On an overcast November day my roommate Aubrey and I strolled along the quaint streets of Baden-Baden, in search of the German nude spa known as Caracalla. This trip was only for the day, so we slung small bags packed with towels, swimsuits and wallets over our shoulders. As I jammed my belongings into a small locker and donned my bikini my hands quivered.
Being nude in front of complete strangers was not what I expected to do while abroad.
Our bare feet squelched under us as we followed the narrow hallway to the spa. The room suddenly expanded into a vast oasis, the ceiling arching into an ornate dome of metal designs and a glowing skylight. Encircling windows revealed lush greenery surrounding the spa, the aqua thermal springs sending steam up the base of the window.
Bikini-clad visitors baked under sun lamps, and children ran into the smaller pools with water fountains cascading over their heads. We dipped into the pool then headed for the series of glass doors that lined the back wall. As we stepped in, steam enveloped us and my eyes adjusted to the dim of the room.
In the center sat a ceramic bowl on a pedestal, a narrow beam of light shooting from its center – the steam wafting through the light in a surreal haze. The walls and floors of the steam room were covered in swirling patterns of multicolored stones, the designs stretching back into ornate crannies that broke off of the room.
As I inhaled the steam my muscles melted into the seat, my body becoming limp and my mind void of all thoughts.
After exploring the first floor, we climbed the spiral staircase up to the nude spa. I caught glimpses of bare bellies and legs, gliding about lazily. Aubrey and I exchanged a dubious glance and quickly stripped off our bikinis, avoiding eye-contact with the wandering adult men and their protruding bellies.
We made our way to the outdoor saunas on a winding trail surrounded by trees that scraped the sky. One wooden cabin reading Fiersauna tucked into the trees caught our interest. The sauna was the size of a college dorm room, with a blazing fireplace on the back wall.
The stench of sweat and smoke overpowered my senses, even as I glanced around the room at the nude strangers.
Sweat dripped down my temples and pooled in my collar bones before streaming onto the wooden planks I lay on. The sweltering heat absolved any worries I had, and when I opened my eyes I was unsurprised to see a nude man stepping over my head to exit the sauna.
The fall German air bit us as we opened the door, so we jogged down the path, nearly diving into the first thermal spring we could find. We watched strangers move about the spa, most of them middle-aged with wide hips and slouching backs.
Aubrey and I showered the grit of our sweat off alongside strangers and I realized I felt no piercing eyes on my back, no shame or discomfort among these people. We all passed along on our prospective paths, paying no mind to our nudity or the bare skin of others.
We shuffled out of the spa in a daze, our minds cleared and muscles relaxed. We feasted over a massive meal of puffy naan, yellow curry and vegetable samosas in downtown Baden-Baden before returning to the train stop.
As we slumped into our train compartment back to Strasbourg, it felt as though loads of weight had been lifted from my shoulders.