Monday, January 10, 2005

Bathing in Baden Baden

Three days ago I borrowed the car and drove down to a town called Baden Baden, literally translating to "Bath Bath" because it's an old spa town. Every guide book will tell you that royalty used to go here to unwind, but the most notorious blood you'll get here these days is in the likes of Rick Steves.

Yes, you too can marinate in the same mineral juices as His Royal Highness, Rick Steves. I chose the same place he featured in his Public Television Show, Europe Through the Back Door, or whatever it's called and admittedly it's how I found out about Baden Baden's Friedrichsbad before moving to Heidelberg. After moving to Germany, I have no doubt that I would have found out about it without Rick Steves--everyone around
here talks about it and doesn't even know who he is--but I'm afraid that a town develops Rick Steves Syndrome (RSS) after he has visited them, meaning that his "back door" European guides wind up turning towns into a "front door" experience as you wait in line with everyone else. Don't get me wrong--my experience wasn't a bad one--I just thought I should preface my visit with the symptom of a town afflicted with RSS: namely the crowds that prevent you from fully experiencing what you came for.

So I chose to go to a Roman-Irish Bath called Friedrichsbad. As far as I can tell from what little research I've done, the Roman-Irish part translates to "naked." We all remember the tradition of Roman baths so I think we understand that, and I think the Irish part of it is the hot air baths. I can buy that. After all, I think a person living with the consumption and under the wicked cold dampness of the River Liffey might want to warm up.

My adventure started with a traffic jam at the entrance of the parking garage. I blame it on RSS. My life isn't that stressful at the moment. I have no job, no real's kind of like an early retirement and I'm trying to make the best of my free time by learning how to knit, putting together a website, and reading the books I want to read. So I was happy that after a half an hour of waiting to get into the parking garage, I had built up a little stress so that the spa wouldn't be all for naught.

I arrived in Friedrichsbad's lobby about 45 minutes after opening time and quickly found out that, sorry, there wouldn't be any soap scrub massages for me today because it was too crowded (RSS). Rick Steves points this out as a highlight of the visit, by the way, in his video. I'd still get to go through the whole bath ritual, though, which I feel is best followed by this diagram on Friedrichsbad's website. My labeling might be slightly off in the order, so I'll try and correct what I can below.

1. Soap Shower: For all the efforts Germany puts into water conservation, I now understand why. There is a direct line from that massive amount of secretively stashed water to Friedrichsbad. The shower heads have a diameter equal to that of a full grown elephant and dump a Niagara Falls amount of water on you. I guess the water actually comes from the mineral water around town, but that's a lot less interesting. Each step has a recommended amount of time that you're supposed to spend at each station and this was something like five minutes. It's wonderful until you notice the crowd of women behind you (RSS), simply watching and waiting for you to finish your bathing. It makes five minutes seem like an eternity, so your three hour visit here begins to be cut down from step one.

2. Warm Air Bath 129F:
Here you relax, dry off, and start sweating on a lounge chair. The room is covered in gorgeous old tiles (as is virtually every room) and has the subtlest light coming from one small frosted skylight. They really got the natural lighting right in every room. It's this step that I believe you acclimate yourself to being naked amongst everyone else...well, until you're in the same areas as the men.

3. Hot Air Bath 154F: This is, perhaps, what it might be like to live on Venus. The chairs and floor feel like the metal part of your car's seatbelt after sitting in an unventilated car during the peak of summer in, say, Arizona. Try to appreciate more of the building's tiles and murals in this room as you balance on your ass bones to keep all limbs from touching anything. Thankfully you're only in here five minutes. Careful not to leave any of your skin on the lounge chairs.

4. Rinsing Shower: WebMD suggests for skin burns:
Run cool tap water over the burn for 10 to 20 minutes. Do not use ice. Remove any jewelry or clothing at the site of the burn.

So good thing we're returning to the shower considering my entire body was the site of the burn. This shower is only supposed to be for eight minutes, so you may want to see if you can sneak in the extra two to prevent blistering. Given that you're returning to the same area to shower, however, you're faced with the same onlookers from Step 1 and the added pressure of those coming from Step 3. The best you can hope for is four minutes. RSS strikes again and now you may be faced with skin grafts. I found to be helpful.

5. Soap & Brush Body Massage: RSS. Need I say more? Not available because it was too busy. No Teutonic Spank for me.

6. Rinsing Shower: So this is where I'm wrong in my labeling above and where I began to become frustrated. As you can see, if you don't get the soap and brush body massage, you go from one shower rinse to the next. I started to become aggravated that rinsing was becoming so many of the steps because I could have just stayed home and showered all day in my own shower and played around with the temperatures. It's at this point that I should note that there are four shower heads--only two of them being those gargantuan ones I was talking about in step one. So every time we have a shower step, our time gets thrown away, again, because of the line.

7. Warm Thermal Steam Bath: (6 on the diagram). Not much going on in here. Plain tiles and steam everywhere. The door to the pools connects to this room so I think most of the time in here is spent being antsy to get in the pools.

8. Hot Thermal Steam Bath II: (6 on the diagram as well). Let my confusion in labeling the diagram be representative of how confused I was in the spa. There are 15 steps and I've finally found them in the order that they were posted at the spa, and it's not until now that I understand what was supposed to happen. Step 8 is simply staying in the same room, though I'm not quite sure how it differs in temperature from the previous step. I think I wound up skipping this step altogether at Friedrichsbad because I couldn't find Step 8. Neither could anyone else.

9. Warm Thermal Bath 97F: (8 on the diagram). This is where the sexes combine and all peacefulness ceases. Despite signs posted in every room requesting silence, this is where the crowd (RSS) yuks it up. It was on my way back through this room from latter steps that I spotted a stroker. Yes a masturbater. Let's just say that though he was being inconspicuous, I have no doubts about my judgment of what this guy was doing. And lest it be forgotten that public baths were where the Romans came for their release? What was that Rick Steves was saying about it being safe? For a woman?

10. Jetspray Mineral Thermal Bath 93F: (9 or 11 on the diagram). Because of the crowd (RSS), I got no part of the jetspray, however I'll say this was my favorite bath. Whatever they infuse the water with not only clears your head, but feels like it does something to your pores. It's an invigorating aroma and bath in which I decided to make up some time.

11. Thermal Kinotheraputic Bath 82F: (10 on the diagram). This is the most memorable spot in the whole place with its enormous dome and bathing cherubs looking down on you with that soothing natural light. It's enough of a temperature difference to get you swimming and it should because the "kino" part of "kinotheraputic" means they want you to get your blood moving again. For whatever reason, RSS seems to have steered clear of this pool. Great spot.

12. Goddamn Rinsing Shower: (Do I need to point out the shower area again?) The evil, tricky thing about this rinse is that they don't tell you what temperature to rinse. I think it's natural that most of us would choose warm, if not hot, which is going to be warmer than your warmest mineral bath. I might say, 120F. It's evil because your next step is:

13. Cold Immersion Bath 64F: (12 on the diagram). Hello heart attack. Your heart rips out of your chest and out of the water faster than you do after this 55 degree difference in temperature. If you've grown up with a pool, you know that 78F is chilly but swimmable and 82F is perfect. I suppose the polar bear club is swimming in much colder waters, but I think they have something there with going in cold water first and running to the hot tub. This step is also suspiciously free from RSS.

14. Warm Towel Dry Off: There was just one problem here: the towels weren't warm. Most disappointing.

15. Moisturize (14) and Rest: Moisturize with the other bodies you've come to know with a nice aromatic house lotion and move to the resting room where you'll be wrapped up in warm blankets and are free to sleep on one of the many beds for a half hour if you can fall asleep to the sounds of others entering, leaving, and snoring (RSS).


  1. Anonymous11:37 AM

    This is very very funny stuff, Mrs. Cowan.
    I was inspired by your story, and I went into the shower and varied the temperature to be hot, then warm, then cold, then hot. Then I washed and moisturized (which I rarely do). I was all keen on telling you about it, but I had moisturized so much that my hand kept slipping around on the doorknob. I was trapped! I had created my own slippery tomb! Luckily, my skin was so dry that I just rubbed it around and eventually, my hands were supple, not slippy, and I was able to open my bathroom door.

  2. Anonymous11:45 AM

    Oh, and that was me...scuddie.
    But I also wanted to tell you about *my* bath house experience in South India. It wasn't so much of a bath house, than an aruyvedic massage place. But I went and they expect complete nudity. First, they throw you in a sauna (and India was already hot...we're talking 114 degrees that day). In addition to the dehydration and near-crippling diarreha, the heat was maddening. I felt as if I was going to faint. Then they walk you to a wooden table, one that you would imagine torture to happen on, and expect you to hop up on it. Then you lay down while a burly non-english-speaking Indian woman puts odd oils and spices all over your body...and I mean *all* over your body. There was no space on your body safe from those spices. Then they just leave you alone in this room. No comments, no telling me what I should do or when they will come back, she just left. So you are like "...?" After an indeterminant time, she comes back and helps you to a room with a shower stuck in the wall. Not a shower room, it looks kinda like a living room. Then she washes you. Washes you like a child. It was somewhat maternal and somewhat humiliating. But I did have the best night sleep after that massage.

  3. I laughed so hard when I read your blog that my cheeks hurt and I thought I might barf or hyperventilate.

    Then I stopped laughing and thought about Mark Twain, who got PAID to write humorous stories about his trips abroad.

    You should be paid, too. Then you can buy all of RSS's books (thus maintaining the anonymity of places like Baden Baden) and use them to paper your loo.

    My current state is severely lacking in laughs, you know, what with the ever-looming exam and my half-hearted gestures at doing my reading. With Oliver Twist in mind: "Please, Kell, may I have some more?"