Pages Navigation Menu

Carol and Gene Rodgers visit the 130-year old Friedrichsbad spa in Germany’s Baden-Baden, and like most Americans new to European spa customs, find it a broadening experience.

Au Naturel in Baden Baden

Friedrichsbad_Aussenaufnahme

The majestic and venerable Friedrichsbad is the pre-eminent spa in Germany and perhaps all of Europe. Germans refer to spas as ‘die kur’ (the cure) and the national health programme allows a free visit every five years.

Constructed atop the ruins of an ancient bath built around thermal springs by the conquering Romans, Friedrichsbad leads you through a 17-stage series of pools ranging from hot-tub temperature to numbing cold, with Jacuzzi-like jets, showers, saunas, steam rooms, and massages. It ends with rooms to nap, read and relax. The recommended order is optional and you can repeat or omit stages, such as the little-used cold-water plunge.

The spa’s high ceilings, marble walls, and classical statues in niches give it an almost stately feel. The cost is €25 for a three-hour basic package or €49 for a four-hour stay including two massages. Despite its many pleasures and benefits, few Americans visit the spa because of their cultural hang-ups. As a Swedish woman who had immigrated to America once told me ‘Americans are the most prudish people in the (western) world.’ A case can be made for that.

The spa is in a large building in a busy neighbourhood surrounded by shops, homes and restaurants. My wife, Carol, and I went at noon on an April Sunday. After we paid for the basic routine plus two types of massage, we were given electronic devices to wear on our wrists that looked like watches without dials. These contained a computer chip that recorded the time we had in the spa and verified our purchased options.

FRied historic entrance

We climbed the elegant stairs to the changing room. This was like a gym locker room except that, in place of benches between the rows of skinny, vertical lockers, it had rows of green dressing cubicles like the changing rooms in clothing stores but smaller. We each took one and undressed completely. I stepped out of my cubicle, put my clothes in a locker, took out a small sheet to lie on in the saunas, and locked the door by depressing the button with my ‘watch.’ When Carol came out, we walked to the door that led to the first stage, sheets in hand. An attendant, a woman dressed in white like hospital staff, told us to shower first and then follow the arrow to the first sauna. The three showers heads were in use, so we waited a couple of minutes until one became free. Carol took it, putting her sheet in a little cubicle and her glasses in a special holder on the wall. A minute later, one opened for me.

If you’ve been following closely, you now know why most American travellers avoid Friedrichsbad and why it can profoundly change your attitudes. It’s totally nude – with totally mixed bathing four days a week: Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. On other days, it’s wholly or partially segregated. Europeans in general and Germans in particular don’t view nudity as sexual in the way Americans do. When the woman at Friedrichsbad’s reception desk heard our American accents, she asked if we knew that ‘you don’t wear any clothes.’ We said ‘macht nichts’ because we had been young during the hippie era, when skinny dipping and nude hot-tubbing were national sports. Germans tend to accept nudity if it’s appropriate – sunbathing, even in public parks; at beaches; in saunas and hot tubs; on massage tables; and in spas. (Photos taken inside Friedrichsbad often show people wearing towels, but this is a publication requirement and not a realistic depiction.)

At Friedrichsbad, people new to the experience lose their self consciousness in minutes when they find that their interactions with staff and other visitors are as normal as when everyone is fully clothed. No one is offended, no one is laughing at them, no one is staring at them any more than they would at a beach (although attractive people will always attract glances) and the atmosphere is not at all sexual.

However, it is sensual – like going barefoot all over. And it gives you a sense of freedom and relaxation that’s hard to explain. I suspect this relates to subconscious tension in public when a thin layer of clothing is all that stands between you and horrendous embarrassment. The nudity adds to the feeling of wellbeing when there’s nothing to be embarrassed about and this tension disappears.

I should add that we usually had six or so companions at most stages. They were as varied as people walking the main street of any town – good looking, average and not so good looking; young and old; fat and skinny (but all white, probably reflecting European demographics). Most were couples, but a few men and women were on their own. No kids are permitted. Attendants were all pleasant, understanding and helpful and spoke English, although none with great fluency. With few Americans passing through, English is probably not as important as at other tourist destinations.

Returning to the first stage, the showers: The thermal waters pour from them like a hot waterfall and you can return to them as often as you want, a sybaritic experience by itself. There are liquid-soap containers on the wall for the first, cleansing shower.

warmair bath BB

When we followed the sign to the next station, a medium-hot sauna, an attendant gave us sandals because of the hot floor. We placed our sheets on red, slatted wooden lounges, took off our sandals and lay down a few minutes (I forget exactly how long; each stage has posted recommended times). Then we went to the high-heat sauna and after that the optional soap-brush massage room.

Three people lay on tables being scrubbed with soapy water by 2 masseuses and a masseur (the only male staffer I saw the whole time, probably because we went through the right half of the facility, the women’s side on segregated days). We were each assigned a number. A masseuse called Carol’s number a couple of minutes later, instructing her to stand under a shower briefly before climbing on the table. Someone collected Carol’s sandals. The masseur called my number a little while after. He asked if I wanted the hard or soft brush and I chose soft (I wonder if anyone opts for hard). He had me lie on my back and scrubbed my entire front half avoiding my neck, head, and nether regions. Then he quickly hand massaged the scrubbed area. He had me turn over for a similar treatment of my back half. The entire process took 8 minutes. The brush was like a soft American bath brush; it tingled but never hurt and my skin glowed afterwards.

massage

Returning to the general group in the medium-hot steam room, we exchanged our sheets for thicker pads to use on the stone benches. After the allotted time, we moved on to the high-heat steam room and then, after more sweat-rinsing showers, to the hot-water pool. This was hot-tub temperature and became our favourite stage.

Next – the warm Jacuzzi-style pool, adjacent to the similar but larger pool on the men’s side with open access between. Five spouting water jets were in constant use and couples often intertwined to share them. While this sometimes led to younger couples embracing, nothing inappropriate occurred in this romantic setting. We had to wait quite a while to get a jet and then took turns using it.

Thence to the big pool in the middle of the building, used by both left and right spa sections, where the thermal water is little warmer than a swimming pool. The pool is noted for its high cathedral ceiling featuring a beautiful rotunda. Then we were once again at the very first set of showers having done a complete circuit. We stood there some time letting the hot water cascade over us.

BB2

You’re supposed to go from here to the cold plunge pool, where the water feels freezing (although it’s well above 32 deg.). Most people skip it and on the women’s side it is only big enough for one person. Being adventurous and perhaps foolhardy, I tried it. Key parts of my body shrank so much that they seemed to disappear and I also ached. That should have been the last water treatment, but I immediately scurried over to the hot shower to set things right.

From there we went back to our favourite pool for a while and then to the drying room. An attendant placed sheets around our shoulders and directed us to sit in chairs to dry off. Then masseuses came, collected the sheets and took us to private massage rooms where soothing music played at low volume. The massage was thorough, skipping the same areas as before and was the fastest hand massage I have ever had lasting just eight minutes. Its purpose was not to give a regular massage, but to apply moisturising lotion and restore water-logged skin. It ended with the signature Friedrichsbad spank, a tap on my behind.

Our last stop was the relaxation room, a large circular, domed place with simple beds around the perimeter. An attendant placed blankets on two beds, laid sheets on top of the blankets, and directed us to lie down. She wrapped the coverings around us mummy-style and asked us when we wanted to be awakened. We told her 45 minutes. I was in a deep sleep and nearly hit the ceiling when she startled me by tweaking my left big toe to wake me up.

The last scheduled stage is a reading room with mostly German magazines that we skipped. Instead, we went directly to the worst stop of the day: the locker room, to get back into our clothes and re-enter the everyday world.

relaxation room Fred

If you regard mixed nudity as sinful, disgusting or improper, or your sense of dignity depends on clothing or being thoroughly conventional, then Friedrichsbad’s ‘mixed’ days are not for you. (You could go on Monday, Thursday, or Saturday, when men use the left side and women the right. Men and women come together only to use the big centre pool. There’s a small version of that pool on the women’s side, so women never have to see or be seen by men. But there’s no such accommodation for men, so they’d have to skip that stage.)

But if you have spirit and want to truly experience a foreign culture, then I urge you to try Friedrichsbad. It takes gumption. Years of acculturation to the American nudity taboo will generate intense fear as you approach the Friedrichsbad door—probably more than a few people have turned back. But if you continue undaunted, you’ll be amazed to find in just minutes that your fears are totally groundless and you’ll be in for one of the great experiences of your life.
Friedrichsbad Baden-Baden

Römerpl. 1, 76530 Baden-Baden, Deutschland

Tel: +49 (0)7221 275940

Full details about Friedrichsbad on http://www.carasana.de/en/friedrichsbad

Notes:

The thermal water is rich in minerals and has its source on the slopes of the Florentinerberg in Baden-Baden. Rising from depths of up to 2000 metres, the water reaches the surface at temperatures ranging from 56°C – 68.8°C from a total of twelve separate sodium chloride-bearing artesian springs. The springs are approximately 12,000 – 17,000 years old and discharge around 800,000 litres of thermal water a day (that’s 9 litres a second) with a daily mineral content of 2,400 kg.

 Images and thermal water notes courtesy of CARASANA Bäderbetriebe GmbH

Pin It

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *