German Spas: An ode to H2Ohh!
Published 05/02/2012 | 06:00
Cleo Murphy discovers that Germany has a real spring in its step, with spas galore
Forget facials and fish pedicures. In a real spa, the water comes from a spring in the ground, and pumps allow you to drink it by the cup.
Then there are bathhouses, which allow you to soak in pools of the stuff.
The Romans made the most of these springs and found sources in what is now Germany, where the word for bath is bad.
The town of Baden-Baden in southern Germany is the cream of spa towns. While the Romans may have been the original spa junkies, the Germans themselves recreated the concept of in the 19th century, when the aristocracy took to holidaying in such places.
It was during this period that pump houses were built to provide the waters for drinking and a place to socialise, although in German they have the more endearing name of Trinkhalle.
In 1877 they completed the building of the Roman-Irish baths of Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden. This is intriguing because -- with the exception of Lisdoonvarna -- we Irish don't really have a tradition of spas.
The description apparently derives from the input of an Irish doctor, Richard Barter, who created Turkish vapour baths in Blarney in the 1850s.
The Friedrichsbad experience of 17 different stations begins with a warm-air room and a hot-air room, which are attributed to the Corkman.
There is a certain irony in the brochure description of the baths being a combination of Roman spa culture and Irish hot-air baths.
In the current climate, Germany could shake its head in despair at Irish hot air.
But back to Friedrichsbad. One should be warned this is a strictly nude experience, so those of more disposition might be better accommodated in the Caracalla spa down the road, which is named after the Roman Emperor but is an altogether more contemporary experience.
The bathing suit is the normal attire there.
In Friedrichsbad, there is separate bathing for men and women on certain days of the week -- at least until they reach the central pool with its glorious dome -- but on other days it's completely mixed.
The hot-air experience is followed by an eight-minute soap scrub at the hands of an attendant and yet another shower, before entering the steam room.
You're unlikely to ever again be this clean.
There follows the bathing in pools of spring water heated to different temperatures. A warm sheet made of barleycorn awaits you when you're ready to dry off, followed by the application of moisturising cream to the body (either at your own hands or another eight minutes from the attendant).
Finally, you are led to the rest room, where the attendant has another hot sheet to wrap you in as well as an outer layer of blankets. You may never want to emerge from this cocoon of bliss.
But there are other attractions in Baden-Baden to lure you out, not least the casino, which was the traditional evening entertainment for the 19th-century aristocracy on visits to spa towns.
The Baden-Baden casino in the town's Kurhaus was the setting for Dostoevsky's novella 'The Gambler', which he wrote in 1867. Dostoevsky had a gambling addiction of his own and wrote the book to pay off a gambling debt.
He played both at Baden-Baden and another spa/casino town Wiesbaden, to the north. These casinos are a long way from Las Vegas and are altogether more sedate affairs, set in elegant, carpeted rooms with chandeliers and artworks.
There's a certain hush, not least in the poker room where concentration is intense and smoking is allowed.
The smoking ban is somewhat patchy in Germany and appears to be at the discretion of hospitality managers. One hotelier in Wiesbaden reversed the ban for his piano bar.
"It's a late-night place with hard liquor and jazz music," he explains. "These people like to smoke."
So wonderfully decadent in the face of all the surrounding health and purity!
Both Baden-Baden and Wiesbaden are garden cities with lots of greenery and parkland. Weisbaden has 26 springs and two main city baths: Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme and Thermalbad Aukammtal.
It takes its health offerings all the way into the field of medicine and is known for having a concentration of upmarket health clinics often frequented by wealthy Arab and Russian clients.
Further south in the small town of Oberstaufen in Bavaria they have no hot springs but they've made their name for the provision of the Schroth cure, devised by Johann Schroth, a Silesian farmer who developed it to cure a knee injury.
It's a combination of supervised diet, alternating fluid and dry days and the application of cold and hot packs.
On the down side, they wake you at 4am to wrap you in a wet sheet surrounded by hot blankets and leave you go back to sleep for two hours. On the plus side, you can drink dry red wine every second day.
Hotels and guesthouses in Oberstaufen offer this cure for at least one week, although they recommend three. Schroth himself advocated that the wet-sheet wrap be left on over night but as one hotelier wryly remarked, "At that rate, no one would come".
The Schroth Cure is on the wackier side of health regimes, but it has survived for 200 years and has a dedicated following.
In keeping with the paradox of health and decadence, Oberstaufen has a population of 3,500 and 40 bars and nightclubs, some of which stay open until 5am.
It is, however, surrounded by beautiful Bavarian countryside where you are encouraged to take exercise as part of the health regime.
Given the opportunities for falling off the wagon, it's probably a good idea.