The Harmony of Wellness: Operatic Spa-Going in Germany


Onstage at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, a princess and her young lover sing a passionate duet in Der Rosenkavalier, a romantic comedy that I watch from my seat amid opulent décor, including a massive chandelier and statues of cherubs and goddesses. Glorious music swirls around me like puffy clouds, and I’m in heaven.

Music has the power to uplift and heal the spirit, and I’ve come to Germany to celebrate my recovery from a recurrent hip disease by making a healing pilgrimage to two places, Bavaria and in Dresden, that prize both classical music and superb spas. The musical aspect of my trip is important because I play the bassoon—the low-sounding double-reed instrument with a bell that pokes up from the middle of the orchestra. After each of my three hip surgeries, one of the first things I did when I was back on my feet was to return to performing in my local orchestra.

Schloss Elmau: A Melodic Mountain Retreat and Spa

After reveling in opera music in Munich, I hopped on the train to a destination of operatic proportions in the Bavarian Alps. When the snow-covered peaks and the castle tower at Schloss Elmau resort appeared, I felt like belting out a song à la Maria von Trapp: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

Tucked into the woodlands at the foot of the dramatic Bavarian Alps, Schloss Elmau is a luxury spa retreat and cultural hideaway, and I had three days at this holistic wellness resort to partake of yoga, saunas and spa treatments, supplement with dips in outdoor pools, dine on divine cuisine and immerse my self and my soul in concerts. Yes, concerts. Since it opened in 1916, Schloss Elmau was founded on the idea that listening to music and communing with nature are essential for overall wellness. The resort’s philosophy is that yoga, tai chi, healthy food, music, outdoor exercise and spa treatments harmonize—and the result is a transformation of body and soul. That means that classical concerts (performed at least twice weekly) and nightly jazz piano in the Al Camino Bar and Lounge are as much a part of the Schloss Elmau experience as massage and steam rooms.

In fact, spa music is a centuries-old tradition. Until the mid-20th century it was common for small orchestras or string quartets to play at European spas. “Live music is rare at spa resorts today, so people think our concerts are something special,” says Johannes Mikenda, who serves as the director of yoga and spa services at Schloss Elmau. “But really, we’ve just forgotten that music has always been part of the healthy experience we seek from a spa.” A Jivamukti yoga instructor, Mikenda notes that listening to music allows us to be in the moment. “It’s like practicing yoga; you’re staying in the present from note to note,” he says.

There are three different spa areas at Schloss Elmau. In Shantigiri Spa, I lounged on my first day in the wooden sauna, designed with a large window that frames the forest and mountains outside. I found the openness—and the magnificent view—to be utterly refreshing. Next, I glided through the heated water of the outdoor infinity pool while watching the sun dip behind the peaks.

The following day I indulged in the Oriental Hammam Spa, located in the Badehaus building. Schloss Elmau’s hamman (or Turkish steam bath) is said to be the largest one west of Istanbul, and its tea lounge is furnished like a magical story from The Arabian Nights, with lounging chairs where you can nibble on dates while sipping hot mint tea. Pillars and arches made of honey-colored stone frame the cozy area.

Soon I met Dr. Imke König, Schloss Elmau’s spa director and my hammam expert, or tellak. I’d never had a hammam treatment, so she gave me a bit of an overview. A Muslim tradition that goes back 1,400 years, the hammam is a cleansing ritual done before going to the mosque, so it’s meditative as well as modest. Imke showed me how to wear a tied garment called a pestemal, a rectangular piece of cloth that you wear throughout the steam-bath treatment.

While Imke finished preparing the treatment room, I entered a warm, scented room where a brass bowl next to a stone basin waited. I filled the bowl with water and poured it over my head as instructed. Then I sat for a bit in the steam to open my pores. In my mind, I began to hear the sinuous violin solo from Scheherazade, a symphonic suite about the clever storyteller in A Thousand and One Nights. Scheherazade was the new bride of a Arabian sultan who married a different woman every day and killed her after the wedding night (horror!). She outsmarted her would-be murderer by telling him a cliffhanger story night after night. She never finished before dawn, and her husband always let her live for another day so that he could hear the story’s end.

My 90-minute hamman was much like Scheherazade’s fabled accounts of Aladdin and Ali Baba: each part of the treatment’s “tale” led to another, even more wonderful coda. First I lay face down on the stone-slab surface (made from local Jura limestone) heated from underneath by hot steam. Imke cushioned my face and knees with towels and then used a hamman mitt to do a light exfoliating scrub all over my back, legs, and arms. Then she lifted the pestemal while I turned over. The scrubbing resumed on my front; it felt like I was getting a gentle bath from a cat.

Next was the soap cleanse and massage. Imke placed 10 bars of pure vegetable soap inside a 30-inch-long cotton sack. I watched as she submerged the sack into a bucket of warm water and agitated it until the bucket was super-soapy. She then removed the soap bars and blew three, long puffs of air into the empty bag until it inflated like a soapy balloon, which she swished up and down the length of my body. Surprisingly, the puffy bag felt not like rough cotton but as smooth as silk. Imke called it a “cloud bath;” indeed, the bag felt soft and fluffy on my skin, leaving behind piles of bubbles.

Imke worked yet another miracle: Using a microfiber glove, she turned the fluffy bubbles I was covered with into a thick mousse. (Perhaps the glove decreased the amount of air in the froth?) Through the mousselike lather, Imke massaged my neck, shoulders, arms, and legs. Then I turned over, and the entire soap ritual repeated on my back. Even though her hands were slippery, Imke’s massage was firm, and she kept checking in to see that the pressure wasn’t too hard. On the contrary, it was perfect!

Afterward, Imke rinsed the suds from me with a fresh bucket of water. The final treat was a hair washing: She used an olive-oil shampoo and massaged my scalp. I melted like the Sultan succumbing to Scheherazade’s stories.

After a final rinse, I dried off with fluffy towels before wrapping myself in a dry, all-white pestemal, with a second one to drape over my shoulders. When Imke returned, she tied a third pestemal around my head sheikh-style. By this point I was so limp that Imke had to guide me out of the hamman treatment room where she ensconced me in a divan lounge chair and served me tea and Turkish Delight. I nibbled at the sweets and then nodded off. When I woke as if from an Arabian Nights dream, two young women were playing backgammon in the chairs across from me.

Yoga Studio: “Schloss Elmau Retreat”

That evening, I sat in Schloss Elmau’s music hall listening to a spellbinding concert by a viola/piano duo: Schubert, Brahms, Kodály. Honey-like sound from the viola strings trickled over me like the warm, soothing water of the hammam. I breathed deeply and remembered what Johannes Mikenda had said about how listening to music keeps you in a state of mindfulness and stretches you emotionally—much like the yoga class I attended earlier in the day, taught in both German and English.

The musicians played ardently; nothing existed for them besides expressing themselves through their instruments. The audience and I listened with equal passion, and through the music I felt my experiences at Schloss Elmau Retreat and Spa converge: hearing the viola, beholding the alpine valley from the rooftop pool, feeling my hip sturdy and strong in Warrior II yoga pose, tasting roasted kingfish with a German pinot noir at Luce d’Oro restaurant, dreaming beneath the cozy duvet in my suite. It was like all the melodies from my visit merged with the concert of life at the resort, created in the tempo of vitality and in the key of inspiration.

The Mozart Effect at the Hyperion Spa & Sport

Next I headed to Dresden, in eastern Germany, where many visitors come to hear opera in its magnificent Semper Opera House, one of the finest and most beautiful in the world. Though music was my motivation, I discovered a small jewel of a spa at my hotel: the stylish Hyperion Hotel Dresden am Schloss, located just a five-minute walk from the Theater Square where the opera house presides like a queen.

During my stay, I frequented the Hyperion Spa & Sport’s state-of-the art organic sauna and the hotter, drier Finnish sauna. Steps from both saunas was a “vitality” shower with head-to-toe sprays for an invigorating cool-off. This routine from hot to cold was the perfect way to unwind and refresh after a day of sightseeing. On my itinerary was a 45-minute guided tour of the Semper Opera House to hear about its history, including how it was artfully rebuilt decades after it was destroyed during the WWII bombing of Dresden. As someone who’s had to rehab from three hip surgeries, I related to the rebirth story of the glorious opera house.

Between attending a performance of Mozart’s whimsical opera, The Magic Flute—a lighthearted, comedic fairy tale with lyrical melodies—and receiving a customized massage at the Hyperion’s spa, I truly experienced Dresden’s Mozart Effect. In other words, music and bodywork combined to rejuvenate my sense of adventure and creativity.

The spa magic began with a 20-minute pre-treatment rest in the Relaxation Room, where über-mod lounging chairs were arranged in a vaulted stone chamber, built during the 1400s as part of the cellars of the medieval castle that once stood where the hotel now is. The lights gently illuminated the honey-colored stones, and I reclined under a cozy blanket—occasionally sipping some cool cucumber water—and contemplated the passage of time: how old things can be so beautifully remade into something fresh and new.

After I was escorted into the treatment room, Rachel, my massage therapist, let me choose an essential oil for my treatment. Though I love to travel, there’s always a bit of edginess—like figuring out train schedules in a foreign language, or navigating the circular medieval streets from the glorious Church of Our Lady back to my hotel. So I chose lavender, which provided just the soothing effect I needed. I also requested extra attention on my feet and lower legs to help relieve the fatigue of walking through Dresden’s cobblestoned Old Town.

Rachel provided a lyrical touch worthy of Mozart himself: rhythmic strokes like a serenade down my back, and then percussive kneading on my shoulders. The massage crescendoed as she worked out the knots in my calves; she made a quiet diminuendo along my neck. And at the end, she spritzed my face with an invigorating lemon essential oil with notes as light and high as the showy Queen of the Night aria I’d heard the magnificent soprano sing at the opera. Afterward, my entire body was humming along in perfect tune.

So ended my musical/spa pilgrimage to Germany: a truly transformative experience. With its sweet blend of opera that delighted my soul and healing touch that eased my body, I now feel that my hip disease is officially in the past. From here on out, I intend to soar like a harmonious melody into a healthier future

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