I’m writing this post from 38,000 feet on a flight home from Berlin. My wife and I spent the weekend in this Renaissance city with the intent of doing a bit of sight-seeing, enjoying a couple nice meals, but most specifically, checking out a few German spas (“Saunas” or “Thermes”) that are particularly renowned for their traditions in nude bathing – or in the case of the saunas – nude sweating!
I’ve already written this post from a somewhat different perspective in a piece called The Demographics of Nakedness, where I made a valiant attempt to dispel the myth that nudity is the great equalizer. “We are all the same when we’re naked,” have said so many people in advocacy for nude recreation. “You can’t tell a doctor, from a business tycoon, from a pipe-fitter when everyone is nude, as clothing provides the social cues that allow us to form our preconceived notions about other humans.”
I love the genuine sentiment and conviction of such statements, but the longer we’ve participated in social nudity, the less I have been able to lend any personal credibility to such a mantra. And never has that been so evident as during this brief qualitative study we just completed while visiting the most nudity-friendly spas in Berlin. What did the study prove? Well… naked humans are simply human, but naked! Profound… I know! 😐
STUDY – PHASE ONE: Europa-Therme in Central Berlin.
SETTING: Just a couple blocks from the Berlin Aquarium and Zoo, each of which border the expansive Tiergarten, this is most definitely a center-city location that would probably be best described as “my neighborhood sauna.” The striking element of this particular venue is how it is situated amidst the commercial and residential high-rises of downtown Berlin, with a rooftop view of several historical landmarks. Of course, that means a reciprocal exposure of the sundecks to the inhabitants of those high-rises, which must be a source of amusement in the middle of summer when I suspect the rooftop nude sunbathers are plentiful and in clear view of the apartment dwellers across the street.
We arrived late on a Thursday morning and stayed into the early evening hours. Even on this near-freezing day, the “seasoned locals” showed little reticence about meandering out onto the veranda in the all-together. It immediately made me think of the insultingly redundant comments on sites like Trip Advisor where first time nude beach goers comment on “the perils of encountering the people you never want to see naked.”
But if I’m going to be completely truthful, there is a discomfort in visiting a naked place where the clientele is mainly in the “over-80-years-old” bracket, not unlike that of visiting my 93-year-old mother in a “sunset-living community” where everyone starts lining up with their walkers and wheelchairs at 4:00 pm for the first seating at dinner. This is always a reflective dance with one’s own mortality that has little to do with nakedness, but everything to do with how each of us grapple with the aging process. In that spirit, part of me wants to jump up and say “GOOD FOR YOU NAKED OLD PEOPLE!! I celebrate your confidence for putting so many decades of wrinkles and scars on display.” But in that very same breath, you find yourself catching a glimpse of yourself reflecting in the glass walls in an attempt to quickly assess where you are in that process. Sobering, at least.
As the day progressed at Europa-Therme, the crowd grew a bit more diverse, with a couple dads and their kids (Yup – naked children at the spa! That’s a thing in Berlin.), and some middle-agers that looked more or less like us. You could tell this was a place that was once on the cutting edge, but now on the backside of that reality. Who knows, maybe the local hipsters show up on Saturday night to soak in the rooftop pool and gaze at the Berlin skyline, (Which sounds like fun!) but I sort of doubt it, because now they have other options, like…
STUDY – PHASE TWO: Vabali Spa in Berlin
SETTING: Located between a city park and a soccer field, you could easily walk past the front door of Vabali Spa Berlin without even noticing. The place is all but hidden amidst the local service industries and apartment blocks in the sprawling development at the foot of the track where the Berlin Wall once stood. But once inside the door, you are guided down the path of Asian-influenced self-realization into a labyrinth of saunas, hot tubs, tepid swimming pools, and rest areas with luxurious waterbeds that invite napping even when you thought you were wide awake. Children are allowed, but we only saw one mom with her young daughter in tow. This is a mecca for young adults.
Interestingly enough, friends of ours visited the Vabali Spa in Düsseldorf a few months ago, where their defining moment was a reprimand for being “too naked” – a result of walking from one attraction to the next without bothering to wrap themselves in a towel or a robe. That most certainly resonated with us as we observed this to be a place that is really well managed, or perhaps more appropriately – micro-managed!
As best I can tell, they opened in sometime in 2014 (with the Düsseldorf establishment opening in 2017, and a third location scheduled for Hamburg in 2021). As part of a consortium with Claudius Therme and Neptunbad in Cologne, they have similarly strict policies that forbid you to leave a towel or a robe on a lounger, at which point, said item will be confiscated and sold on Ebay before you can utter the word Aufguss! Along with that comes a sense that you are being watched all the time, in the pools, in the quiet rooms, walking around naked – whatever. The rules are in place for a reason, and they must be adhered to.
I get it. There’s a strong tradition of sex clubs in Berlin that have hijacked the “FKK” nomenclature that once belonged exclusively to hard-core naturists, but now denotes a nightlife where, truly, anything goes. Vabali is clearly seeking to set an industry standard, which could quickly be tarnished by people getting frisky in the hot tub.
But alas, I’ve drifted off topic. And that is, who goes to Vabali? Well, pretty much anyone that might identify him/herself as a young professional hipster, along with a few meandering strays like ourselves. We were in a smallish minority of those without tattoos ranging from subtle line-art to body sleeves. Lots of young couples apparently took Friday off, while several “girls’ day out” groups seemed completely at ease with the co-ed naked part, but uniformly uncomfortable with the “Crap! It’s cold out here” part. (Many of the most alluring areas of the property are outdoors, decidedly uncomfortable when making your way from the outdoor pool to the deep-heated resting areas.)
But again, to the point… The crowd at Vabali looked very much like what I would expect to encounter in the mainline nightclubs of Berlin. Successful, educated young people out to have a relaxing and sensual day at the spa. Naked was not the attraction for coming here – Chillaxing is what’s on tap, and what’s the big deal about naked? “We all get naked… every day… right? Why not spend the day that way with my friends?
STUDY – PHASE THREE: Kristalltherme Ludwigsfelda
SETTING: Kristalltherme is a chain of sauna and pool complexes scattered throughout Germany, though the venue at Ludwigsfelda, a 25-minute train ride outside of Berlin, is known to be “the most naked of the entire chain.” On Wednesdays and Sundays, bathing suits are allowed, but during the rest of the week, the expectation is total nudity in the saunas and in the pools. Covering with a robe or towel is the supposed expectation when walking about, but many – male and female – simply don’t bother to cover up at all unless making their way to the food concession, and even then, nobody seems to care. (A marked difference from Vabali where the immediate action upon exiting the pool was to wrap in a towel.) And on a Saturday? This is most definitely a family water park. Those under 18 are allowed to wear swimsuits, and I would say roughly half of those in that age bracket did so – but the rest were naked.
This was my third visit to this naked water wonderland, the most relaxing in some ways, and somewhat disorienting in others. If Europa-Therme has assumed the role of a senior day center, and Vabali has found its niche as an enclave for open-minded hipsters, then Kristalltherme fell in that middle ground of “a place for the rest of us.” To that end, it was interesting – given the lack of textile cues other than bathrobes and towels – to imagine the lives of these patrons fully clothed on a workday, and in that light, I would surmise this to be the most socio-economic diverse crowd I’ve encountered at any place where social nudity is practiced. Keep in mind that our ability to converse with the locals was essentially non-existent, leaving one to draw such conclusions on the basis of people-watching alone, the same way one does in an airport, a restaurant, or a grocery store. Sure enough, clothed or not, people send off innumerable non-verbal cues that define who they are and where they fit in.
We arrived early, having read that finding two loungers together after the opening bell on a weekend could be a challenge, and for a good while, we felt a good twenty-five years younger than the prevailing median age. But as the day progressed, families arrived in droves until our departure at dusk when the young couples surrounded the bar, creating an ever-evolving ambiance in the warm pool.
It occurred to me while I was sitting in one particularly unique sauna at the Kristalltherme – called Brutal Aufguss! that had this been my first experience at such a sauna, it might have also been my last. Whereas the typical demeanor for the sauna infusion ceremonies is one of meditation and mind-expansion, this particular theatrical presentation – all in German, of course – involved an aggressive dialogue between the two sauna-masters which apparently played a bit over the top even with the locals. (It was called the “Brutal Sauna” experience, after all.) But in that moment, it was something of an epiphany to me. Just like anyone in the hospitality industry, the most important element in a business plan is to know who your target audience is, and why wouldn’t that be true for businesses that cater to naked people as well, since as I stated earlier, naked people are just as different from one another as clothed people, except without the clothes!
In Germany, I believe there are nearly 300 saunas, some similar to one another, but none exactly the same as the next. In France, there are nearly as many naturist centers, some of which cater to people looking for “lots of friends with lots of benefits;” others which seek to create a family-friendly environment – something akin to Disney World. But at the end of the day, except for the very most adventurous, people want to hang out with people they feel inherently comfortable with, which is why there are so many different restaurant and hotel chains, boutique malls, and discount super-shopping centers. It’s difficult enough to find one’s niche when fully clothed, let alone putting yourself out there wearing nothing but your own skin. Perhaps the awkward truth is that even if you have no intention of actually socializing with other people at a particular place, most of us are hard-wired in our efforts not to stand out from the crowd.
I have written before that I think millennials may have a golden opportunity to sway attitudes regarding social nudity in America in a very positive way, but in the same breath, one’s first experience with public nakedness will quite likely be their last if it doesn’t turn out to be at least a marginally positive experience. Especially in America, given so few opportunities to even “give it a try,” it seems a bit of a long shot for getting it right on the first bounce. That can only lead to the riveting cocktail party story that goes, “I got naked this one time, and you wouldn’t believe how it turned out. OMG… SO awkward!”
Thanks to the ever-growing database of reviews such as those on Google, Yelp, and Trip Advisor, and a few tireless bloggers who are adding more substantive information about experiencing social nudity every day, there’s more information out there than ever to help you find the right place. That said, I suspect if you go to a subpar restaurant and don’t like the food, you may never go back to that place, but I doubt you’ll give up eating. But if you’re contemplating your first experience of getting naked with others, you may want to do a bit of research. I suppose it’s like any number of experiences that stretch your horizons – Once you find your way there and have a mountain top experience, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to try it in the first place. The tricky part? You have to get it right the first time!