The Naftalan Spa's dimly lit corridors lead into a red and white tiled treatment room almost devoid of furniture. This would all be haunting if it weren't for the happy expression on the face of the hairy, naked man half-asleep in a bathtub in the corner of the room. The tub is, thanks to a recently revived Azerbaijani tradition, full of crude oil and its occupant is giving a thumbs-up.
An oil spa is a fitting extravagance for energy-rich Azerbaijan, where luxury hotels are springing up around the newly wealthy capital of Baku at an alarming rate – five new five-star accommodations have opened since 2011, for example. Alongside local adherents, the spa now services businessmen coming to town to buy barrels – if not tubs – of petroleum, but the practice dates back to the 6th century B.C.E., when local lore says a sick camel was cured by crude. Marco Polo watched men soak in the stuff as he made his way to China.
The oil, the doctor running the spa explains, is made up of naphthalene hydrocarbons, which he claims are of a similar composition to natural, human steroids. Topical application of the oil, he says, allows the skin to breathe, widens the capillaries, and sinks into the body to work its medicinal mojo. According to the doc, the oils heal something like 70 diseases, including: joint problems, neurological diseases, skin conditions, funguses, and impotence. This is hard to believe given that naphthalene, a major component of mothballs, is listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possibly carcinogenic substance.
In truth, the oil is probably neither particularly helpful nor hurtful – no one in the spa knew of anyone harmed by the treatment. The experience, on the other hand, is wonderfully singular. The oil tingles like Icy Hot and it is impossible not to feel a bit like an oligarch while slathered in the stuff. There is a swagger to this sort of surprisingly affordable luxury, and participating can make a body feel like Scrooge McDuck taking a money bath.
That feeling of indulgence is becoming central to the Baku experience. Visitors here shovel down fried sturgeon caviar on Caspian beaches near the city, now a perpetual worksite in the manner of Dubai, before driving inland toward the decked out Shahdag Mountain Resort. The pristine metropolis can rightly bill itself as a regional hub precisely because it is – like its leading citizens – soaked in oil.
More Information: The Naftalan Spa is a 15-minute drive along a leafy seaside from downtown Baku. Those unwilling to foot the bill for a taxi can even take a regular and reliable bus and get off at the Botanical Gardens. White oil samples are free and a 10- to 12-bath course costs between $200 and $240.