Jeff and I love the German wellness tradition, exemplified by their public saunas.
Germany is full of unique day spas that have evolved from a long tradition of spas and healing baths, and are now incorporating elements of Finnish sauna, Roman baths, and Turkish or Arabic hammam spas. The concept of a public swimming pool-type building full of nude people spending hours, or a full day in a German “sauna landscape” where you can swim, shower, suntan, nap, sweat, get a massage, relax, read, eat, and drink beer, alone, or with the whole family, is something I have yet to find in North America.
On December 23, we visited our favourite sauna in my cousin’s city, Bergisch Gladbach. It’s a Moroccan style sauna called Mediterana, it costs just under €30 to spend four hours there and avail yourself of their Indian-Arab and Spanish-Mauric saunas: Persian bath, meditation sauna, precious stone sauna, Ayurveda sauna, rose sauna, Himalayan salt sauna, bain Arabisance, stone sauna, Catalan herbal sauna, Andalusian sauna, Mauric steambath, Finca sauna, candle sauna… plus thermal pools and baths, a hamam, and various resting areas and restaurants. You get an armband with a chip for your visit and anything you eat gets added to your chip. It’s like a vacation for 4 hours (or a full day).
And now, indulge me. I simply must tell you the proper way to do a round of sauna in Germany because I love it so much:
1. You must take all your clothes off. None of that sweating into a bathing suit stuff — that is definitely not healthy. Forget your fake modesty — there’s always someone more fat or wrinkly in there than you are. Nobody is here to show off their bod either. There are all generations represented here.
2. Formal social rules and proper behaviour apply. Assuming you are in Germany, say “Guten Tag” to the room full of other naked people, as you enter a sauna. Bring a big towel to sit on and sweat onto. Kissing and hugging are frowned upon. We are here strictly to sweat and relax.
3. It must be very hot. About 80 to 90 degrees Centigrade is about right for a dry sauna. The steam saunas are of course cooler.
4. You should stay in the sauna until you are sweating all over. Like a pig comes to mind. During your first round it will frankly smell a bit bad because your body is sweating out some toxins. You will be surprised at your own stink. But already in your second round, you will smell like a rose in comparison.
5. Don’t talk. This is a time for quiet relaxation and meditation. Plus it’s exhausting to talk when your body is working so hard. How nice to sit in a room full of people and not have to talk for a change.
6. A special event in any sauna is to catch the “Aufguss”. This is a ceremonial ritual where a Sauna Meister comes in and pours water infused with herbs, oils, fruit or spices onto the sauna oven, resulting in a lot of steam which they then spread around by performing rhythmic flicks with a towel. The sauna gets hotter and sweatier than normal. This is usually repeated three times during an Aufguss. Germans are crazy about the Aufguss which only happens once an hour, and the sauna tends to get very full just before the Aufguss time. Sometimes you are handed a cool drink or fresh fruit right after the Aufguss.
7. After working up a good sweat (10 – 12 minutes in a dry sauna should do it, more is unhealthy), remove yourself from the sauna (you may say a quiet “Auf Wiedersehen”) and have a cold shower or hose-down for a minute or so to wash off the sweat.
8. Dip into an ice cold dipping pool, usually provided at a proper sauna place. This is the indoor, all-season equivalent to rolling around naked in the snow.
9. Get back into the shower for a couple of minutes, until you feel you have cooled back off to a normal body temperature.
10. At this point, you can wrap yourself up in a robe or towel and take a warm foot bath for a few minutes to prevent yourself from getting too cold.
11. Wrap yourself in a blanket to stay warm, grab a big glass of water, and rest on a chaise for about 15 – 20 minutes. In Germany, they will sell you beer in the ubiquitous sauna bar, but alcohol is not advisable during sauna as it dehydrates the body. Of course, in Germany, beer is not really considered alcohol anyway.
Do this whole cycle 3 times. That will take at least 3-4 hours of basically doing nothing productive. What luxury to do nothing in our crazy-busy world for a full 4 hours! What delicious time wasting! The resulting feeling of physical well-being and mental relaxation is out of this world.