Monday, February 10, 2014

Balnearios Back To The Future

"Balneario" can translate in different ways into English. It means a spa or health resort, thus reflecting its original meaning, i.e. baths, as in, for example, the Roman Baths in Bath (the word comes from Latin). But for most tourists, it means something which, if one's being strictly accurate, it doesn't in Spanish - a beach bar. So how is that the beach bar is called a balneario?

The answer lies with the growth in popularity of the sea as a means of hydrotherapy in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Balnearios of varying kinds sprang up along the Spanish coasts. They were primarily establishments to facilitate the "taking of the waters", but many served a much wider function. Some were not dissimilar to piers at the British seaside. Others, which were reserved solely for bathing purposes, could be bizarre in the extreme. There is an example of what was like a Moorish palace that was manoeuvred along rails into the sea at San Sebastian. It had various doors out of which the discreet bather could step into the sea, take his or her waters and then return again. The bathing hut was most certainly not the preserve of the prudish Victorian Britons.

There are some magnificent examples of balnearios from the turn of the twentieth century. Alicante specialised in them, or so it would seem. They were called things like the "Diana" or the "Alhambra" and displayed, as with the contraption in San Sebastian, more than a passing acquaintance with Arabic style.

Gradually, balnearios became places that served several functions. As prudishness began to give way and people were more inclined to show off their bodies, to actually do some proper swimming and to indulge in the new fad of sunbathing, so the balnearios catered for different needs. In Miquel Ferra i Martorell's recollection in the "Majorca Daily Bulletin" of the American Bertran Galbraith (24 November last year), he explained how Galbraith became a swimming instructor at a balneario in Palma in the 1920s. The balneario had a solarium for sunbathing and a children's playground. It also staged dances and performances by jazz orchestras. It almost certainly would have also offered some forms of refreshment. The balneario, therefore, came to mean whatever you wanted it to mean, and today it means a place to get a drink or have something to eat: a beach bar whose original meaning has been all but forgotten.

In certain instances, balnearios at Mallorca's resorts have become so much a part of the resort's fabric that they are used as points of reference and as means of location or measuring distance. This is certainly true of Playa de Palma. There are fifteen balnearios in all, and a process of improving them should mean that four - numbers 4, 6, 8 and 10 - will have undergone their improvements by the start of the season. Three million euros are being invested by the company with the concession for the balnearios, Mar de Mallorca, and as part of this investment, the balnearios are to be themed. Yes, theming will no longer be confined to piratising or rocking a hotel, the balnearios of Mallorca are to be given the theming treatment as well.

Actually, this theming is not what it might sound, unless you think that there is a "back to the future" theme going on, because back to the future is pretty much what is happening with some of them in that they are reclaiming their sporting nature - that which was acquired thanks to the likes of Bertran Galbraith - and their role as places for relaxation. Four have been earmarked as "tipo relax". I'm not entirely clear what this entails, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't entail a tipo of relax that is offered by certain establishments most commonly frequented at night time. Other themes will mean that four balnearios will be franchised as, for example, ice-cream parlours or cocktail bars. Three more will be for entertainment and/or the ubiquitous chill-out. Showers, massage, towel hire and safes will all form part of this general upgrade in provision, one which Palma city council believes will lead to the attraction of tourists with greater wealth.

The council may well be right in believing this, but does this represent a move that is totally welcome? I wonder. The beach in Mallorca has become increasingly corporatised. It hasn't been privatised, but the desire to exploit the balnearios (for God's sake, do we really need any more chill-out?) is symptomatic of a somewhat soulless sanitisation of the island's seaside.

But there again, exploitation is not universal. In Playa de Muro they've demolished the most profitable of the resort's balnearios because it obscured the view of the sea. It was a bizarre decision, but, hey, at least Muro's former Balneario 1 won't be turned into a chill-out bar. We can, therefore, be thankful for some things.

* Photo of the machine at San Sebastian comes from

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