The idea of going to a spa to relax is popular indeed, but I had heard that a spa visit in Germany involves more than lovely massages, facials and fluffy towels, so I was keen to explore.
I was lucky to go to one of the great thermal spas of Germany, Baden-Baden, and was amazed.
A thermal water spa is defined by its water, which comes naturally out of the depth of the earth at 35-40C degrees, from a depth of 3-400m; only a few are cold. This water is laden with a variety of minerals and hence some are classified as Heilwasser (certified healing water), which is a state-controlled label. It indicates its usefulness for complaints of the bones, stomach or chest. But these spas are not only for people with ‘issues’.
All over Europe people have been bathing in thermal water, or indeed imbibing it, for many years. Names like Montecatini, Budapest, Marienbad, Ischia: the list is endless and evokes the luxury of lazing in hot waters that ease your various pains and energise you without having to lift a finger. If this sounds too good to be true, the German NHS-equivalent even paid for spa stays until very recently. Lately the spas have had to reinvent themselves as places for fun as well as health.
So the Art Nouveau Bains, Bagni and Bads transformed themselves into Thermal, a bit like the Bath Thermae in the UK, but so much better and MUCH cheaper. The Thermea in Bath is, of course, set in a beautiful spot, but after spending many millions to develop it, all we have is one roof-top pool and various steam rooms and saunas in one building.
Not so on the Continent. During the spa craze in the 19th Century, our bon vivants cousins went to places like Baden-Baden every summer to soothe their ills. The recent Therme craze replicated this for people with average incomes. Then and now this type of spa was accomplished in varied ways:
First: The ‘waters’
Those mineral-rich waters were great for soothing away pains. Nowadays, they also reach out to people who just love whirlpools and being pushed around the pool by currents: less languorous but a lot of fun.
The most famous of them all is Baden-Baden, in Baden in Germany. (So good they named it thrice!) This beautiful turn-of-the-century town is 90 minutes from Frankfurt and used to be the summer home of Russian Princes, Italian, British and French nobility, and of course it was very popular with Germans who wished to ‘take the waters’ in some exclusivity.
Baden-Baden, while remaining a destination, is now booming. In the last ten years, visitors from abroad have more than doubled. The town has very cleverly diversified to attract new visitors, those who like the Wellness idea, but are also into racing, culture and shopping. The second largest opera house in Europe is here, the modern Museum Frieder Burda and of course, the splendid fin de siècle casino. With 55,000 inhabitants this surely is the smallest world-class city in the world. Chic, cosmopolitain, and very accessible.
The simply fantastic Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme in the town still shows the opulence of this time very clearly. It is a huge 19th century building with many great halls, beautifully tiled: all sizes of pools; pure style. While this kind of luxury had been out of fashion for a while, it is back big time. People love to be spoilt, and this town does this very well.
But you simply must go to Friedrichsbad on a Wednesday to really get the idea of a German Spa. This one day of the week, men and women in their birthday suits parade around as if that is what they always do, slipping into the warm water, barely moving, resting, trying another small pool. And the most astonishing thing is they don’t even give each other a glance; quiet discretion rules. The direct German stares one often finds uncomfortable are all gone here.
The adjacent Caracalla Therme is the new style: huge, full of exited users from every nation you can imagine, having great fun in the warm waters. Caracalla is a busy place, plenty of gigantic Jacuzzis, many pools, sun loungers.
Once you are totally relaxed, treat yourself in style at Brenner’s Park Hotel. This most famous and exclusive hotel provides a sip of Sekt (sparkling wine) as graciously as a delicious meal. Here the world is full of ease and old-world charm. Of course, keeping up with the times, they also have a new medical spa for their guests, with everything you could want from dentistry to aesthetic procedures.
Nearby is The Little Prince Hotel, a funky boutique hotel, comfortable and cute, with pictures of St. Exupery’s Little Prince watching over your every step.
Second: Spa / Wellness through food & drink
Useful German proverb: eating and drinking keeps body and soul together!
If you prefer ‘Hausfrau Kueche’ for a solid German-style meal, Schneiders Weinstube obliges. Or you can eat old-style in the Atlantic Parkhotel, overlooking the Kurpark (Spa Park), with friendly service and the delicious local Maultaschen (local pasta). Alternatively, sample the yummy cakes at Café Koenig, again just a short walk away. How could you resist a Schwarzwaelder Kirschtorte in the land that created it?
If you feel energised, make your way to Neuweier, a village 15-minutes’ drive away for a wine tasting.
Third: Wellness the Ancient Indian way
For a thorough, efficient health cure, we tried one of the best Ayurveda places in Europe. The Ayurveda Parkschloesschen in Traben-Trabach, not far away in the beautiful Moselle Valley, is one of the few strictly faithful to the Vedas. This is a very stylish and comfortable place indeed, with large, cool rooms and huge beds that make you forget you are supposed to be having a hard time fasting. Everything here has been thoroughly considered; even the wallpaper is according to Ayurvedic principles. The food is delicious, the treatment rooms airy, the practitioners true professionals. Their commitment shows with 25 yoga teachers in a place with 58 rooms. The recommended stay is a minimum of nine days, though, so you, too, need to be committed.
While not the simple, rather innocent approach of the ‘water’, it was a remarkable way to end an incredible journey to wellness of body and soul in Baden-Baden.