Getting Naked with Strangers in Germany’s Baden-Baden
Relaxing at the spa resort of Baden-Baden in southern Germany's Black Forest, I see more naked people in two hours than many Americans see in their entire lives.
Ever since the Roman emperor Caracalla bathed in the mineral waters here, Baden-Baden has welcomed those in need of a good soak. In the 19th century, the town was Germany's ultimate spa resort, and even today, the name Baden-Baden is synonymous with relaxation in a land where the government still pays for its overworked citizens to take a little spa time. And since the beginning, the dress code in these spas has always been "naked."
Americans who can't handle nudity don't know what they're missing. My first time to Baden-Baden's venerable Friedrichsbad spa was with some German friends — a classy, good-looking young couple. We were swept into the changing area with no explanation. Suddenly they were naked and I felt like the Road Runner just beyond the cliff's edge. Then — easing up, and stripping down — I realized that a European sauna isn't a sexy space, but simply open and free.
For me, enjoying the Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Baths in Baden-Baden is one of Europe's most elegant experiences. Traditional, stately, indoors, these baths are extremely relaxing…and not very social. It's just you, your body, and an unforgettable experience.
Wearing only the locker key strapped around my wrist, I start by weighing myself — 92 kilos. The attendant leads me under the industrial-strength shower. This torrential kickoff pounds my head and shoulders and obliterates the rest of the world. He gives me plastic slippers and a towel, ushering me into a dry-heat room with fine wooden lounges — the slats too hot to sit on without the towel. Staring up at exotic tiles depicting peaceful scenes of herons and palms, I cook. After more hot rooms punctuated with showers, it's time for my massage.
Like someone really drunk going for one more drink, I climb gingerly onto the marble slab and lie belly-up. The masseur holds up two mitts and asks, "Hard or soft?" In the spirit of wild abandon, I growl, "Hard," not even certain what that will mean for my skin. I get the coarse, Brillo-pad scrub-down. Tenderized like a slab of meat, I feel entirely relaxed. The massage is over, and with a Teutonic spank, I'm sent off into the pools.
Nude, without my glasses, and not speaking the language, I bumble like Mr. Magoo in flip-flops through a series of steam rooms and cold plunges.
A steamy labyrinth leads to the mixed-gender section (the saunas are also mixed-gender on certain days of the week). This is where the Americans get uptight. The parallel spa facilities intersect, bringing men and women together to share the finest three pools in three Friedrichsbad. Here, all are welcome to drift under the exquisite domes in perfect silence, like aristocratic swans. A woman glides in front of me, on her back. Like a serene flotilla, her peaceful face and buoyant breasts glide by, creating barely a ripple. On my right, an Aryan Adonis, staring at the ethereal dome, drapes himself over the lip of the pool. Germans are nonchalant, tuned in to their bodies and focused on solitary relaxation. Two visitors I take to be tourists are tentative, trying to be cool…but seem more aware of their nudity. I remind myself there's nothing sexy about it. Just vivid life in full flower.
The climax is the cold plunge. I'm usually not a fan of cold water — yet I absolutely love this. You must not wimp out on the cold plunge.
For my last stop, the attendant escorts me into the "quiet room" and asks when I'd like to be awakened. "Closing time," I tell him. He wraps me in hot sheets and a brown blanket. Actually, I'm not wrapped, I'm swaddled: warm, flat on my back, among 20 hospital-type beds. Only one other bed is occupied; the guy in it is as still as a corpse. I stare up at the ceiling, losing track of time and myself. Sometime later, I'm jolted awake by my own snore.
As I leave, I weigh myself again: 91 kilos. I've shed two pounds of sweat. It would have been more if tension had mass. Stepping into the cool evening air, I'm thankful my hotel is a level, two-block stroll away.
Back in my room, I fall in slow motion onto my down comforter, the big pillow puffing around my head. Wonderfully naked under my clothes, I can only think, "Ahhh…Baden-Baden."
This article was adapted from Rick's new book, For the Love of Europe.
An elegant pool at Baden-Baden's Caracalla Thermal Baths (where swimmers do wear swimsuits). (photo credit: Sandra Hundacker, Rick Steves' Europe)