European Spa Tour Part 2: Avert your eyes!

Have you read part 1 of my European Spa Tour entries? Click here to get caught up!

Before I get too deep into any other entries, I’ll address the elephant in the sauna: nudity. I think it is fairly common knowledge that in Germany and some other European countries, children aren’t raised with the same body shame we are in America. This is referred to as Freikoerperkultur or Free Body Culture (Click for a GREAT recent article on the background of nudist culture in Germany).

This way of life and body acceptance is definitely a very cool, but very foreign concept to this Iowa lady. Even parks in Munich have large nudity areas, though they were more widespread before the Munich Olympics. (Our bike tour guide: “Germany didn’t think worldwide tourists would be great standing in line for a beer with naked strangers”).The sauna complexes we visited in Switzerland, Austria and Germany were part of the Free Body Culture, with nudity being a normal element.

This is a dramatization of my anxious brain’s image of the European sauna before my visit. Obviously I didn’t take photos in the saunas we enjoyed. I promise, they were nothing like this.

I wondered aloud for months how I’d handle the nudity and get over my own issues, growing up swimming 3-4 hours daily wearing practically translucent competition suits, I’m not sure how I acquired so much Midwest prudishness about nudity, but I did. I even joke about my issues at work. I realize this normally would not be workplace appropriate, but remember, I own a spa that does Brazilian waxing. I’ve been a massage therapist since 2005 but still keep my undies on when I get a massage (I know, I know…but WHAT IF THERE IS A FIRE?) Our German massage therapist Conny cornered me before my trip and urgently pleaded with me “Promise me you vill NOT vear your bathing suit in za sauna. Vee think zat is very unsanitary!”

That being said, you can wear a towel and you most definitely should sit on a towel in saunas and steam rooms. In fact, during the pool and sauna facility tours we received, the guides expressed that the reason they are so anti-bathing suit is that they don’t feel bathing suits are properly cleaned in the wash and that they harbor bacteria. It is quite a contrast in policy to the spa and thermal waters complex my friend just checked into in New York where the website clearly stated “Bathing suits are required. If you do not bring one, we will provide one free of charge.”

Now, in all but one of the complexes visited on the group, bathing suits were fine (and required) in most pools, but there were some separate pools where they were not allowed. I’ll be honest, I stuck to the bathing suit pools. They were more fun anyway. I mean, LOOK at this thermal pool that shoots you around like a high powered, warm water lazy river!

As far as the saunas went, I was fine being wrapped in a towel and didn’t feel judged. Honestly, I max out at about 3 minutes in a Sauna anyway. The facility we visited in Austria even had a female-only sauna and steam facility in addition to the co-ed sauna complex. The co-ed complex was age 15 and older but they have hours where families and children of all ages are welcome. I skipped the smaller more urban sauna complex in Munich (to visit a different spa) but that pool and sauna were all nude, with showers and lockers all around the pool’s perimeter so privacy wasn’t an option there.

The spa facility in Switzerland had two saunas that permitted bathing suits, but the gist of what we heard on the tour was was “I mean, if you want to sit in the ‘basic’ gross saunas for people in dirty, bacteria-ridden bathing suits, go ahead. But the cool nude saunas have a day of activities including a person cooking SOUP on the sauna coals! Bamboo Massage! Free refreshments! But whatever.” I was surprised how fast I made a beeline to the cool nude sauna because REFRESHMENTS!

The pool and sauna complex in Bad Zurzach Switzerland. This pool is indoor/outdoor. To the top right is the “cool” detached sauna complex where the nude people get to hang out and eat snacks.

As much as I was anxious about the culture shock of being around lots of naked people, I found it fascinating to hear from one employee at a thermal pool facility about the modern day issues they face in their long history of body acceptance and open nudity. With international tourism and new residents who come from countries with a far less of an acceptance of public nudity than even this Iowa lady, it sounds like they face a delicate balance between honoring traditions and helping all guests to feel comfortable. I’m curious to see how, over time, these facilities manage to do that and hopefully it won’t be too long until I’m able to go back for another visit to find out!

Continue reading part 3: Public Sauna and Pool Complexes here!

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