Naked People Watching at the German Spa: “Finding your place in the naturist Eco-System.”

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 – on 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 sought out 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 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 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 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 themselves as a young professional hipster, along with a few 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 parts 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 Verbali 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 days 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 – 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 falls 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 to 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 end, and 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 try. 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, 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!

Nudity and Friendship: Does it matter?

It’s the first day of the new year. 2019! My feelings about 2018 are decidedly mixed – not just because of my tendency to worry about how things are going in Washington DC, but to be blunt, it was a tumultuous year with a lot of unanticipated change. Some good. Some challenging. Almost all of it someplace between disorienting and disquieting.

Photo credit: http://clothesfree.com

Last evening, on New Year’s Eve, we had friends over who have grown accustomed to going naked in the hot tub with us. They would never call themselves naturists, and in fact, the “she” of the couple wasn’t too crazy about sitting in the hot tub in the rain and so she abstained. Meanwhile, another friend stopped by – the one who has been the subject of a few of my previous blog posts, including the recent guide to exploring German spas – and she was naked and in the tub in a flash. I think she would tell you social nudity has provided her with a new sense of identity and self-expression – part counter-culture, part self discovery, as she is facing a lot of difficult questions in her life right now. She’s a natural born naturist!

In the meantime, while our non-naturist couple friends are inclined to quickly wrap in a towel the minute they step out of the spa, our younger companion never seems quite sure just how naked to be once making her way inside the house. Is this a wear your towel zone? Cover your mid-riff area? Funny – we seasoned naturists like to tout the simplicity of it all, but in fact, knowing when to be naked and just how naked to be can be little confusing, especially when you’re not at a naked place like a naturist beach or resort.

Interesting also, when I put my wife into this mix. She loves our nakations! She has no aversion to getting naked at home except for one – It’s not practical! “I need to take out the recycling. Or the kitchen is chilly. Or it simply hadn’t occurred to me to get naked right now.” Not a statement, per se, just an extra chore that adds one more step to the mix. “Pull on a shirt to go get something out of my car? Meh… I’ll just keep my clothes on.”

We have some friends from work who, quite by accident, we came to know of their affinity for Montalivet, a popular naturist destination in France. They’ve been going for years while we’ve been visiting a similar resort just an hour down the road. He is French and was raised with naturist vacations, and they have taken their children on nakation nearly every summer. We had them over for a naturist evening on the porch a few months ago on the coattails of summer, but as it turns out, they confessed they had never been naked at a friend’s home before, especially here in the US where they’re sure their neighbors would call the police were they ever to set foot in their backyard wearing anything less than modest swimsuit.

Then we have these friends we used to go to St. Martin with – every year for quite a stretch. One of the couples has a particularly naturist friendly backyard that is something like a private naturist resort on a warm summer day. In the winter, we’ve had a fair number of naked holiday dinners as well. But as is wont to happen, the complexities in each of our lives have made that more difficult in recent years. All said, it takes a good bit of planning to facilitate an evening of social nudity. It’s not just like, “Hey friend! Come on over and we’ll all take our clothes off!” At least in our circles, it almost never happens that way.

Photo credit: http://clothesfree.com/

Other than rambling along in a reminiscent sort of way as one often does at the demarcation of a new year – and I am the meandering naturist for God’s sake – I’m really not sure what point I’m driving for here, except that I found myself strangely intrigued with a blog post I reposted on my other blog a few days ago called I Socialize Naked. The young, female author made a rather compelling case for calling out social nudity for what it really is. “I would like to not be wearing clothes right now, and I would also like to be with my friends. No protest to mount. No fitness agenda. No underlying implication of inner healing or truth. I just like being naked, and it’s more fun to be naked with other people around.”

Her words really resonated with me, particularly in my shared affinity for the simple act of nudity itself, immediately complicated by the fact that unless you have made an intentional effort to go someplace where getting naked together is the primary objective, then in fact, the nuances of when and how to get naked can be quite confusing, if not overwhelming! “Do you mind that I’m not wearing pants right now?” I might say to my fully clothed, or even towel draped friend. Even as you say it, you sort of wonder if you should be phoning the authorities to turn yourself in.

And finally, to further complicate things, I think there is a train of thought that seems to empower the most ardent naturists to believe those who get naked together are destined for more intimate and meaningful relationships. (Speaking of the platonic flavor here.) They would say our nakedness itself is a statement of vulnerability and freedom from the constructs of religiosity, narrow-mindedness, and decidedly in the face ideological norms that have made it clear that hands, faces, elbows, and knees represent normalcy, while the exposure of a breast or a penis represents abhorrent behavior. The most altruistic will make a case for full self realization that is beyond the consciousness of the average work-a-day mortal.

I actually spent a good bit of time musing over these ideas in a previous post called The Demographics of Nakedness, where I essentially put my opinion out there that the only thing naked people truly have in common is… well… nudity. I don’t happen to belong to the camp that posits that nudity is the great equalizer, nor do I believe that naked people are categorically more or less genuine or vulnerable than the clothed. It occurs to me that some people simply think it feels good to be naked – and sometimes it’s fun to hang out with other people. Nice when those two elements coincide in some manner that feels organic – or at least, less than contrived. My wife and I are vowing to make 2019 less frenetic than the last year or two, which is a tall order given the demands of family, workplace, and society. To me, that automatically implies that there will be more more naked time in 2019, as the shedding of my worldly cloaks immediately represents a step-back from my everyday existence in the chaotic and noisy existence of my professional circles. For my wife, that would mean slowing the pace of our collective lifestyle so that it’s actually worth the time to get naked and stay naked when there are a bazillion other things to do around the house – most of which are much more pragmatic with clothing. We’ll see how that goes.

Photo credit: http://clothesfree.co

In the meantime, I’ll be eager to see who responds to this post. If it finds its way into the retweeting blogosphere, or even spawns an engaging discussion on reddit. I suspect there are others, like me, who find a certain (and apparently, somewhat bizarre) pleasure in the simplicity of wearing no clothing, and feel all the more validated when they find there are others who not only enjoy doing the same, but find it strangely validating to conduct normal social interactions – watching a movie, chatting over a bottle of wine, playing cards – with no clothes on. Are we freaks, us naked people? Maybe. But no doubt, whether we’re more genuine and vulnerable or not, it’s most definitely more fun to be freakish with others than by one’s self.

On a side note, since I mentioned reddit, and I will likely repost this chronicle to those forums as well, I will call myself out for the use of images in this post which I have pulled from a collection of naturist sources over the years. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been less than proactive about capturing social gatherings with naked friends in my digital image archive, and while most of my travel blogs feature, almost exclusively, photos of me and my wife, I come up in short supply of graphics for my posts of a more philosophical nature. This is quite upsetting to my reddit colleague, as the use of any image without permission and confirmed attribution is a breach of social contract at best, flat out stealing at least. With that, I will close with the disclaimer that if you find any image in this, or any of my other posts, lacking appropriate attribution or used in an otherwise exploitative manner, I trust you will let me know, and I will remove that image at once.

Ultimate social nudity – The Big Nude Boat

Here again… I keep thinking that embracing nakedness is supposed to represent a step toward simplicity and clarity of mind. Neither of those ideals are easily defined on this first day of 2019. Maybe I’ll just take my clothes off, pour a glass of wine and give that some thought. If you were here, I’d invite you to shed your clothes and join me.