Spas have been part of Germany’s culture since the Middle Ages, and the southern part of this stunningly beautiful country is the perfect place to embark on your very own odyssey.
Throwing wide the balcony doors overlooking the street below, I lean over the rail and inhale deeply. To my right, Baden Baden’s landmark thermal fountain rises from a courtyard. Ahead, the brick street climbs steeply, dissolving in hidden curves and charming alleys. It’s late morning, and the shopkeepers have just opened their doors, hanging wares outside and filling tables with books. The window of an apothecary shop advertises herbs to address every need, from pastilles for a scratchy throat to ginger for an unhappy tummy. From a flower stall just a block away, the perfume of thousands of cut blossoms floats upward, filling my room and surrounding me with tranquility. Over the next week, I’ll find that this feeling increases as I visit the picturesque spa towns of southern Germany and participate in healing traditions that have long made this region synonymous with health and wellness.
Though Germany has over 350 spa towns, first on my agenda is legendary Baden Baden. Bordering the Black Forest, the Romans discovered the healing properties of Baden Baden’s spring waters over 2,000 years ago. Flowing from twelve separate springs, the mineral-rich waters were, and still are, used for both drinking and bathing. In my room at the swish Steigenberger Badischer Hof, a former Capuchin monastery, I discover that the bathroom taps offer a choice of “sweet” or thermal water, both appropriate for drinking and bathing.
I head downstairs, beckoned by the hotel spa’s series of indoor and outdoor therapeutic pools. The ceiling of this enormous space is like the bottom of the sea, wavy and undulating. I slip into the water and spend the afternoon going from pool to pool, finishing with a swim that takes me beneath a cascade linking one deliciously warm indoor pool to its outdoor section. After drying off, I enjoy a Reflexology massage.
Both the Badischer Hof and its sister property, the Europaischer Hof and Europe Spa (where you can experience Reiki and Tibetan Pulsing bodywork), are located in the nucleus of the city. A mere five-minute stroll brings me to a park that looks as though an artist has shaken his brushes clean over the landscape, spattering butter yellows and soft violets across a lush, green canvas. Nearby, wide stone steps lead to a neo-Romanesque building flanked and fronted by gardens. This is the Trinkhalle (pump room), home to three of Baden Baden’s drinking springs as well as a resident physician who’s available to prescribe a course of water cures to address a host of health complaints.
Baden Baden is also the location of the Friedrichsbad bathing house, which opened in 1877. Here, the sixteen-step wellness ritual begins with a shower and moves through such phases as thermal steam baths at different temperatures, a cold-water immersion bath, a soap and brush massage, and the application of moisturizing creams. (It should be noted that an excursion here is not for the shy: The spa is “textile-free” meaning that no clothing is permitted, and though men and women traditionally bathe separately, some days are specified as mixed bathing days when both genders share the same pools.)
A less ancient structure is the domed Caracalla Therme, with seven indoor and outdoor thermal bathing grottos, as well as a selection of saunas and aromatic steam baths. Later, strolling back to my hotel in the warm evening air, I pass the imposing Kurhaus. It was in the elegant casino here that Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevski is said to have lost his very last penny in 1867.
A twenty-minute subway ride from the bustle of Frankfurt brings me to Bad Homburg. Built at the feet of the Taunus Mountains, the town has been a beloved destination for European royalty who came to take the waters and relax in the crisp air. Centrally located in this charming health resort town, the Steigenberger Bad Homburg is surrounded by streets of flowering trees. I’m told the main part of the structure was once a private home for royalty. A few blocks away lies the extensive Spa Park with pathways that lead me past an ornate Russian chapel and the Thai Sala Siamese Temple to the doors of the domed, palace-like Kaiser Wilhelms Bad and Kur Royal Day Spa.
Upon checking in for a half-day stay, I’m issued a paprika-hued sarong to wear as a cover-up, then given a small, printed guide that directs me to the various rooms and pools, as well as a suggested order for experiencing everything and recommendations regarding the optimum amount of time to be spent at each station. I begin with a soak in the tiled Saltwater Relaxation Pool, which features vaulted ceilings, then move to the Stone Oven Bath, a sauna room. Next stop is the Odorium Bath, an aromatherapy room, followed by the Hay Steam Bath. This room particularly intrigues me: there are seats set into the rounded walls, and the area behind each seat is filled with straw and hay, through which a strong steam is directed at the occupant’s back, shoulders, and pelvic area.
I move to the Sand & Light Bath, a small, strongly lit room beneath the pool that’s been designed to simulate a beach. Feeling slightly silly, I lie in the sand as the sounds of waves washing ashore gradually seduce me. Once outside the room, I shower off the sand clinging to my legs and head for the Herbal Steam Bath. Long wooden benches line the room, and fresh pine branches placed throughout provide an aromatic environment that I find unusually relaxing.
From here, it’s on to the Caldarium, a traditional Roman steam bath with very high humidity. This room is the most difficult for me, and I forgo the suggested amount of time in order to head for the final station, called Wave Dreams. Once parked in a comfortable lounge chair, I decide this is where I’m staying until someone drags me away. Designed to be the final station, the room’s visual and sound effects provide the illusion of being underwater. While soothing music envelops me, waves of color and light wash across the ceiling and walls, and it’s only minutes before I’m dozing.
My final destination is a village near the foothills of the Bavarian Alps that ranks among the country’s most prestigious spa towns. Bad Worishofen is where Bavarian cleric Sebastian Kneipp established his center for holistic health over a century ago. I’m staying in the luxurious Steigenberger Hotel der Sonnenhof, which boasts one of the most extraordinary spa complexes I’ve ever visited most of it devoted to the Kneipp tradition (see sidebar).
A glass elevator takes me to the ground floor, where wide fresh and saltwater pools of varying temperatures reflect the late morning sunlight. Sunbeds are arranged around the perimeter of an enormous pool set into one rounded corner of the space. At the far end of the room, five saunas, an aromatherapy steam bath, Finnish sauna, and steam room provide additional healing therapies between soaks in the pools.
After consultation with one of the medical staff, I’m led down a long, curved hall lined with thirty separate rooms for massage, Ayurvedic specialties, herbal therapies, and Kneipp treatments. An hour before they’re scheduled to rise, guests undergoing Kneipp cures are awakened by the delivery of a fresh, steaming, herb-stuffed pillow to their room. Part of the treatment regimen includes spending the final hour in bed each morning slumbering and breathing in the herbs.
During my deep tissue massage, my therapist explains that in Germany, spa is defined a bit differently than it is in the U.S. The word “service” in a menu signifies a treatment administered by a person, such as the massage I’m currently enjoying. Spa, on the other hand, describes a self-administered experience, such as soaking in a thermal pool. Or, in my case, the additional stress release I enjoy between my massage and dinner, as I stroll among the trees in the park adjoining the hotel. Tomorrow will be filled with trains, taxis, and planes, but for this one last moment, I’m still the princess in my story, and I’m free to pretend this land of spas is my kingdom.
The Kneipp Tradition
Over a century ago, Bavarian cleric Sebastian Kneipp developed theories of wellness and holistic health that are still highly respected throughout the world. Often credited as being the father of holistic healing, Kneipp believed that water was the ideal conductor to deliver the healing properties inherent in plants and herbs. His system of health was based on the synergistic assimilation of medicinal plant remedies from the Far East, the hydrotherapy and therapeutic bathing rituals of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and balanced nutrition combined with regular exercise.
“The theories of wellness and holistic health, so long revered in Europe, have seen increasing acceptance in the U.S. over the last ten or twenty years,” says Irene Heiney, director of education for the Kneipp Corporation of America. “Many Americans have embraced more healthful eating habits and fitness regimens. The last decade has also seen a rapid growth in our spa culture more and more people are trying to take care of themselves.”
Today, Kneipp’s formulas are readily available, with a line of plant- and herb-based bath products. The product’s scents are all proven to promote such qualities as relaxation, stress relief, balance, harmony and energy, and include Orange & Linden Blossom, Rosemary, Melissa, Juniper, and Wildflower. For more information visit www.kneipp.com
Caracalla Therme, www.caracalla.de
Europaischer Hof and Europe Spa, www.europaeischer-hof.steigenberger.de
Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Bath, www.roemisch-irisches-bad.de
Kaiser Wilhelms Bad & Kur Royal Day Spa, www.kur-royal.de
Steigenberger Badischer Hof, www.steigenberger.de
Steigenberger Bad Homburg, www.bad-homburg.steigenberger.de
Steigenberger Hotel der Sonnenhof, www.spahotel-sonnenhof.de