Germany is the home to the European spa concept, involving a very different approach to the warmth and softness associated with spa culture in Asia. SpaChina’s Wellness Editor Gareth Powell explores
There are a number of countries in Europe that claim to have invented the spa. But if any of them has a genuine claim, it is Germany. There, the culture of spas is embedded into the history of the land, and today it would be reasonable to guess that Germany has more spas per head than any other country.
It has a long history of spas and wellness therapies. The Romans who occupied Germany and raised the cultural tone of the region considerably, very much appreciated the hot mineral springs at Baden-Baden and the spa tradition that was born there has never totally lapsed since. The resurgence in interest that made the German spas internationally known began in the 18th century, when Europe’s royalty and other aristocrats started going regularly to the great German spa resort towns for recreation, the occasional bit of in-breeding and of course health enhancement. Vestiges of those glory days still remain.
There are some important points to remember regarding spas in Germany. The first is that English, while spoken widely in the major cities and the important spas, is not as universal as you might think.
“Sanfter, please” which means “more gently” is a good one to know, as is “Nicht ganz so heiss” which means “not quite so hot”.
Try very hard to get a health attendant who speaks some English at least or, like the writer, you will be subject to a high pressure hose of icy cold sea water while confined in a three-walled concrete treatment room from which you may find no escape. It was meant to rejuvenate me. It did. I still shiver at the thought.
The second point to note is that nudity is treated as normal and unremarkable in Germany. It is difficult for the English, Americans and others to believe, but no one there takes any notice of a naked body, and this is true not only of spas and baths, but also of public parks where sunbathing topless is very common.
As a result, the therapists in German spas don’t worry so much about elaborate draping techniques, and the saunas and steam baths are co-ed and nude. If you are relaxed about it you will find it very easy. Relaxation is the key. However, it is important that the towel is used to sit on when you are lounging around the spa or sauna. Nudity yes, nude flesh against wooden seats or benches, no.
Hotel spas in Germany tend to not have elaborate changing rooms like American spas. You disrobe in your room and wander down to the spa in a dressing gown. In fact, that is one of the keys to the German spas. They are pleasant, almost homely. They avoid that super-lavish, over-the-top feel of the largest American spas and, perhaps as a result, they are generally much less expensive. Certainly much less expensive than, say, those in the United States.
Note that public baths in Germany – again, be prepared for nudity – are a great bargain. For anywhere from five to 30 euros – a fraction of the cost of a massage in America – you can while away the day moving from pool to pool, some as large as a swimming pool, some small and suitable for lounging. It’s a delightful way to spend the afternoon.
The third point to note is that the terminology used in the world of German spas is a little different from that used elsewhere, and you should make quite sure you are getting what you want. For example, if a spa is an extension of a hotel – and this is happening more and more – they typically have a “beauty farm” that is distinguished from the wellness portion of the spa, where people get massages – sometimes on doctor’s prescriptions – and take cures for what ails them.
The fourth is that no matter what the spas tell you, this is no way to slim. It will make you feel healthier and fitter, but it will not help you to lose weight. The problem is that typically you have a spa and feel slim and energetic and then you have dinner at a German restaurant, after which you no longer feel slim and energetic.
One theory is that the Germans have so many spas just so that they can drink – the OktoberFest is a sight to behold – and eat to their heart’s content.
When planning a trip of Germany it is possible to combine as it were, two holidays. One is spas and the other is sightseeing.
You can go to almost any town in Germany and find a spa and health center. But in many you will find much more. Take, for example, Weisbaden. This is a most wonderful city to visit, magical in its beauty and if you like opera you have a major bonus added on. If you are touring Germany then Weisbaden is a must. In some cases, it is also useful as a base for visiting Frankfurt-am-Main on business.
Frankfurt is not a charming city but Wiesbaden is magic and, as the name implies, it is a big place for spas and baths, and has been for a long while. It is one of the of the oldest spa towns in Europe. Its name literally means “meadow baths”. The story is that Wiesbaden once had 27 hot springs. Today it still has 15.
It all started with the Romans and by the Middle Ages spring bathing was an important business. By 1800, the city had 2,239 inhabitants and twenty-three bath houses. Work out the ratio and you can see that it was a major attraction, especially for day-trippers from Frankfurt. Famous visitors to the springs included Goethe, Dostoevsky, Wagner, and Brahms. At one time there were more millionaires living in Wiesbaden than in any other city in Germany.
There were three major attractions. Gambling, bathing and sightseeing. This is true to this day.
In terms of spas, you can be a traditionalist and try the Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme, which offers the full Roman treatment: Tepidarium, Sudatorium, Sanarium and Lavacrum. Or try the more modern Thermalbad Aukammtal. In either place you can chose from various types of sauna and suitable spa packages. Or, if you want the open air go for the Opelbad on Wiesbaden’s Neroberg, which offers a fantastic view of the city and is considered one of the most beautiful open-air pools in the region.
Note that Wiesbaden was originally a spa city, which was a recognized center for the treatment of rheumatic and orthopedic diseases. Many specialized and rehabilitation clinics as well as healthcare centers are based in the city. They offer a renowned spectrum of high-quality medical standards. And several hotels offer their own spa packages. You are, indeed, spoiled for choice and it is easy to find the spa that fits exactly with what you want.
But if you feel Wiesbaden is a little too popular, a trifle on the touristy side, try nearby Mainz. Again it is on the Rhine, within easy commuting distance of Frankfurt, and a most friendly place. Partially this is because it is a university town and students make visitors feel welcome. Note it also has the Gutenberg museum because it was in this place that the use of hot lead in printing was invented. The Hilton Mainz and the Hyatt Regency both offer full spa facilities in the American style. Just west of Mainz in Bad Kreuznach, the Baederhaus offers 4,000 square meters of Finnish saunas, Roman baths and Oriental massage treatments. You are indeed spoiled for choice.
So you can combine a very relaxed tour of Germany with visits to some of the oldest and most complete spas in the world. For example, the Southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg lets you enjoy the great, slightly old-fashioned, resort town of Baden-Baden and/or the elaborate public baths of Bad Duerrheim. Baden-Baden is on the edge of the Black Forest and it has many great resort spas like Hotel Bareis and Traube-Tonbach. It is almost Germany’s spa central, except that this is practically true of all of Germany, including the cities. It borders France and so the cooking is a combination of French style and German robustness.
You may not be a head of state or an aristocrat, but Baden-Baden can still make you feel like one. Try, for instance, Brenner’s Park-Hotel & Spa. It has been in operation for more than 135 years and is set in sprawling parkland. Its spa is quiet, non-smoking of course, offers most treatments you can think of, and has an international approach so as to not put guests off by nudity. It also has a Saunarium spa, a fitness center and an indoor pool in the Roman style. Its site (http://www.brenners.com) is full of good advice such as keeping out of the sun for a period after a massage and so on. This is not the least expensive spa in Germany – it is after all a five-star hotel as well – but it gives the feeling of total dedication to wellness treatments which is one of the features of the Roman spas of Germany. The spa is elaborate: you can consult with a doctor, dentist or get a delicious “massage sampler” from a strong Tunisian therapist who can put your body to rights in an hour. The glass-walled swimming pool is enriched with ozone to cut down chlorine.
In Berlin itself there are at least 15 spas and saunas in the upmarket area. A good example is the Neukoelln Municipal Swimming Baths, which are in Ganghoferstrasse. Opened in 1914, this was then considered one of Europe’s most beautiful bathing houses, with its design based on a Roman bath. The swimming pools are fine but they are widely used by schoolchildren and pensioners so stick to the thermal baths which are on the top floor of the building and are quite splendid.
As a change from using geographical centers as places around which to plan a spa excursion around Germany – two pleasures combined – you can try the unusual method of just sticking to one group of hotels that specialize in that particular area. Maritim hotels has fifteen hotels – there may be more by the time you read this – which offer pure indulgence in exclusive beauty salons and state-of-the-art beauty institutes offering treatments of which perhaps you have not heard, like Thalassotherapy. In fact there are 44 hotels in the group, but just stick with the ones offering health and beauty treatments such as seawater swimming pools, seaside climatic booths, and treatments using algae and essential oils.
This is but a small sampling of what is available in Germany. You are, indeed, spoiled for choice and the best place to help you come to delightful decisions is a web site. Destination Germany (http://www.germany-tourism.de/ENG/destination_germany/master.htm) might be the easiest, although Spa Resorts in Germany (http://spas.about.com/od/europe/a/germanspas.htm) is also very helpful.