Today’s blog gets passionate about sludge.
Not just any old sludge. This kind comes in pots, hot, steaming and smelling remarkably like pongy seaweed, the sort that’s been lying about on a rock covered in sand flies and half-eaten by crabs. That’s because it is pongy seaweed, or used to be, before being put into a gigantic blender and turned into something that looks like potter’s clay.
It was the Spring Equinox and we were down on the Med, having fled to its balmy shores to escape the relentless onslaught of the mainstream media. The late great Douglas Adams had summed it up perfectly in 1980: ‘it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.’ What more was there to add? We needed a therapeutic escape, something that tuned out our brains and tuned in our bodies. Sludge, in short.
Fade to fifty shades of blue and the plaintive songs of whales…
The sun rises on Day One at the Hôtel Les Flamants Roses, the beautiful Pink Flamingo Hotel on the water’s edge in Canet-en-Roussilon. The Maître de Maison and I have signed up at their thalassotherapie centre, (sea water therapy centre) for a ‘remise en forme’: five half-day sessions of ‘get back into shape’. Thanks to the magical properties of seawater and its products, the stiff and creaky hinges that attach my lower limbs to my torso will, five days hence, be whizzing back and forth like pistons on the Flying Scotsman (original version), the crunchy, gristly bits in my neck locking me into permanent ‘face forward’ position will have magically dissolved, allowing reversing of the car sans demolition of the garden wall, and the flaking, dingy envelope covering my body will be buffed to the pearly perfection of Venus rising in her cockleshell. The MDM’s knees will have lost their squeak, his bionic shoulder will be re-tuned to High C, and if he owned a Mercedes coupé he’d be able to vault into the driver’s seat without opening the door.
We know all this because we’ve been here before, in 2016. We now know, as ‘veterans’, the correct protocol. When removing swimsuits for a massage, for instance, the scrap of material lying on the end of the table is to be placed in fig-leaf position rather than on the head as a hairnet. The highly professional staff here have obviously been trained, like the Queen, to keep a straight face in all situations, but as the MDM observed the first time we came ‘Ah, vous devez en avoir vu des vertes et des pas mûres’–literal translation: ‘you must have seen some green and unripe ones’, Yorkshire translation: ‘ee lass, tha’ must have seen a thing or two in this job’.
Arriving at the centre with swimsuits and flipflops, we are given fluffy towels, robes and our individually tailored programs and invited to lounge on sunbeds drinking herbal tea while waiting to be called for our first treatment.
The spacious atrium opening up to the second floor looks a bit like the Alhambra, with pillars and decorative tiles and mosaics reflecting the colours of the Med and its sandy beaches. To either side are corridors and cubicles with closed doors from which splashes and gurgles can be heard. As you recline and sip, you can watch the aqua gym class taking place in the indoor pool with its jacuzzis and water jets. Beyond, visible through the vast windows at the end, is the sea. ‘Thalassa, thalassa!’ as the Ancient Greeks may have intoned (thalassa being the correct Greek word to use when addressing the sea, I am reliably informed) as they scanned the horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of Odysseus and his many-oared galley. The Med’s associations with the classical myths and legends that have nourished western civilization lends a mystic quality to this inland sea with its swiftly changing moods and endless palette of colours. From thunderous steel grey with angry whitecaps to scarcely a ripple, a glassy expanse extending to a mirage-like horizon in blue, pink and mauve.
I was musing on such associations when we arrived for our first visit in 2016, feeling a bit nervous about that wine-dark stuff just a few metres away. Images of whirlpools and one-eyed giants kept popping up, accompanied by the opening bars of Jaws. Apparently 47 species of shark live in the Med (I checked) but fortunately, given their size, there didn’t seem much chance that one might insert itself into the pipes connecting the centre to the sea and shoot up in the middle of the aquagymers with a toothy grin. But what about poisonous jelly fish? Now they are quite slithery, n’est ce pas, and could easily wobble through a small vent…This time round, though, I am calm and confident, knowing what delights lie in store as I follow the uniformed assistant for my first treatment. In a dimly lit cubicle stands a bathtub the size of the Queen Mary. The smiling young lady helps me negotiate the gangplank, settles me into the warm water, squirts in copious amounts of liquid sludge, presses the button on the Starship Enterprise console, and tells me to lie back and relax. The lights go out, leaving me in the dark. There is a terrific rushing noise and suddenly the water stars to churn like the famous whirlpool of Charybdis. I am in the bain des multijets, which begins to glow with mesmeric colours, green, blue, and red, bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, ouch, the toe of frog has found that sore bit just below my left shoulder blade, ah, that’s better, heaven, I’m in heaven…there’s a beeping sound and I open my eyes. The gurgling has stopped. My body is warm and rosy and relaxed and my bones have been reduced to jelly. Have I been asleep?
I don’t have much time to reflect on the question before I’m up out of the bath and off to another cubicle where I’m told to take off my wet swimsuit and put on the Chippendale micro-thong. The door opens and another smiling person appears, carrying a pot of smelly brown substance and a large spatula. I am about to embark on an intensive Sludge session, otherwise known as Meet Your Inner Mummy. The Sludge Whisperer slathers me efficiently from scalp to toenail before wrapping me tightly in clingfilm, re-wrapping the cling film in a hot foil shroud and leaving end-product to bake like a plantain a clay oven. For someone a tad claustrophobic, this can be unsettling. The only way I got through the first session in 2016 without screaming to be let out was to channel The Hulk, visualizing myself giving a superhuman muscle flex and bursting through the bindings in the event of everyone else in the centre being suddenly struck down with a mysterious, paralysing virus.
Finally I am unwrapped, hosed off, and left to inspect the finished product. I peer at my skin. Is it…can it be…the light is dim, I don’t have my glasses on, but surely…ô miracle! From Ancient Lizard to Diaphanous Dragonfly with one wave of the spatula!
But it’s not just your skin and muscles that are getting pampered. The approach here is multi-sensorial. As the heavenly hands of the masseuse banish the last drop of tension from your body, your nose is twitching with pleasure at the perfumed cloud of orange blossom released by the warm oil. Stretched out on the Hydrojet water bed, enjoying the thrills and drills of the Thousand Whirling Water Spouts which have swept in from the Pacific and are currently trying to burst through the mattress, revving up and down the spine (don’t stop!), digging in behind the knee (bliss!) pummeling the back of the head (just there!), seeking out every lingering ache and pain, you gradually fall into a trance as you gaze up at the ceiling. This is no magnolia paint job; its chromotherapeutic display of waving palms and lotus blossoms, fading in and out of soft pinks and purples, transports you to tropical isles, borne on the wings of distant music, the Arcadian pipes of a naughty Pan or the plangent cries of whales calling to their young through the blue unfathomable depths. Or perhaps it is the mermaids singing?
By the end of the week our bodies don’t know what’s happened to them. The flabby bits have been pummeled into submission with powerful water jets, the bones have been baked in sludge, every muscle from cranium to toes has been massaged to ecstasy with fig oil and we glow as we walk into a room. On one perfect morning we were forced to cast off our Lotus-eating torpor and plunge into the outdoor pool for an Aquagym class. There, in the March sunshine, we leaped up and down singing Can’t take my Eyes off of You while admiring the purple silhouette of the Pyrenean foothills slipping down to the water’s edge and the glittering sea beyond.
Was that a mermaid in the distance, riding seaward on the waves, combing the white hair of the waves blown back…?
Wishing you all a very happy Easter weekend!
PS At the end of Biarritz-Villa Julia, Jill is busy organizing a ladies’ pamper day at the thalassotherapy centre of the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz. If the French Summer Novels had been set on the Med, they’d have been booking in to the Hôtel les Flamants Roses, and Jill would have been the one singing off key with Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in the outdoor pool…I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you who bought copies of this last book in the series, and the four reviewers who put a spring in my step and a flip in my aqua-leap with your warm and wonderful 5-star words 😉