In the premier spa town of Baden-Baden, one of the world’s ultimate bathing experiences has been perfected over time.
In this late 19th century temple to the body, you’ll find no kitsch faux-asian spa music, there is no mood lighting, and no aromatherapy. There is, in short, nothing to remind you that you are in the 21st century rather than in the Belle Epoque – not even a chic, modern maillot. In the Friedrichsbad, you take the waters as God made you.
Some of the best spa experiences have a timeless, ritualistic quality. It is not a menu, not a tailor-made personal experience. Rituals transcend personal experience and make you feel like you are part of a continuum. They also, ideally, make you feel in some way transformed.
At the Friedrichsbad, nothing is left to chance, or choice. 17 prescribed steps ensured that we reached a state of raw purification. Like other ritualistic spaces, each of the chambers was beautiful and unique.
The Roman-Irish Bath
You’ll hear the Friedrichsbad described as a Roman-Irish bath. The Irish part of the concept comes from the fact that the Roman -Irish bath was developed by an Irish doctor, Richard Barter, who was interested in water cures, a 19th-century trend in European medecine. He first championed the Turkish bath. But, as he came to prize the purifying effects of perspiration, he favored the use of dry heat, as in Roman baths. He felt that the steam in a Turkish bath had an inhibiting effect on perspiration.
The Friedrichsbad incorporates the benefits of the Roman-Irish bath experience with therapeutic waters that themselves have been used since Roman times.
This glorious, multi-roomed bathing temple was built in 1877. Quotes from Goethe flank the entrance. The front hall and staircase look like they belong to a museum, and the central bath feels like a not-so-miniature pantheon.
Baden Baden was once called Aquae Aureliae, known in Roman times for its waters. The ruins of the Roman Soldiers’ Bath are beneath the Freidrichsbad. The ruins are well-preserved and we thought would have been interesting to visit, but are only open by guided tour once a month (the second Saturday, at 14:00), April through November, and ours was a winter holiday.
Before the 17 step ritual begins, you’ll disrobe completely. The Friedrichsbad is a textile-free bath. Nudity is mandatory, and you’ll find – after perhaps some initial strangeness – that there is really no other way to fully appreciate the experience.
In each locker is a white sheet you will wear then enter the baths.
Step 1 is a shower. It sounds uninspiring, but everything in this deluxe 19th century bathing palace is extraordinary, and the showers are no exception. The plumbing is conspicuously and beautifully designed. Water rained down on us from enormous shower heads, operated by levers rather than knobs.
We used our linen sheets for the steps 2 and 3 – the “Warmluft Baeder” – hot air baths, central to the experience. These are like saunas in that there is dry heat, but the surroundings are much grander. In step 2, you’ll enter a chamber of 54° C. We spread our sheets out on a wooden chaise lounge and lay down to absorb the heat. The walls and floor of the room are covered in patterned tiles, with scenes of birds and marshes in hand-painted Majolica tiles near the vaulted ceiling. By the end of the recommended 15 minutes we were completely soothed, but not quite limp. We were beginning to perspire.
For step 3, we entered a smaller and equally ornate room. Here the temperature is 68° C, and we began to perspire in earnest. The recommended time is just 5 minutes, we did not exceed it by much.
A Massage for the Bold
Cleansed from perspiring, we rinsed the sweat from our skin with another shower (step 4). We were then ready for the brush massage, a great highlight of the Friedrichsbad experience.
In a handsome marble room were three marble massage tables. By each was a bowl of water, a bar of white soap, and a natural bristle brush. On the wall was an enormous hourglass, whose sands measured out the 8 minutes. This was the amount of time it would take for the three courteous but no-nonsense women to thoroughly work us over with the bushes. The wholesome scent of white soap filled the room. We were as pink as Schwarzwaelder hams when they were done with us. The brushing not only exfoliated us, but charged our circulation. Our skin was now ready to absorb the waters.
After the brushing down, we enjoyed the steam bath, with steam from the thermal waters that we could see flowing over the heated coils, which were coated with years’ of mineral deposits. We sat on the lower steps to enjoy the 45° C steam, then moved to the top for 48° C steam. We spent about 15 minutes there, inhaling and relaxing inside and out.
Taking the Waters of Baden Baden
The Friedrichsbad — like many of the excellent baths of Budapest — offers a variety of temperatures and alternating basins and temperatures is central to the experience. A 36° C bath thermal pool felt like bathwater – warm but not at all tiring. Then we went into the 34° C whirlpool, as our body temperature slowly came back down.
If you see one photograph of the Friedrichsbad, it will be of the central round swimming pool. It’s surrounded by an arched colonnade and then a row of nudes under an ornately painted coffered dome that’s 17 meters high.
This is the most beautiful space you’ll ever be nude in unless you belong to a sex cult like in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. We wanted to be still and wallow in it and gaze up at that beautiful dome, but the water is just 28° C, so we needed to keep moving briskly.
By now, we had completed most of the mandatory steps. But we were free to repeat some, and alternated between the whirlpool, the warm pool, and the central bath.
A recommended step to conclude the bathing is the plunge pool. At 18° C, it is not as cold as some, but plenty brisk – pore-tightening and refreshing. It’s a step for the bold, but we were glad we tried it. It left us tingling and our skin was quickly warmed up by a brisk toweling off.
We had taken the complete package which included both the brush massage and a cream massage after drying off. These thermal waters, unlike the waters of other spas, leave the skin in need of moisturizer. You can apply some yourself, or have an 8-minute massage. The cream massage doesn’t take place in the main rooms, but in a comfortable modern room up some stairs. The massage was pleasant, but the change of mood architecturally was a let-down.
The final steps – included in the 17-step count – are reclining while wrapped in a blanket in the relaxation room, then reading in the reading room. It extended the sense of stillness and peace of the baths.
What we needed to bring with us to the Friedrichsbad:
The linen sheet and whatever towels we needed were provided, as were bathing shoes in a variety of sizes. We needed the bathing shoes to comfortably walk on the floor of the warm air baths. Even though we had cream massages, we were glad we brought facial moisturizer and lip balm. There are hairdryers.
We were also glad to have bought large bottles of mineral water beforehand. After the warm air baths and the steam bath, it was essential to rehydrate.
Perspiring in the Warmluftbaeder left us purified and limp, and the brush massage left us glowing. The famous waters had eased any aches of days of travel. But one of our favorite aspects of spa travel is the intimate experience of history. Experiencing a bathing ritual in a 19th-century Renaissance-revival bathing palace, in waters famed since Roman times, was not just cleansing, but truly transformative.