European Baths

25 Oct

Ah, the Baths…So you remember from yesterday’s post that John and I spent Sunday afternoon at the Baths…What a fabulous, relaxing afternoon!  But before I get to our own experience, let’s talk for a minute about European baths in general…

Public bath houses and ‘spa days’ are HUGE all over Europe.  It’s actually an adopted tradition taken from the Romans (who borrowed it from the Greeks), a widespread practice used by royalty, common folk and the military during the Roman Empire time. In fact, the word ‘spa’ itself is a Latin acronym meaning ‘health by water’ and mineral sources were as particularly soothing remedies then as they are now.

Today, Germany has one of the most comprehensive spa cultures in the entire world, with the support of the German federal health care system to boot!  And while there are several different types of baths- ranging from medicinal to holistic- the most common is the ‘thermalbad.’  These are strictly leisure-focused day spas, usually modern-designed oases of relaxation in a natural indoor atmosphere (*think waterfalls, nature sounds, swaying palm trees…). Guests come to enjoy the soothing surroundings without splashing, noise or chaos.  Typically, a Therme houses a variety of different saunas, steam baths, whirlpools and cold baths, with a separate section dedicated to cosmetic spa treatments such as facials, manicures and pedicures, massages and body wraps.  The best part?  It’s totally inexpensive- just 20 euro per person for the afternoon!

Germans are very particular when it comes to spa etiquette, so blending in easily means making sure you’re up to speed on all the unwritten (and posted, actually, since they’re all in German!) rules…Most baths are ‘textile free,’ meaning ‘no clothes allowed.’  (The bath we went to allows swimsuits on the first Tuesday of every month, for example).  Now, this doesn’t mean that you’re walking around naked the entire time- you can be wrapped in your towel (although many opt to forego this option) in the big common areas and wearing flip flops (thank God because I have a thing about my feet touching wet ground!).  As you go into any of the ‘rooms’ (saunas, steam baths, etc.), you simply leave your flip flops outside the door, then enter the room carrying your towel.   Once you find a place to sit (or lie down if there’s room) on a bench, you spread out your towel to ensure that every inch of your body will be on it.  Germans are very particular not to water-stain the wooden benches (and will quickly help you correct the problem if you need said help!)

Europeans have a very casual attitude toward the human body; baring all is not seen as shameful or embarrassing. Americans, apparently, are often uncomfortable with the nudity around these establishments.  John and I, modest creatures that we are, had very little issue stripping down and enjoying what we affectionately deemed, the Adult Waterpark!  I mean, yes, of course we had that ‘Dumb and Dumber’ moment of ‘We’re really doing this, Lloyd!’ as we pulled into the parking lot.  And yes, we had that initial twinge of ‘Good Lord, we’re standing here naked!,’ but these quickly vanished when we realized how no one actually gave one iota as to what we were wearing (or not wearing, actually :)).

We went to one of the most well-known spas in south Germany (just because it happens to be the closest and we’d heard good things), the SchwabenQuellen.  It’s a huge spa/waterpark complex here in Stuttgart providing ‘adventure and fantasy baths,’ even including a  room full of snow, kept at -4°F, so that participants can ‘roll naked in the snow!’ (Of course, this often follows and precedes a stop in a sauna or steam room.)  For the record, we did stop in the Snow Room to cool down, but we did remain on our feet! Ha!

The ‘etiquette’ in the Baths is much like what I picture it being like in men’s restrooms- you keep it eye level, you don’t stare, you keep conversation to a minimum and you only sneak peeks when you’re sure no one’s looking.  🙂 There were people there of every age, size, and shape you can imagine.  From 18-85 years old, petite to rotund, fit and muscular to soft and borderline slovenly, clean shaven to bearlike hairiness, prim and proper to pierced and tattooed.  Get the picture?  Literally, EVERY body was there and it just didn’t matter- no one paid any attention to anyone else.  How refreshing!  (Granted, no one’s blind, but still!)

When you let loose, you realize certain things.  Sitting in a sauna or steam bath without a sticky swimsuit feels good. Swimming, uninhibited, in a cool pool feels good.  It feels free.  You also realize that you’re just like everyone else.  Men, you’re not the largest nor the smallest.  Women, you’re not the most beautiful, but you’re certainly not the least!  In all honesty, you can’t help but feel good about yourself while you’re there!  HOW REFRESHING!  Just to see all these people- families, friends, golf buddies, couples, strangers- and I’m talking hundreds of people!- just hanging out together, peacefully, relaxing and enjoying the day, completely nude and without any embarrassment or inhibition…

So how does it all work?  Well, when you first arrive, you’re given a wristband with an embedded microchip.  This not only allows you to access your locker and to purchase food and drinks from the restaurants, but also to be located at any time within the spa.  Next, you head into the locker room (there are men’s and women’s) to strip down, wrap yourself in your towel and proceed to the showers (everyone showers so they’re clean before entering the spa).  Then it’s game time. 🙂

John and I both entered the spa at the same time, wrapped in our towels and wearing nothing else but flip flops.  Before the door can even close behind you, you feel more at ease.  The center atrium is a HUGE, airy space with a glass dome ceiling and a lagoon in the middle.  There are palm and banana trees, waterfalls, streams, and boulders.  There are live birds chirping (and occasionally squawking!), dimly lit stone pathways around the perimeter…It’s just like an oasis.  Everything branches out from this atrium.

The central atrium...

So after getting our bearings, we jumped right in.  Having done our research ahead of time, we knew that the general routine at these baths is to do a sauna/steam session, followed by a cold shower, then a relaxation session.  Then repeat as many times as you want. 🙂  So that’s what we did.  We spent the afternoon trying out many of the different saunas, steam rooms, relaxation rooms, whirlpools and cool pools, although there certainly wasn’t time to try them all!  Obviously, cameras aren’t allowed , but I managed to find some in their brochure so you could get an idea (an actually, it’s not a case of Golden Arches foolery- it’s really what they look like!). 🙂

The SchwabenQuellen has seven saunas, eight steam rooms, six relaxation rooms, and nine whirlpools/pools.  It also has two restaurants, two bars and an outdoor ‘beach,’ complete with sand and saltwater pool.  Each of the rooms has a ‘theme,’ depending on what you’re looking for.  For example, the ‘Finnish Sauna,’ is the hottest (194F) and driest of them all, as well as the ‘plainest.’  The ‘Amazon Sauna’ is much cooler and much more humid, decorated to look like a rainforest, complete with bird and rain sounds.  The ‘Bali Sauna,’ our favorite, is also 194F, but with aroma and light therapy incorporated.

The outdoor 'Canadian Suana...'

The 'Tibetan Sauna,' complete with lighted aroma therapy candles and the sound of chanting monks...

Our favorite, the 'Bali Sauna...'

We really enjoyed the steam rooms.  Obviously, because of the humidity, your body gets hotter (and your heart rate increases significantly more) simply because the sweat isn’t able to evaporate from your skin.  And just like the saunas, the steam rooms varied in temperatures and themes, from the typical ‘Roman Bath’ to the ‘Ottoman Dream’ to the ‘Caldarium,’ which was completely dark under a ‘starry’ sky.  Tres romantique! 🙂

The 'Ottoman Dream...' (except picture it full of steam, so you can't really see much!)

Our favorite, the 'Caldarium...' It's nice to see what it actually looks like- it was pitch black except for the stars when we were in there!

So after each 15-20 minute session, we’d them cool off with a shower, then head to a ‘relaxation room’ to give our bodies the chance to regroup.  While these themed rooms were definitely beautiful and restful (some people were napping, others were reading), John and I learned something about ourselves that we’ve already known for a long time- we have the attention spans of newborn fleas!, which meant that we had a hard time just laying there naked ‘to reflect.’  Nonetheless, though, we gave it our best shot!

Probably the prettiest of all the relaxation areas, the 'African Lodge,' complete with incense and soft tribal drums...

The 'Indian House...'

The 'Mayan Temple...'

We also managed to do some of the whirlpools and large pools, too.  There’s something for everybody, whether you’re looking for an individual tub or a large, cold polar bear pool (which we were not 🙂 ).  I’ve gotta say, there’s something to be said for legally skinny dipping- without that little devil on your shoulder whispering ‘you’re being so sneaky and could be caught at any minute,’ (not that I’ve ever skinny dipped, of course 🙂 ),  you can actually appreciate how good it feels.  How free…

The 'Swiss Pools,' just large enough for one person each...

The 'Icelandic Geyser Bath,' a HUGE indoor/outdoor swimming pool...One of our favorites.

The 'Polar Bear Lagoon...'

We didn't eat during our visit to the spa, but we did stop in for a quick bottle of water...

So that was our afternoon at the SchwabenQuellen Baths.  We each retreated back to our respective dressing rooms, showered, redressed and met back on the other side, in the lobby.  We turned in our wrist bands, paid (any food or drink you buy is charged since, clearly, you haven’t had pockets to carry cash :)), and headed home for a nice light dinner.  They say that an average 20 minute sauna session produces the same amount of sweat as a 10 mile run and that a typical day at the Baths burns about 600 calories.  Wow!

For the record, John thought it’d be fun to do a weigh-in before and after.  He lost 9 lbs. between lunch and dinner! 🙂

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