On a recent trip to Europe, I spent an afternoon relaxing at the German spa resort of Baden-Baden. In two hours, I saw more naked people than I've seen in the last two years.
Since the Roman emperor bathed in the mineral waters of Baden-Baden, this town has welcomed those in need of a good soak. And it's always been naked. In the 19th century, it was Germany's ultimate spa resort, and even today the name Baden-Baden is synonymous with relaxation in a land where the government still pays its overworked citizens to take a little spa time.
I happened to be here when one of my company's tour groups was in town. I told the guide that it was a great opportunity for her group to enjoy the spa. She said, "No one's going. They can't handle the nudity."
It's long been a frustration for me as a guide — the difficulty of getting Americans into spas with naked Europeans. My first time was with my wife and some German friends — a classy, good-looking young couple. We were swept into the changing area with no explanation. Suddenly they were naked and I felt like the Road Runner just beyond the cliff's edge. Then — we eased up, and got naked. It's not sexy...simply open and free.
Whether on a Croatian beach, in a Finnish sauna, a Turkish hammam, or a German spa, a fun part of travel can be getting naked with strangers.
For me, enjoying the baths at Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden is one of Europe's most elegant experiences. Wearing only the locker key strapped around my wrist, I started by weighing myself — 92 kilos. The attendant led me under the industrial-strength shower — a torrential kickoff, pounding my head and shoulders and obliterating the rest of the world. He then gave me slippers and a towel, ushering me into a dry-heat room with fine wooden lounges — slats too hot to sit on without the towel. Staring up at exotic tiles of herons and palms, I cooked. After more hot rooms punctuated with showers, it was time for the massage.
Like someone really drunk going for one more glass, I climbed gingerly onto the marble slab and lay belly-up. The masseur held up two mitts and asked, "Hard or soft?" In the spirit of wild abandon, I said "hard," not even certain what that would mean to my skin. I got the coarse, Brillo-Pad scrub-down, but it was still extremely relaxing. Finished with a Teutonic spank, I was sent off into the pools.
Nude, without my glasses, and not speaking the language, I was gawky. On a sliding scale between Mr. Magoo and Woody Allen, I was everywhere, careening between steam rooms and cold plunges.
In the end, it all led to the mixed section. This is where the Americans get uptight. The parallel spa facilities intersect, bringing men and women together to share the finest three pools. Here, all are welcome to glide under exquisite domes in perfect silence, like aristocratic swans. Germans are nonchalant, tuned into their bodies and focused on solitary relaxation. Tourists are tentative, trying to be cool...but more aware of their nudity. Again, there's nothing sexy about it. Just vivid life in full flower.
A beautiful woman glided in front of me. Like a female flotilla, her peaceful face and buoyant breasts cruised by, creating barely a ripple. It occurred to me that I wouldn't mind talking to her. But you don't really just start up a conversation with a naked stranger. Then she started walking into the men's section. Perfect. I whispered to her, "Excuse me, that's the men's section." She was from Texas...and appreciative.
The climax is the cold plunge. I'm not good with cold water — yet I absolutely loved this. You must not wimp out on the cold plunge.
Then, the attendant escorted me into the "quiet room" and asked when I'd like to be awoken. I told him closing time. He wrapped me in hot sheets and a brown blanket. Actually, I wasn't wrapped...I was swaddled. Warm, flat on my back, among 20 hospital-type beds. Only one other bed was occupied; he seemed dead. I stared up at the ceiling and some time later was jolted awake by my own snore.
Leaving, I weighed myself again: 91 kilos. I had shed 2.2 pounds of sweat. It would have been more if tension had mass. Stepping into the cool evening air, I was thankful my hotel was a level two-block stroll away.
In my room, I fell in slow motion onto my down comforter, the big pillow puffing around my head like the Flying Nun. Wonderfully naked under my clothes, I could only think, "Ahhhh. Baden-Baden."