It’s been a rough winter – a very rough winter.
There has been the constant sickness. Between the end of November and the end of February I counted two weeks when there wasn’t one of us sick. Charlie bore the brunt of it. I was so exasperated that I finally took him to the doctor after he hadn’t stopped coughing for three weeks straight. The doctor looked at me and said that this was perfectly normal and that we had “weak” immune systems as we were from a Mediterranean climate. Apparently, Europe suffered an exceptional flu season.
It also suffered an exceptionally brutal and long winter. Something they hadn’t seen in Basel for twenty years. Boy do we know how to pick the year to move! Besides the snow and the gray, there were about two weeks in January where the temperature never made it past 20 degrees fahrenheit. No one wanted to leave the house, in particular me and the hounds. My stores in the freezer came to great use.
So the question is, how does one survive all of this awfulness? The answer seems to be to bathe. Bathe in warm water with people you do not know.
My dear friend Kelly introduced me to the art of the European spa. Kelly is American and has lived in Basel for 20 years. One fine, actually not so fine, pouring buckets of rain, she took me to Sole Uno just outside of Basel. This is not an American spa in any sense. A spa in our part of the world consists of indoor and outdoor baths of warm water and cold , saunas, steam rooms, and jacuzzis. They are completely co-ed and not just for the young and beautiful. In the contrary, they attract a lot of elderly people who come to relieve their aches and pains. The idea is you go from bath to bath and spend a couple of hours relaxing in the salt water. You are supposed to come out feeling a lot better and you do and for a very reasonable price. You pay by the hour and two hours will cost you $22 which is just about enough time.
Having been to Sole Uno a couple of times I figured it was time to go big time in the spa experience and make my way to Mecca, otherwise known as Baden-Baden. Baden-Baden is a historic spa town on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. The first baths were built by the Romans and the ruins of these baths still exist. Later, the European elite made it their to-go destination and today it still draws people from around the world especially Russians looking for a place to get “refreshed” at European prices. In addition to the spas there are numerous plastic surgeons for that nip and tuck and amazing hotels where one can recuperate in luxurious settings.
The town is beyond lovely. The center has the requisite cobblestone pedestrian only streets filled with exquisite shops, delicious restaurants and of course the famous Cafe Koenig where you get to pick your pastry from the case, then find a seat and they bring it to you to go with your coffee or tea.
The architecture is mostly 19th century and still intact as the town was spared destruction from both World Wars. Along the outside of the town, the Oos River flows and on one side is a beautiful walking path called the Lichtentaler Allee. Here, you can stroll and admire the grand hotels and mansions and imagine what it used to be like traveling this path in a horse and carriage.
But the main reason to go to Baden-Baden is to bathe. Visitors have the choice of the traditional and historic Friedrichsbad Irish-Roman Bath or the new Caracalla Spa. Besides the architecture and facilities, the main difference between the two is that the Friedrichsbad is a no bathing suit spa – as in you cannot wear a bathing suit – you must go nude.The spa is open to men and women. Every other day, the facility is divided in two and there is a men side and a woman side but the main bath, the really beautiful one is always co-ed.
For my visit, I was able to talk my friend Angie into joining me. Angie is open to any adventure but we both had to pause over which spa we would go to. We both wanted to go to Friedrichsbad because of the architecture but….. so we read on tripadvisor what other Americans had to say and everyone said “once you are in there you don’t even notice everyone is nude as you just relax and let the warm waters take all the stress away”… hmm. I wasn’t buying it but Angie was game and so I got my courage.
We decided to spend one night. It was only an hour and a half from Basel. We arrived early enough for a stroll in town before making our way to the spa. The outside of the building is very impressive, kind of Versailles meets Rome. Once inside, we made our way to the reception desk where we had to pay and make our chose of packages. At Fredrichsburg, the program is a little different. Instead of wandering freely from bath to steam room as you want, there is a 17-step program that you follow(if you follow the link you can see little videos of what happens at each step, attention Americans – there is NUDITY). They are basically a series of showers and baths and steam rooms at different temperatures designed to improve your circulation and remove your aches.Each step has a suggested amount of time one should spend there. In addition to the included 17 steps you can choose to add on the brush massage and the creme massage. Having decided we were going for the full Euro experience, we decided to throw in the brush massage and the creme massage and throw caution to the wind. The receptionist, hearing our American accents, made sure we understood that this was a clothing free establishment. The hotel receptionist had already checked and made sure we knew there was a spa were we could keep our bathing suits on. But heck – we decided to move to Europe and apparently that meant throwing caution and our clothes to the wind so we were going for it.
Having been to the Haman in Istanbul a few years ago, I was already familiar what it meant to be treated as a piece of meat. To the attendants of these spas, this is basically what you are. After putting your clothes away in the locker, you get a towel which you get to keep for all of two steps. After showering and steaming, you make your way to a room where there are three beds. If you opt for the brush massage, your towel is taken away and the attendant proceeds to brush you everywhere with a soapy brush that my mother would have scrubbed the floor with. She flips you from side to side and brushes you everywhere till you feel completely tenderized. Then off to more showers and pools and steam. As I was enjoying the experience, I did feel the tension ease away. I got used to ignoring my fellow bathers though it went against my friendly – look someone in the eye and smile – American habit.But the whole time, in the back of my head was Step #11.
Step #11 was what I came for. The grand Roman pool with the vaulted ceiling, columns and frescos. I had seen pictures of it years before in some travel magazine and told myself at the time, one day…
Well the day was here but Step #11 was also the one place that was co-ed for the day. At this point, I had already spent about an hour embracing my nudity and that of my fellow women but I wasn’t sure about embracing the nudity of German men. I don’t know about you but my mother told me one shouldn’t swim naked with a man until one was sure “he was the one”, well actually she never told me that but I am sure it is something she would have said. But my mother wasn’t there and I was in Europe and I had something to prove so I bravely walked under the magnificent dome and dove right into the pool. Alas, there were only other women. Relief was met with disappointment because I could not walk out wearing the badge of courage. Angie joined me and we spent a few minutes talking about the architecture when behold! a couple of men in all their splendor walked in. What to do? Look? Make eye contact? Pretend they weren’t there? Swim to one side? We decided to stay on one side of the pool and wait till the suggested 15 minute stay was over which we did and then left the pool as gracefully as possible though I am sure they were not looking.
After all the excitement, the last steps were pure bliss. First the creme massage which was similar to the tenderizer treatment but with a lovely honey cream. After, we were sent to a huge dark round room with beds all around the edges. There, the attendant wraps you like a cocoon in warm blankets and you can sleep for 30 minutes. Definite womb like treatment. You walk out feeling like jello.
After all this, we celebrated our courage and our new Euroness with a lovely tapas dinner and a conversation about nudity. It was about the time the Administration was looking at rescinding the protection of transgender students in public schools. Where people pee is never an issue in Europe. Last week, we had Carnaval in our town. There were porta potties and urinals. The urinals were not hidden, they were right on the sidewalk. Of course it made me look twice. In many public places like the train station, there is just one really large bathroom. Everyone uses the same facilities unless they use a urinal which is out in the open for everyone to see. At the spa in Basel, the changing room is co-ed. You may go into a stall to change or you can change in the general area. There are penises and breasts everywhere of all different sizes and ages and shapes. When discussing this with Charlie he wisely said that nudity would not be a big deal if man hadn’t invented clothes. So true. The conclusion we came to with Angie is that we Americans are like middle schoolers going through puberty making a big deal out of anything remotely sexual where Europeans are the mature grandparents who realize there are much more important things to make a fuss about. I think I will need a few more trips to the spa to gain some more maturity.