa centres in Tunisia are male.

That’s something to ponder the next time you’re relaxing during a treatment.

Further Information

The Come to Tunisia website has travel and tourism information for visitors to the country.

Stuart flew to Tunisia from London’s Gatwick Airport with Tunisair. He stayed at the Yadis Djerba Golf Thalasso and Spa Hotel.

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