So Many Naked Germans! A Rookie’s Guide to the German Sauna Experience.
[This blog post is a work in progress, but I’m going to go ahead and publish anyway, as I have two friends who will begin their naked sauna explorations through Germany in just a few hours from now. In the coming days, I’ll finish out the end of the post, and patch in all the web-links. Thanks for reading!]
It’s been ten years since my first visit to a German sauna world, or Saunawelt as they would say auf deutsch. An internet blogger friend pointed me in the direction of the newly expanded Therme Erding conveniently situated between Munich and the nearby international airport. As a seasoned naturist, I will remember that initial sauna adventure for all of my days. That moment you walk into the co-ed changing rooms, trying to look unfazed by your inability to open your locker which in inconveniently located between a middle-aged couple removing their clothes, and all at the same time wondering if you would offend more people by being naked or by wrapping yourself in a towel. Informative directives were posted everywhere, which would have been ever so helpful had I paid more attention during that one semester of college German.
It’s not especially helpful that there are approximately a bazillion sauna and “therme” (thermal pools) centers dotting the map of Germany, not to mention those to be found in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands – each of which have a unique set of customs and rules that may or may not be posted in German on a wall, a leaflet, or a countertop. Doesn’t matter really – there’s clearly something in the DNA of central Europeans that helps them decode the unspoken rules of social nudity. It’s no secret the Germans are social-nudity thought-leaders, but still… how do they always seem to know what’s going on?
Before going into my detailed guide for naked spa rookies, I should encourage those who worry about the communal nudity thing to read any number of TripAdvisor reviews written by prudish Americans who uniformly confirm the realization that non-sexual nakedness in a social environment only feels awkward for about five minutes, until you realize that clothing actually does very little to help us obscure the things that make us feel most awkward or inadequate about our bodies. This is not a post about the perils or merits of social nudity, but instead, a guide for the person who says, “I’m over it. A bazillion Germans seem to think it’s fun! “I’m gonna shed my inhibitions and sweat it out with a bunch of strangers, and I’m gonna like it!”
With that said, I thought it might be useful to provide a few cues to help you find the right place for your first naked sauna experience, noting that the options are many. Compared to everything that’s out there, (About 350 spas in Germany alone, I think!) I’ve been to relatively few. But for the sake of this blog post, I think I can narrow these down into four categories:
- The Therme Erding Mega-spas: Therme-Erding is not only a relative newcomer in the therme business, but they seem to enjoy the reputation of doing everything bigger and bolder than all those who have gone before, in a – dare I say it – Disneyesque sort of way! While they advertise the installation in Erding (near Munich) as the world’s largest spa, their more recent endeavors are similarly expansive – with a consistent penchant for emulating the exotic islands of the South Seas, where the climate is controlled 365 days a year under glass domes that could house a dirigible! With locations in Erding, Wörishofen, Sinsheim (near Heidelberg), Schwarzwald, and Euskirchen (near Cologne), the Erding location boasts the largest texteil-frei bereich (clothes-free zone), though the others try to compensate for this by offering “long sauna nights” about once a month when the entire property becomes naked-friendly for the evening. You’ll either need to learn a few important German words or get familiar with Google Translate to figure all that out, but it you’re hell-bent on maxing out the full-monty experience without planning around a specific day of the month, Erding is probably your best bet.
- The Kristall Therme Chain: I should remind my readers that I’m no expert here, but as best I can tell, the Kristall Therme chain was pretty much on the cutting edge of chain-style sauna experiences until the Erding folks stepped up to the plate. But while the aforementioned thermes decided to focus on palm trees and palapas, the Kristall team went for a Neo-Viennese-quasi-elegant-but-not-so-impressive-chandelier affect! The result is something like the amusement park down the street from Disneyland that tried to exploit the WOW factor, but in my humble opinion, the chandeliers and candelabras are not aging well. We have only visited two of their locations; one near Schwangau which was a but underwhelming, and another in Ludwigsfelde near Berlin, which is very naked and family friendly; quite different that the other texteil-frei locations that are limited to age patrons 16 years and older. The therme in Stein (near Nuremberg) had a serious fire several years ago, but it appears they have rebuilt and reopened. I’d love to know what they’ve done to bring things up to date as compared to the older branches of the chain. Ludwigsfelde is pretty much naked friendly, everywhere, all the time, which may be the reason I’ve gone back there at least three times.
- The historic sauna bath-houses: So I have to confess… the only “old school” historic bath I’ve been to so far is the Müller’sches Volksbad not far from the Englischer Garten in Munich, yet another famously naked place in Germany. I went midday on a weekday in the dead of winter, and spent most of my time there asking myself, “Should I be naked here? Can I swim naked? And where are all the humans under 75 years of age? I have yet to visit the Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Baths in Baden-Baden, nor the Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme in Wiesbaden, nor the Neptune Bad in Cologne, but my impression is that they all provide a similar sense of bathing in a ornate museum, often involving a wellness course sort of track where you make your way through the various sensations ranging from very warm pools to very cold pools (Nope! Not for me!), wrapped in warm towels in between. It’s on my bucket list to try a couple more of these out, but I’m always a little anxious about wasting a precious spa day on something I’m not sure I’m going to love! Maybe Wiesbaden or Cologne soon – we’ll see.
- A myriad of independent spas with a vast array of amenities: As soon as you realize that every town that begins was the word “Bad” (German for bath) is essentially a spa town, you’ll see that there are thermal spas all over Germany, as frequently as not, in cute little villages where the thermal springs are about the only thing happening there. Schwaben Quellen is particularly popular in Stuttgart, located right in the heart of a city commercial center, and I’m particularly fond of a beautiful complex called Mediterana located outside of Cologne, (though the pools are a bit tepid to my liking,) and I’ve been eager to get to one or both of the Verbali Spas, one in Düsseldorf, one in Berlin, each of which are killin’ it on Trip Advisor, especially with the under-forty crowd. I did visit a small spa in Rheinland-Pfalz that felt a bit more like a recreation center for seniors. That’s all good, but not what I was hoping for that day. And I’ve ventured out to Taunus Therme near Frankfurt twice. Beautiful pool area downstairs, but I keep forgetting to bring a swimsuit, (which is required in that part of the complex) so I’ve never even dipped a toe in it. The point is that you need to do your research before you go. Many thermes will actually have a map like this one from Bad Hönningen that gives you a sense of the layout of the place, along with the size and amenities of the sauna area (almost always nude) and the therme area (almost always texteil), which is why it pays to dig around the website to see if the place is according to your preferences. Of course, that’s equally important for those who are trying to avoid naked Germans!
Locals have told me the big commercial chain thermes are just for tourists and they would never go there, which may be true, but I have to say all those tourists at the swim-up bar at Therme Erding Speak crazy good German. But with over 350 such establishments in German alone, it seems location and personal preference defines the ranking system. Just depends on what you’re looking for.
With that, let’s get down to business. How do you make sure your day at the relaxation spa is… well… relaxing, and not just a sequential outing of awkward faux-pas?
ARRIVAL: While I have a enough German to say, “Two adults for four hours, please,” there is typically somebody at the check in counter who has enough English to immediately make me feel inadequate about my German. And besides, they’ll want to know if you want to rent a robe (badmantel), a towel (handtuch), or slippers (xxx), all of which most locals bring along with them, but if you’re traveling lightly, it’s easy enough to rent them on the spot, and I’ve never been to a place where that’s not possible. Often, they will actually charge you up front for the purchase price of the item (Say 50€ for the robe, but since the rental is only 4€, they refund you the difference once you bring it back at check-out. No big deal if using a credit card, and you’ll probably spend more than than on food and drink while you’re in the spa anyway. Most clients will bring a normal bathrobe from home, though many just make a go of it for the day with a towel. You most definitely want slippers or flip-flops though and there will undoubtedly be some outdoor walking, and the floors are frequently wet and slippery.
If the complex has several different attractions, you’ll want to know which one you’re looking for before you get in line. Therme Erding, for instance, has one entrance point for Galaxy Park (a big water slide area where swimsuits are required and well as a penchant for sudden drops), another desk for Thermen Paradise (a large family oriented area with elaborate warm pools and maybe a few saunas (swimwear required) and other attractions, and the most expensive entrance lane for Saunawelt, where you’ll go directly into the clothes-free zone as soon as you clear the desk and enter the locker room. While it may seem strange that the “take your clothes off area” is the most expensive option, that’s because that ticket provides you access to the entire complex – but only if you remember to pack a swimsuit so you can work your way back through the labyrinth of gateways to the other areas.
To address the perennial question of “Where does a nudist keep his wallet?” they will typically issue you a wristband with a coin chip in it. USUALLY, this is ALL you need for all the business you will do that day. You will use it to open your locker, pay for your meals, buy drinks at the swim-up bar, and even to pay for a massage or spa treatment should you choose to book one. I say usually as I remember my last visit to the Kristall Therme – Ludwigsfelde near Berlin where they had a bizarre procedure where you could use your bracelet at the food court, but I vaguely remember having to bring a ziplock baggie of money to the swim-up bar, which made absolutely no sense to me. (Maybe there was a better solution, but I wasn’t about to figure it out in German.) In any event, if you can, it’s worth clarifying exactly what your bracelet will or will not do while you’re still at the front desk.
THE LOCKER ROOM and THE GRAND ENTRANCE: I have feared locker rooms since the first time I had to use one in seventh grade! Terrified! Really! I’m mostly over that when I go to the YMCA, and I’ve grown accustomed those at the therme as well, but my heart did stop for a moment the first time I had to ease my way toward my locker next to a naked women leisurely unpacking her spa bag. She could see I was fumbling with my bracelet unlocking-device and offered me help getting the magnetic lock to release.
In reality, she was a bit more immodest than most, as many will find one of the little changing cubicles (think department store fitting room), enter fully clothed, then exit wrapped in a bathrobe of a towel. That always seems like an extra step to me as the entrance to the spa area typically takes you through a shower room where they’d like you to immediately doff said covering garment and rinse down before entering the main attraction area.
But that leads to another interesting element of spa nudity – one that I have never understood, but it seems to be a sort of common law, often specified in the rules for the spa – which you may or may not find posted or printed in English that nudity is mandatory in the saunas and the pools, but you are required to cover yourself with a towel or a robe when moving about the facilities or visiting the restaurants therein. Most everyone complies with the restaurant part, but every time an aufguss session lets out (more about that later) there will be a rush of naked humans rushing to the nearest shower or outside to cool-off. But otherwise, the expectation is that you will wrap at least the lower part of your body when moving about the premises. Of course, there’s always a few people who either didn’t read the rules, or simply choose to walk about naked, or maybe even with a towel draped loosely over the shoulder, scarcely obscuring any of the quintessential body parts. (Yes, that may well be me!) There are always spa employees everywhere, and not once have I seen them stop someone to ask them (me!) to cover up, and since the large spas have literally hundreds of loungers scattered around, you’ll see every form of undress, from bundled tightly in robes, to people discreetly covering their genitalia, to people napping – buck naked – spread eagle. You’ll have a sense of what goes at a particular spa within a few minutes of arrival.
NOODLES IN THE POOL: This seems to be another interesting variation from one spa to the next, as Friday night at the therme seems to be a very popular date night outing. At Erding, it’s not uncommon to see couples enjoying a deep embrace as they’re floating in the lazy river outside on a snowy evening with steam billowing off the water. Once again, spa attendants are plentiful and you know there are video cameras everywhere, including the rest areas. (My wife an I once inadvertently summoned a bouncer-like fellow when a hand drifted too close to a sensitive area. He simply stood by making his presence known, and that was that. There are cameras everywhere!) The Ludwigsfelde Kristall Therme allows children of all ages, so that changes the vibe a bit, and the huge Bad Wörishofen is totally nude on Friday nights, during which it seems their were guards everywhere out on noodle patrol. I’ve never seen anything that would get the overt sexual activity prize, but it seems each spa has it’s own unspoken rules regarding acceptable behavior, and somehow, everyone seems to know what those are. When in Rome…
OK – WHAT ABOUT THE SAUNA THING. WILL I DIE?: Seriously. That was my primary concern the first time I went into a sauna. I mean, the whole idea is that you’re going to go in, sit down, and get really, really hot until there is sweat oozing from places you didn’t even realize possible?
The large Erding affiliate spas have the most elaborate (and largest) themed saunas. In fact, I think Erding has at least twenty-five different saunas, each of which offer a wide variety of different aufguss (infusion) ceremonies over the course of a day. By large, I mean it’s not uncommon for 80-100 people to crowd in for a popular aufguss session, and yes, everyone is completely naked, with your towel often overlapping the towel next to you. That alone might feel a bit claustrophobic to some, but that’s just before the ceremony begins! Perhaps you think yourself clever having chosen a spot with a bit more personal space on the top shelf in the upper back corner, until you realize that twelves seconds before the ceremony begins, five more people are going to dash in, see you are occupying the only available real-estate, and come crowd in around you! Now… you’re on the top level (where the heat is the most intense), in the back corner (farthest from the exit door), and packed in like a giant sweaty sardine when you realize that if you needed to leave suddenly, you’d have to awkwardly drag your moist body and dripping towel over three rows of other naked people deeply entranced in the mediation chimes of ancient Indonesia!
The aufguss ritual itself has to do with the pouring of scented water on intensely hot rocks, after which, the spa-master will take a large towel, or a flag, or maybe even giant Russian banja leaves and thwack them in your direction to provide a blast heat that literally takes your breath away! You suddenly have an entirely new sense of empathy for your Thanksgiving turkey, coming to realize that it was a kindness to make sure he was dead before putting him in the oven!
Thankfully, your spa-master has told you about the entire process before it actually begins – typically a two or three minute explanation that I think goes like this…”Welcome to mud ritual of ancient Egypt! In a moment, I’m going to close the door, then poor this magic potion on those boiling rocks. Then my assistant and I are going to give you some magic goo what we found near the tomb of Moses so you can spread it all over your body – unless you want to ask your friend to help you with those hard to reach places. (Hahahahaha!) Then I’ll pour some more water on those rocks and take this towel and snap it within inches of your face so you can feel the magic mud being absorbed into your pores and your body begins triage inventory – “Brain – functioning. Heart – beating. Arm-pits – on overload!” Then I think he says something like, “Please remember, this is a high intensity ride. People with heart conditions, pregnant women, and humans prone to anxiety should take note of the nearest exit, even if you can’t possibly get to it when it matters. Please keep your arms and legs inside the carriage at all times.” Let me remind you, I only know a few German words, like exit, panic, and die, but I usually feel reassured by the laughter of my German counterparts.
This is why you may want to ease your way into the process, realizing that any particular sauna will only have an aufguss ceremony every two hours or so. When that happens, they put a sign on the door that says “session in progress,” do not enter!” But otherwise, you can go in and try out the various saunas and stay for as little or as long as you wish. Pretty soon, you’ll realize that each sauna has a sign on the door that tells you the temperature, and sometimes the humidity percentage as well. Of course, it’s all in Celsius, but you’ll figure out the difference between 65° and 85° pretty quickly! Way more than the Fahrenheit equivalent. And the higher the humidity, the more intense the heat.
It also took me a while to realize that if you want a premium seat for an aufguss ceremony, on the bottom step, not too far from the door, you have to plan ahead. Each aufguss event lasts about ten minutes, and while they won’t let additional people come in once “the show has begun,” you do have the prerogative to leave any time, and typically, one or two people do. For me, I found that putting myself in a position to escape if I felt I needed to was all the assurance I needed to alleviate the anxiety, but that requires forethought. In this case, forethought involves arriving ten or fifteen minutes before the aufguss begins, putting your towel down to mark your spot, sitting to acclimate for a few minutes to get a sense of the heat intensity, then stepping out of the sauna – leaving your towel behind – (you’re naked, remember!) to cool down; maybe even step outside if it’s convenient, to bring down your body temperature. Sometimes there will be a giant vat of crushed ice nearby that people scoop up by the handful. I, along with many others, will make a giant snowball and take it back in the sauna with me if I know the heat will be particularly intense, then rub it on my forehead and chest when I feel like it’s just a little too much. By then end of the event, your snowball has vanished into a puddle on your towel.
To be continued…