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I’d been steamed, cleaned, brushed and creamed. My nakedness no longer fazed me as an attendant led me to a door for Step 16. He stopped, solemnly turned to me and put his index finger to his lips. What happened on the other side was the apex of an extraordinary experience.
Rewind two hours. My husband, Mike, and I enter the Friedrichsbad, a temple to the art of bathing in Germany’s capital of bathing, Baden-Baden. The enormous neoclassical bathhouse is more than 140 years old, but people have been soaking in Baden-Baden’s mineral-rich hot springs since Roman emperor Caracalla found relief for his arthritis almost 2000 years ago.
The instructions are simple. No clothing. We’ve hit the baths on a co-ed day – men and women share the change room, showers, saunas, pools … Some days are segregated, but it’s nude 24/7. I’ve stripped down to my birthday suit save for the locker key attached to my wrist. I’m not a complete newbie to public nudity but it has been a while. I try to act nonchalant as a good-looking young attendant (fully clothed) explains the 17-step ritual.
We’re escorted to Step 1: the shower, a step that is repeated numerous times during the ritual. A large open space is lined with industrial strength showers. In very precise German manner, the instructions tell us to spend four minutes under the glorious downpour. Thankfully, there appears to be no repercussions for ignoring the directive.
We move on to the dry-heat rooms, spacious caverns adorned with painted tiles of exotic birds. I’m slowly beginning to unwind as the hot air envelops me. There’s a beautiful, comatose woman next to me with a deep full body tan – clearly no stranger to nudity or relaxation.
Another shower and we’ve made it to Step 5: the brush scrub. I’m instructed to lie face up on a white marble table. Face up, really? The attendant asks whether I’d like the hard or soft option. I’ve done my homework – “Go for the soft brush,” the TripAdvisor reviews say. My anxiety melts away as the warm, soapy water is ladled over my body. I stifle a laugh when the soles of my feet are brushed, but the rest is incredibly soothing. A friendly slap on the back indicates that time’s up. So soon! I wish the allocated eight minutes for this step was at least doubled.
The red lines on Mike’s back are a dead giveaway; he didn’t do his homework. He’s unperturbed though and happily sweating it out in the first of two steam rooms. According to the sign, this is the only bathhouse in the world that has a steam room heated entirely with thermal heat.
There’s a pyramid structure in the middle of the room and an elderly man is lying spread eagle on the top platform. My first reaction is “Oh, gross,” but I admire his Roman emperor-like confidence. Nudity, it’s so natural for these Europeans. Young and old, goddess types and well-worn mortals, they all glide through the ritual with monastic calm.
Next come a series of thermal pools (Steps 9 through 11) in rooms with Roman statues and arched marble. I’m alone in the first pool, floating effortlessly, the warm water caressing my body. It feels like the temperature has been perfectly calibrated, just for me. I could stay here forever but the bubbling whirlpool bath beckons my achy lower back. The pièce de résistance is the round, central pool directly under a magnificent 17-metre-high domed ceiling.
This is like no spa I’ve ever been to. In fact, I’m reluctant to even call it a spa. There’s no Zen music, cushy bathrobes, eucalyptus-infused air or anti-aging treatments. The Friedrichsbad, in all its austere grandeur, is about the simple art of bathing, and ironically, despite German precision, losing track of time and place.
Hubby wimps out on Step 13: a cold pool plunge. I’m determined to follow the entire ritual. And this step is supposed to be especially good for you. Crap, it’s cold!
One final shower and we’re handed wonderfully warm drying sheets. I giggle when I read the sign that says the prescribed time for the drying step is four minutes. Do they have some German bathing scientist studying the time for optimal dryness?
Now, at ease with my nudity, I discard my drying sheet. The attendant quickly hands me a fresh one, explaining that I shouldn’t get chilled before the next step: the cream massage. Soon, I’m on a table, face up again. No big deal this time. Skilled hands gently massage a rich lotion into my skin. Damn that feels good!
I arrive at Step 16. The attendant opens the door to a dimly lit, circular room lined with several dozen simple beds. My brain is blissfully zoned out but it registers a few unmoving lumps under the thick blue blankets. I’m led to a bed where the attendant spreads a warm sheet and motions me to get in. He starts by folding the sheet and blanket over my feet, then tightly tucks both sides around my naked body. He gives my shoulder a gentle pat that says “nighty night” and walks quietly out of the room.
I’m detached from my anxiety-riddled, middle-aged self – calm, safe and care-free, swaddled like an infant in my warm, cozy blanket. Could there be anything more sublime?
Then, I’m asleep. This is a miracle. I’m a terrible sleeper even in my own bed. There’s probably a prescribed time for this activity, but no one wakes me. When I arise from my dreamless slumber I have no idea how long I’ve been out, and I don’t care. There’s no clock on the wall or cellphone by my bedside. I linger, not wanting this marvellous experience to end.
I learn later that the Friedrichsbad inspired Mark Twain to say, “After 10 minutes you forget time, after 20 minutes, you forget the world.” So true.
How cruel it would be to abruptly end the ritual here. No doubt the art of bathing scientists have thought this through with the final step: No. 17, the reading room. Four hours after we started our bathing journey we’re lounging on comfy recliners, drinking herbal tea and leafing through magazines, a bridge that gently eases us back into the world outside the Friedrichsbad.
Caroline Helbig lives in West Vancouver.