Have you ever wandered in off the street of an elegant town into a public bath fully dressed, only to shed every stitch of clothing, stow everything in a locker and launch yourself into the unknown, wearing nothing but a bracelet bearing the locker number?
So it goes with a visit to the Roman-Irish baths in Baden-Baden, a “temple of well-being” built in 1877 and recently restored to its domed, colonnaded, fully tiled glory. “Bathing has been in the DNA of Baden-Baden since the Romans”, explains Marie-Lena, responsible for PR at the famous baths, noting that the Friedrichsbad gets over 77,000 visitors every year.
When in Baden-Baden, you go the baths; it’s just what you do. (The statue above, in the town’s Lichtentaler Park, proves it.) So we joined the 77,000 other visitors and signed up for a session. Some days bathing is segregated; others it’s mixed. This is Sunday, when bathing is mixed. Sharp intake of breath. So, what we should take with us: robe? swimming costume? towels? “Nothing”, explains Marie-Lena, “everything is provided – and we’re all here to help”.
She did admit that it can seem a bit daunting, and – clearly familiar with the concerns of bashful Anglo-Saxons – she acknowledged the added stress that comes with being in birthday suits. We were cheered to know there are instructions for use in German, French and English, pasted on the wall at the beginning of the bathing adventure.
We paid our €25 entrance and were directed upstairs to the changing rooms: girls to the left, boys to the right (at least that’s how it starts out). First came the obligatory shower, followed by a 15-minute bask on wooden benches in the (fairly warm) Warmluft room. Then came a shorter spell in the (considerably warmer) Heissluftbad at 68C. The sisters began to look distinctly pink. At this point, explained a local woman who has a season ticket and comes at least once a week, we should have looked forward to a Seifen-Bürsten-Massage. This being Sunday, however, the soap-and-brush massager was having a day of rest.
We trooped regretfully into Fairly Warm Steam Bath Number One, followed by Even Hotter Steam Bath Number Two. Then we progressed to the central pool, a dazzling, magnificent 19th-century monument to bathing.
Here, the significance of the word gemischt (mixed) as applied to the bathing experience became apparent. My trusty local adviser had already peeled away from the (so far strictly segregated) company of women and now launched herself with an impressive splash into the central thermal bath where her husband was happily basking.
The effect was electric. Those who had a partner with whom to get gemischt promptly did so, and there was a brief but joyous spell of communal bathing in the bubbling Sprudelbad. A notice on the wall politely asked bathers not to sit on top of the bubbling jets, but this was largely disregarded. Another notice demanded Ruhe – silence – but there was a good deal of disobedience in this area too.
The time came to go our separate ways again and we each went back to our corners for further spells in baths of ever-diminishing temperatures. After a brief dunk in a distinctly chilly (18C) tub, we towelled ourselves off and were channelled into the cream application parlour. Once again the local lady bemoaned the Sunday absence of cream massages. The ultimate treat was to be placed on a warm bed in a darkened room, wrapped in a linen sheet and swathed in a blanket, mummy-style. I fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the strains of a Mozart symphony.
We retrieved our clothes and emerged, blinking, onto the streets of Baden-Baden. We felt well scrubbed, a little lightheaded and quite nonchalant about the experience, wondering why it is that we British are so bashful about the whole business of bathing, and promising ourselves to do it again soon.