Sauna Culture in Europe Over the Holidays

I’ve become quite taken with saunas recently — primarily dry, wood paneled saunas, but I’m not unhappy with steam rooms. I find myself more relaxed after a deep sweat; I also think it helps me sleep better. Taking a cold plunges after a hot sauna is especially effective at lifting my energy level in the hours following. Cold showers can serve a similar purpose. A friend once advised to “breathe” in the cold plunge if you feel like the cold is overwhelming. When the cold starts to feel too much, just keep breathing.

(For my interest in sauna, I must credit, in part, Bob Wright, for his encouragement here and for spreading the good gospel of sauna as spiritual practice over at BloggingHeads.TV.)

Over Christmas and New Year’s this year, I traveled through Munich, Zurich, Istanbul, and Ankara with friends and family. By some good luck, we ended up sampling a range of saunas that were just the thing for cold winter days in Europe.

In Germany, we went to the Therme Erding sauna complex just outside Munich, the second largest sauna complex in all of Europe. 4,000 visitors per day. 35 different saunas and steam baths. And dozens of different pools. It’s truly massive. You pull your car into a multi-level above ground parking garage that’s situated next to what appears to be an enormous mall and dome structure.

The adults-only sauna facility is in its own area within the compound. Unlike the kids waterslide area, teeming with children sprawling and splashing about, the sauna area is more quiet, more refined, and… completely nude. And co-ed. People wear towels and robes while walking around; inside each sauna or steam room, they sit on their towels. No bathing suits allowed. I saw more naked humans in a couple hours than at probably any other time in my life. Within a few minutes, the weirdness wears off, and truth be told it was kind of relaxing to be free of constraint or squeeze. The downstairs area, with its low ceilings and narrow, cave-like walls meant people were slinking past each other in the nude to get to their preferred destination. Through it all though, a remarkably wholesome atmosphere. No funny business in sight.

There was excellent variety across the 35+ different offerings. The traditional dry saunas varied in temperature, humidity, scent, and setup: some were in dungeon like underground caves, others were in huge glass paneled amphitheaters. The steam rooms offered the opportunity to scrub yourself in salts before entering. The outdoor thermal pools allowed you to float along with your head exposed in outdoor frigid winter air. An assortment of different jacuzzi-style jets were placed along the pool walls along with some built in “chairs” that you could lounge in with special jets propulsion. Nearby to all this was an outdoor cold plunge. Going from hot water to cold always revs the engines; especially so when the temperature in the air upon getting out of the cold plunge is also freezing.

In Zurich, we went to the Thermalbad. This is a chain of spa facilities throughout Switzerland; supposedly the Zurich location is the finest. It’s a beautiful, modern facility designed like Roman cisterns built inside of an old Zurich brewery building. As opposed to choose-your-own-adventure, this places encourages a sequential process whereby you start in Station 1 and end in Station 12, with signs suggesting the amount of time to spend in each station. It starts with a lightly warm steam, followed by a sequence of differently heated pools, then some hotter steam rooms and scrubs. My favorite pool was the “classic Roman pool” where the depth and temperature made it feel like I could almost float effortlessly, as in a sensory deprivation pod. Very relaxing. One station had me lie on my back on slightly warm stone floor, which I’ve never done before.

A TripAdvisor review of Thermalbad notes, “It’s a lot of money to spend to watch couples basically all but have sex.” That seems off. I didn’t witness anything X-rated, and this place, unlike the one in Germany, was all clothed. Even the locker room had curtained “changing areas” for changing into bathing suits. The Swiss: as buttoned up as ever.

Elsewhere in Zurich, we went to a neighborhood gym/community center that offered a large indoor pool for swimming, plus a medium size thermal pool that offered a range of jets and suggested a rhythm to the water massage. Every minute or so a light would flash (like one of those rotating lights on the top of a cop car but adhered to the side wall) to indicate it was time to move to the next set of jets. With each move in jet, the pressure moved up the body, from hitting your legs at first and ending with your upper shoulders. The propulsion of the jets — the forcefulness with which the water hit you — was intense. I’ve never felt jets pulse water so hard. Nor have I seen such precise instructions offered about when it’s time to switch to the next jacuzzi jet. The Swiss: as punctual as ever.

In Istanbul, we went to the Cagaloglu hamam — a 300 year old facility. Not quite as tourist-famous as the hamam next to the Blue Mosque where we went 5 years ago but just as ornate on the inside. The male and female experiences differ here. As I reported five years ago during my first trip to Istanbul, men receive quite a beating. Your therapist slaps you around, pulls your arms in every which way, attempts light weight chiropractiory, and with no warning, dumps buckets of hot water over your head. It’s fun and worth it but anyone with tender shoulders or backs should beware. I told my therapist at one point to be more careful of my back, and he replied, “Relax.” It turned out that that was the only word in English he spoke. Women, reportedly, experience a much gentler set of scrubs. Unlike the hamam in Morocco, the Cagaloglu hamam in Istanbul does less loofa scrubbing. There’s not the stunning pile of dead skin at the end of it. But you’re still relaxed and alert.

All in all, there’s great sauna culture in Europe. Lots of relaxing fun. And I haven’t even to Finland yet… that’s going to be its own trip!

One Response to Sauna Culture in Europe Over the Holidays

  1. Dave Carlson says:

    I had an amazing time going to a Jimjilbang in South Korea! I am new to the sauna culture myself, but share your assessment of it being rejuvenating and providing additional energy akin to a cold shower (except in December/January here). A great chance to completely connect with your body, and let those cluttered thoughts disappear.

    My best friend is Finnish, and I have yet to experience the sauna culture there either, but I’ve learned so much about the specific types of saunas and techniques. It’s near the top of my travel destinations.

    Reply

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