Thermal Baths of Germany
It’s not common knowledge outside of Europe that Germany is well known for their decadent and sumptuous thermal baths. And December is a magical month to visit Germany, thanks to its Christmas markets — colorful festivals held in old-town historic squares in cities and towns throughout the country. These Weihnachtsmarkts, as they’re called in German, feature ornate light displays and row after row of decorated booths and huts where vendors sell holiday foods and wonderful handcrafted gifts such as candles, nutcrackers, and tree ornaments.
I got into the holiday spirit at two gorgeous markets — one in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt, and one in Esslingen am Neckar, a town in southwest Germany. At both, I strolled for hours, sampling lebkuchen (gingerbread), local bratwurst and Christmas goodies. And naturally, I toasted the season with mugs of glühwein — hot, mulled wine.
No matter how enchanting the holiday markets, I knew that sooner or later I’d need to warm up and my feet would demand a break from walking on cobblestones. The solution? Visits to the traditional Irish-Roman thermal baths that can be found in each town.
Kaiser-Friedrich Thermal Baths, Wiesbaden
Wiesbaden, just a half-hour train ride from the Frankfurt airport, hosts the Sternschnuppen Market (sternschnuppe translates as “twinkling star”), which fills the marketplace with lily-shaped light sculptures. I did plenty of shopping during my two days here, but the evening I arrived, I also had a quest: conquering my jet lag. The cure was waiting at the Kaiser-Friedrich Thermal Baths, where I enjoyed several hours of time-out from the festivities.
Since 1913, the Kaiser-Friedrich Thermal Baths have been a municipal bathhouse where people can “take the waters,” but its origins date back to the ancient Romans, who created thermal baths and steam pools where the geothermally heated waters bubbled up from underground. This newly remodeled Art Deco–style spa has more than a dozen different pools and relaxation centers — some with original Latin/Roman names, like the Solarium, where spa-goers can relax in recliners under simulated sunlight. It’s not necessary to understand German to navigate the spa, either. I relied heavily on the English brochure/map I received when I entered.
A note about the German art of soaking: To maintain water cleanliness, the pools and saunas at Kaiser-Friedrich are all “fabric free”— and this includes swimsuits, so soaking is all in the buff. Luckily, I arrived in Wiesbaden on a Tuesday, when the baths are reserved entirely for women.
The spa rents large bath towels and robes, which you can wear when you’re not in a pool or sauna or steam room. (If you’re unsure about co-ed baths, I’ll get to how I dealt with my own nerves over nudity later.)
Farewell to Jet Lag
During my five-hour visit to the Kaiser-Friedrich Thermal Baths, I chose treatments that would help me reset my internal clock. First up: rehydrate my skin after hours on an international flight by soaking in mineral-rich waters. My first soak was in the Thermal Sitting Pools, where one side was 98.6ºF, the other 102ºF. Leaving my robe on a hangar, I stepped au naturel into one pool and let the water work its magic while warm streams from a fountain cascaded over my tight shoulders, neck, and scalp. It took a few minutes to get used to seeing so many naked bodies in a public space, but all the local women were relaxing, chatting, and laughing with each other — and they were all sizes, shapes, and ages, so I didn’t feel intimidated.
Once overheated from warm-water lounging, I headed to the Cold-Water Pool (70ºF), where I forced myself to submerge and take a chilly but invigorating lap. When I got out, I moved quickly into the nearby Russian Steam Bath with its billows of hot steam. Within minutes, I returned to the cold water. This hot-cold back-and-forth is part of the thermal bath therapeutic process, helping to stimulate circulation and flush away toxins. I got prickles all over, and I felt alive and alert for the first time since my ten-hour plane ride.
Next, I rested in the Luminarium, where points of light were projected on the vaulted ceiling to simulate a sparkling night sky.
Lying on a lounge chair with elevated feet, I was mesmerized by the lights, which changed color so slowly it took a while for me to realize they’d done so. My brain, previously stuck in travel-logistics mode, had finally relaxed and disengaged.
Later, I sampled the Stone Steam Bath, a serene room with honey-colored stone benches and an old-fashioned mechanical contraption that sits quietly for about ten minutes and then, with much creaking and groaning, hauls up a bucket of rocks and dunks them four times in the adjacent vat of water. So this was how steam rooms worked a century ago!
The result was a light, hydrating steam, but I couldn’t help but giggle watching the “machine” in action. I cooled off in the Tropical Ice-Rain shower, with its shoulder- and knee-high nozzles that sprayed a mix of cold and warm water — I mostly felt the icy part.
Finally, I had two treatments. The first was a Sand Bath, a room decorated to look like a Mediterranean beach that was filled with warmed sand.
I lay there for 25 minutes while the room’s lights simulated the passing of a day from sunrise to sunset, changing from dawn pinks to a deep, evening blue. The idea was to stimulate metabolism and counteract symptoms associated with light deficit and/or jet lag. It definitely relaxed my muscles because much of the time I dozed.
Next was my Soft Pack skin treatment. I lay down on what appeared to be a bed but was really a tub of warm water. The attendant applied an aromatherapy-infused lotion all over my body, wrapped me up, and then the bottom of the “bed” dropped down, and I was floating. For half an hour, I bobbed gently, getting warmed and hydrated.
Afterward, I blissfully walked back to the showers and changing room and passed relaxed-looking German ladies who were reading while soaking their feet in the footbaths. I could have spent the entire day in the Kaiser-Friedrich Thermal Baths, but it was time to return to my exquisitely comfy room at the nearby Hotel Nassauer Hof — just a five-minute walk from the Wiesbaden Christmas Market — for a great night’s sleep, free of the usual effects of jet lag.
Overcoming Nudity Nerves: Merkel’sches Baths, Esslingen
In the 1,200-year-old town of Esslingen am Neckar, where a traditional Christmas Market and Medieval Christmas Fair are held annually from late November until just before Christmas Eve. Fire jugglers and minstrels wearing medieval-era clothes provide seasonal entertainment in the Old Town square.
During my two days in Esslingen, I watched calligraphers, candlemakers, blacksmiths, soap makers, bakers, basket-makers, and mead brewers plying their trades as they might have 700 years ago. It was impossible not to have fun amid so much revelry, but roasted chestnuts and steaming mugs of glühwein only went so far in keeping me warm, so I opted for another thermal bath experience. This time it was the Merkel’sches Baths, located ten minutes from the Old Town center and the Christmas Market.
Although the website and brochures for Merkel’sches Baths were in German only, I felt like I had grasped the nude culture of thermal pools in Europe well enough to be comfortable in a mixed-sex environment. Still, I took my swimsuit — just in case.
As it turned out, the first half-hour of my visit fell within a women’s-only time, so I relaxed and began my spa circuit. First, I lolled in the Dampfbad, a steam room with color therapy. A panel in the ceiling changed the light color every two to three minutes, cycling between yellow, red, fuchsia, eggshell-blue, green, and deep violet. Next, I entered the Aroma Sauna, infused with a rose scent, where a woman whose robe hung just outside the door was lounging.
Later, after the spa opened for male patrons, I slipped into this sauna again and noticed the aroma had been changed to a more unisex citrus scent.
As I stepped out of the sauna, I heard baritone voices echoing down the hall. I grabbed my towel from the hook, and much to my relief the men who came around the corner were wearing towels around their waists.
In the Laconium — the Latin name for a dry sweating room in which the heat radiates from the stone walls, floors, and benches — the temperature was pretty hot, about 130°F. Here too I was treated to the slowly alternating colors, but because of the heat, I didn’t stay long enough to test the effect of the color therapy. Instead, I self-consciously sipped a bottle of water in the spa bar with other half-draped people of both sexes.
I found the Tepidarium, warmed to body temp (98.6ºF), more to my liking. The room had a fountain and was filled with recliners, each covered in colorful mosaic tiles. I spread out my towel and lay down across the room from a naked woman who was snoring lightly. As I gazed dreamily at the ceiling where pinpoints of colored lights sparkled, a couple entered wearing robes, which they peeled off. My nudity barometer remained stable. When in Rome …
After my drowsy visit to the Tepidarium, I tried the oddly named Mental Sauna, where I opened the door to see a man casually sprawled, buck naked, on the bench. I have to admit, this time my nudity barometer leapt several notches, but I feigned nonchalance as I dropped my towel, laid down opposite him, and closed my eyes to better listen to the recording of birdsong and babbling brook. My heart rate slowed as I breathed in the calming aromatherapy scent, and I was grateful for the quiet policy.
After Naked Guy left the Mental Sauna, I waited for the appropriate interval before departing so that it didn’t appear that I was following him. I had decided to go to the historic mineral-bath and pool area, but now there was another dilemma: Did people wear bathing suits in that part of the facility, which was downstairs from the Wellness Area? I wracked my brain trying to remember if the attendant had mentioned this. In the end, I donned my suit, and when I entered the spring-fed sports pool, it was filled with a class of moms, dads, and babies — all wearing swimsuits — who were singing while they taught the little ones to float. With a sigh of relief, I stepped into the water (an appropriate temperature for swimming) and paddled about, chuckling at the irony of an Art Nouveau stained-glass rendering of an early 20th-century woman beside a pool wearing a lot of clothes.
I meandered over to the historic-area steam room, got good and hot again, and then attempted the marble cold-plunge pool with icy water pouring through a golden spigot with an animal head. I waded into my knees; that was all the further I could go. After another steam, I was content to shuffle back to the shower room to put on my winter layers in preparation for a return to the Medieval Fair festivities.
Would my spa experience have been more relaxed without the worries about nudity? Sure, but the healing thermal waters of Merkel’sches Baths more than compensated.
Photos courtesy of GNTB, the German National Tourism Board
- The Harmony of Wellness: Operatic Spa-Going in Germany - September 4, 2017
- Overcoming ‘Nudity Nerves’ In Exquisite Thermal Baths Of Germany - December 23, 2016