While I've now returned many times to the spa resort of Baden-Baden, in southern Germany's Black Forest, I'll never forget my first visit.
I was accompanied by two German friends on my initial sauna experience in the Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish baths. Upon buying our entry tickets, we were swept into the locker area with no explanation. Suddenly my friends were naked — and I felt like the Road Runner just beyond the cliff's edge. Then — forcing myself to ease up and strip down — I began to relax as I came to understand that a European sauna isn't a sexy space, but simply open and free.
In my two hours there I saw more naked people than many Americans see in their entire lives. Since then I've been frustrated that so many of us miss out on the cultural and physical joys of Europe's thermal baths just because the dress code is often "naked." Whether in a birch-scented Finnish sauna, a tiled Turkish hammam, a Czech mud bath, or a German spa, getting naked with strangers is a key part of some of Europe's best experiences. Americans who can't handle nudity don't know what they're missing.
This might be more true in Baden-Baden's venerable "Roman-Irish" baths than anywhere else I've been.
Ever since the Roman emperor Caracalla bathed in the mineral waters here, Baden-Baden has welcomed those in need of a good soak. In the 19th century, the town 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 for its overworked citizens to take a little spa time.
The town now has a second spa complex, the Baths of Caracalla. Despite the name, it's a purely modern place to bliss out, with a ground-level water park of indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures and massage-jet options (where swimsuits are required), and an upper level with a wide range of saunas (where everyone's naked). The highlight for many is the waterfall that'll pummel your shoulder tension into submission.
But since 1877 the stately Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish baths are what've drawn the rich and famous to Baden-Baden for some pampering. The baths' steamy marble rooms still welcome visitors to follow a sober 17-step ritual of extreme relaxation amid a world of brass columns and tiles painted with images of exotic flora and fauna. It's a chance for a true cultural experience, but not very social. Visitors speak in hushed voices, if at all. Yes, you'll need to be nekkid. The most modest can stay wrapped in their towels for some of the steps, but I've noticed that after a short while nearly everyone seems far too relaxed to bother.
On my most recent visit — wearing only my locker key strapped around my wrist — I started by weighing myself: 92 kilos. An attendant led me under the industrial-strength shower. This torrential kickoff pounded my head and shoulders and obliterated the rest of the world. He gave me plastic slippers and a towel, ushering me into a dry-heat room with fine wooden lounge chairs — the slats too hot to sit on without the towel. Staring up at tiles depicting peaceful scenes of herons and lily pads, I cooked.
Once I was thoroughly heated — it was hard to tell how long I'd been baking — I was time to follow the spa's prescribed route. Nude, without my glasses, and not speaking the language, I bumbled like Mr. Magoo in flip-flops through a series of steam rooms and cold plunges.
After more hot rooms punctuated with showers, it was time for my massage. Like someone really drunk going for one more drink, at the attendant's prompting I climbed gingerly onto a marble slab and lay belly-up. The masseur held up two mitts and asked, "Hard or soft?" In a spirit of wild abandon, I growled, "Hard," uncertain what that might mean for my skin. I got the coarse, Brillo-pad scrub-down. Tenderized like a slab of meat, I felt entirely relaxed. The massage was over, and with a Teutonic spank, I was sent off through a steamy labyrinth to the pools.
The finest area of the Friedrichsbad is its central pools. This is where the parallel men's and women's spa facilities intersect (though both are mixed gender four days a week). Here, on any day of the week, both men and women float under the exquisite neo-Roman domes in perfect silence, like aristocratic swans.
A woman glided in front of me, on her back. Like a serene flotilla, her peaceful face and buoyant breasts drifted by, creating barely a ripple. On my right, a blond Adonis, staring at the ethereal dome, draped himself over the lip of the pool. European visitors are nonchalant, tuned in to their bodies and focused on solitary quietude. Two visitors I took to be Americans were tentative, trying to be cool…but seemed more aware of their nudity. I hoped it wouldn't take them long to notice that no one was gawking at them. This is a place to float away in your own thoughts, taking in little of other visitors except, perhaps, our shared humanity.
To me, the visit's climax is the post-sauna cold plunge. I'm usually not a fan of cold water — yet I absolutely love this part of a sauna visit. You must not wimp out on the cold plunge.
For my last stop, an attendant escorted me into the "quiet room" and asked when I'd like to be awakened. "Closing time," I told him. 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; the guy in it was as still as a corpse. I stared up at the ceiling, losing track of time and myself. Sometime later, I was jolted awake by my own snore.
As I left, I weighed myself again: 91 kilos. I'd shed two 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.
Baden-Baden's Roman-Irish baths are among Europe's most elegant and relaxing experiences — it'd be a shame to let any discomfort with nudity keep you from enjoying them. It's just you, your body, the past, and some unforgettable moments of tranquility.