Thermalbaden: Germany's Healing Treasures
By John Bryant
Many Americans overlook a visit to a Thermalbad (thermal pool), Sporthotel or Kurhotel ("cure hotel") while in Germany. After living there for four years, my wife Linda and I learned to love our afternoons and evenings together, soaking German-style in the baths.
Germany's climate make these facilities particularly attractive. A few hours spent socializing with friends in a hot, soothing bath or sauna can be very rejuvenating after a cold, wet day. Thermalbaden use heated mineral water to provide a theraputic bath. Sporthotels and Kurhotels are commercial lodging, similar to most hotels or inns, that offer a wide range of sports and activities like tennis, golf, horseback riding, hiking, and biking, Other amenities include pools, saunas, steambaths, and massage tables.
Americans are often uncomfortable about nudity around these establishments. In practice, swim suits are worn in most areas around the hotel and always in the pool. The saunas, steambaths, and massage areas are designated for those wearing nothing more than fluffy towels. While many Americans find this awkward, Europeans have a very casual attitude. My initial awkwardness vanished when I realized how no one seemed to care about what I was wearing (or not wearing). Sitting in a sauna or steambath without a sticky swimsuit feels good. Entire families of grandparents, parents, and grandchildren will hang out together completely nude without any embarrassment.
Small villages in Germany frequently have a local Hallenbad (indoor pool) which may also include saunas and steambaths. Check with the local train station, TI, or your hotel for information and brochures. Cities with "Bad" in their name are spa towns — likely to have extensive facilities. The most famous is Baden-Baden.
Thermalbaden can be relatively inexpensive, especially compared to "spas" in the US. Tickets can be purchased from an attendant, generally for a "season", a specific number of visits, full day, or a few hours. Entry allows access to the dressing room, pools, saunas, and steambaths. Three hours in a Thermalbad was more relaxing than I thought possible. Tanning beds and massages cost extra.
Large Thermalbaden come in striking modern designs. Plants throughout the facilities give an idyllic, natural atmosphere. Family-oriented pools (like their American counterparts) come with plenty of fun, noise and chaos. Adult pools are quiet and intended for relaxation, not splashing or jumping. Underwater nozzles and walls of cascading water provide water "massages." Many places ring a bell when it's time for bathers to move along and make room for someone else wanting a water massage. Many pools come with gorgeous mountain views. A grand view in a hot bath can be very euphoric.
Good hygiene and local customs should be observed to blend in as seamlessly as possible. Most Germans shower before entering the pools, saunas and steambaths. I like to take a cool shower between baths because its simply refreshing. Hang your swimsuit (if you are still wearing it) on the hooks provided, and leave your slippers outside the sauna (they may be worn in the steambath). Enter the sauna quickly and close the door securely, to minimize the loss of heat. Find an area to sit (or lie down, if there is sufficient room) and place the towel so that every inch of your body — back, buttocks, and feet — is resting on it. The locals, very mindful to prevent staining the wood benches, will remind you if you forget to do this.
A large Thermalbad may have a variety of saunas with temperatures ranging from 150 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit with peppermint, eucalyptus, and wintergreen aromas. The temperatures (in Celsius) and aromas used may be posted on the door. Depending on the temperature, most leave the sauna after about ten minutes for a cool shower or a quick plunge into a very cold pool nearby. Attendants may enter the sauna occasionally to check the temperature, add aroma to the heater, or disperse the hot air more evenly by whipping a towel vigorously over their heads. You may notice a dramatic (sometimes unbearable) increase in the sauna's temperature for a few seconds following.
Dampfbaden (steam baths) are a little different. Bathers are nude but may not sit on a towel, since the benches are plastic, acrylic, or stone. The benches are washed frequently by an attendant with a hose. While not as hot as saunas, these tiny rooms are often so filled with steam that you can't see the far wall. I found the Dampfbaden to be the most relaxing part of the Thermalbad experience — my favorite stop of all. In the interest of privacy and relaxation, conversation in a sauna or Dampfbad is usually muted. Occassionally the Thermalbad may be so busy you'll find yourself waiting for someone to leave so you can go in and then you'll be sitting "cheek to cheek" with a stranger of either sex. Pretend you are comfortable and you'll soon find it's not so bad.
If your ticket is valid for less than a day, keep track of the time. Allow enough time to take advantage of the dressing room facilities. It's fun to weigh yourself before and after your sauna to see how many pounds you sweat off. Bring a clean change of socks and underwear. Putting on dirty clothes after being so clean is almost criminal. Most dressing rooms have hair dryers. Insert your ticket into the turnstile to exit the facility. If you stayed beyond your allotted time, you'll be asked to pay an additional fee.
If you enjoy exercise and hearty food, check out the pricier (but worthwhile) Sport- or Kurhotels. These hotels are frequently found in suburban or rural areas to facilitate outdoor activities such as hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, tennis, and golf. They normally have indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, and steambaths. Many offer massage and similar bodywork therapies. A variety of meal plans are available (breakfast to full board). Guests can usually reserve time for tennis, golf, horseback riding and massage time for less money than if arranged separately.
Belgium and the Netherlands have similar facilities. These resorts rent small, inexpensive, and fully furnished cottages for the day, weekend, and longer. The cottages are centered around a large, indoor complex. Warm temperatures, flowers, and singing birds give the facilities a natural out-of-doors feeling of springtime. Many sports and other "outdoor" activities are available. The resorts have swimming pools (many with wave machines and long, thrilling slides!), saunas, steambaths and excellent restaurants.