Now that we have your attention.
No trip to Germany is complete without a visit to a Bad, or bath, in one of the many spa towns scattered throughout the country. At the bath, you can shed your clothing and your inhibitions, immersing yourself in a cultural experience not common in the US. Jay took the plunge, again, last week at our local Kaiser Friedrich Therme and he can confidently report that walking around naked, along with several other people of both sexes, in no way resembles a pool party at the Playboy Mansion. These bathers are not necessarily the beautiful people. The gender mix is split about equally, with an estimated age range of 30 to 80, although the majority appears to be retirement age. Body composition of bath-goers runs on the heavy side, but nothing out of the ordinary for an older age group. People are here to spend time relaxing, sweating and enjoying the hot water steaming and bubbling all around us. Yes, we all know we are completely naked, but there is no overt ogling, except perhaps at the occasional person who wears a swim suit, or heaven forbid, a t-shirt, a clear violation of bath etiquette. It’s only then that Jay observed the evil stink-eye. Germans take their bathing seriously and there is very little talking, except between couples. Making eye contact is minimal as folks circulate between the various pools, saunas, steam rooms, and rest areas wearing nothing but what they were born in.
The whole modesty issue is quite interesting for us, coming from a culture where co-ed nude bathing is just not something we run into on a daily basis. As one enters the unisex locker room area, you might find yourself undressing right next to someone of the opposite sex. But, other than perhaps a short smile, there are no social amenities exchanged. No “Nice weather we’re having, eh?” or “Wasn’t that a great football game last night?” After undressing, you are expected to take your towel with you, often strategically draped over or around yourself until you get into the main spa area. Toilet rooms and shower rooms are separated by gender, but this seems odd since everyone then heads into the facilities area where every pool, shower and sauna is enjoyed by all, in the buff. Afterward, you might find yourself drying off and combing your hair next to the woman you just saw lying in the sauna 30 minutes before. A bit different.
We get the impression that the bath experience is important in Wiesbaden, even if it’s not practiced by a majority of the population. The very name “Wiesbaden” means “meadow baths” or “baths in the meadow”. The Romans had a cavalry unit here beginning in 6 A.D. and their horses apparently loved bathing in the natural hot springs that are still bubbling away. Humans soon caught on to the experience and by 1370 there were thirteen bath houses here. We usually imagine people in the Middle Ages as somewhat dirty and stinky, but with all the opportunities for bathing in Wiesbaden, at least some of them must have been clean and sweet-smelling. The heyday for bathing culture in Germany was in the 1800’s and Wiesbaden had a reputation as one of the most famous spa towns of the 19th century. Goethe, Dostoyevsky and even Mark Twain enjoyed the German bath experience. The beautifully restored Kaiser Friedrich Therme, is in the center of town and is now owned and operated by the City of Wiesbaden.
Getting back to the bath experience itself, we encourage anyone who visits one of the old German spa towns to take a few hours and indulge. It’s really kind of fun and once you’ve done it, it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as you might think. Besides, it makes for interesting cocktail party conversation when you get back home.