Wearing nothing more than a locker key, Michelle Wranik takes the waters of Baden-Baden's Roman-style baths.
I'm about to get naked in a bathhouse. With strangers. It's a sobering thought for anyone remotely bashful but Germans are famously nonchalant about nudity, many giving no more thought to dropping their towel than they do to chinking steins of lager at the pub. The country's Freikorperkultur movement, which translates to "free body culture", means nudity is widely accepted. It's perfectly legal to sunbathe in the buff at parks in Munich or Berlin, for example, while at thermal bathhouses such as the one I'm visiting today, birthday suits are compulsory.
Baden-Baden is arguably the most famous spa town in Europe. Long regarded as a summer residence for the rich, it's every inch the storybook German town; sitting prettily between vineyards, the Black Forest and the plains of the Rhine Valley, with tree-lined promenades and elegant, Belle Epoque hotels. Famous for its mineral hot springs, Baden-Baden was the toast of 19th-century European society. Aristocrats and socialites would arrive in droves each summer to waltz at glamorous parties, gamble at the ornate casino and soak in sanatoriums and spas devoted to the balneological art of eine Kur machen (taking the waters).
Even today, as I stroll the cobbled streets, I see more than a few fur-clad octogenarians lured by Baden-Baden's curative waters, which are laced with more minerals than a high school science lab and said to cure a range of ills. Cynics might label it quackery but in Germany, balneology is not to be sniffed at. Going to a spa, or kurbad, is covered by health insurance and doctors might prescribe eine Kur, banking on thermal water's healing power over traditional medicine.
When I reach Friedrichsbad, the handsome neoclassical building looks more museum than medicinal spa. Rising between manicured lawns and rose gardens, its sandstone facade and pillars conjure a yesteryear elegance. Beyond its doors, a steamy labyrinth of marble halls and Roman pools awaits.
Since 1877, Friedrichsbad has welcomed patients seeking relaxation or treatment for chronic disorders such as arthritis and rheumatism. The list of famous visitors is impressive, from Nietzsche to Wagner - even Mark Twain was a regular. "I had twinges of rheumatism unceasingly during three years but the last one departed after a fortnight's bathing there," he wrote in his 1880 travel book A Tramp Abroad. Perhaps even Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, who famously frittered away his wife's jewels at the casino, also soaked away his woes at Friedrichsbad.
Knowing I'll be bathing on such hallowed literary ground is reassuring but it does nothing to alleviate my nerves. At Friedrichsbad, there is only one dress code. Spa-goers leave their swimsuits, towels and inhibitions at the door and, traditionally, men and women bathe in the buff together.
From Turkish hammams to Japanese onsens, I've had my share of exotic bathing rituals around the world but I've never experienced a mixed-gender bathhouse. The thought of striding around starkers with naked, possibly hairy, men makes me anxious but, according to Friedrichsbad's marketing manager, Marie-Lena Kuttruff, nobody really gives a hoot. "Being naked isn't a problem for German people," she says reassuringly, as we pause in front of the entrance. "It's a very normal thing here."
Sensing my nerves, Kuttruff smiles kindly, with an amused glint in her eye. "Don't worry," she says. "At first it can be strange to be naked with other men and women around but within five or 10 minutes, it doesn't matter."
I head for the changing area and dutifully strip off. Wearing nothing but my locker key (a blue wrist band) and suppressing the urge to make a run for it, I remind myself of Twain and Dostoevsky, and tiptoe timidly down the hall towards Friedrichsbad's first bathing station.
Peering around the corner into the a white-tiled shower area, I make my grand entrance - but I needn't have worried. Swinging breasts, sagging bottoms, taut bellies and deep tan lines are everywhere and no one seems the least bit interested in the naked newcomer. True to Kuttruff's words, my companions - a pair of voluptuous middle aged women and a whippet-thin Korean woman - are deeply engrossed in their own bathing ritual and there's not a man in sight.
Relieved, I take a shower and head to the thermal air baths, studiously averting my eyes to ward off potential nude conversationalists. I choose a wooden sun lounger in the corner and lie in silence, gazing at Friedrichsbad's ceiling - a welcome aesthetic distraction from the sight of so many bare-bottomed strangers. Soaring several metres skywards, the pretty majolica tiles depict country landscapes and birds; a sulphur-crested cockatoo here, a demure swan in a lake there; even a rooster crowing happily in a field.
There are 17 so-called "wellbeing" stations within Friedrichsbad, with details of temperatures and optimal amount of minutes to spend in each. Follow these recommendations to the precise minute and you could easily spend two hours or more wallowing in the water and misty humidity. The aim of all the dipping, soaking and steaming is to increase and decrease the body temperature, a technique said to kick-start circulation. To really get things moving along, you can pay a little extra for Friedrichsbad's famous soap-and-brush scrub.
When it's my turn, I'm greeted by a blonde, white-clad spa therapist named Laura who motions towards one of three marble slabs covered in a white towel. I am naked and akimbo in a clinical, tiled room; it feels more like preparing for an autopsy than a spa treatment. Opting for the hard bristle brush is a rookie mistake. Even when combined with hot, soapy water, it feels akin to being exfoliated with steel wool. I wince as Laura scrubs my skin vigorously for precisely eight minutes. I'm relieved when, after a cheeky slap on the bum, she tells me it's time to move to the geothermal steam room.
It's the only naturally formed steam room of its kind in the world; the heated air forcing its way up from a depth of 2000 metres and swirling from a gaping crevice in the wall.
The fine, humid mist shrouding the air is deeply relaxing and it's at this point I realise my self-consciousness has faded.
I feel remarkably self-assured - until I see the first naked man. Make that three naked men, reclining in Friedrichsbad's oversize Roman bathing pool. With elaborate archways and ceilings soaring to 17 metres, this room is the centrepiece of the bathhouse. After several minutes of procrastination, I decide it would be cowardly to miss out and, mustering all my pluck, I scuttle into the pool.
Not one of the men so much as glances in my direction.
With sunlight filtering through the domed ceiling, carved caryatids and delicate mosaic tiles, it's a magnificent room. I half expect a toga-wearing goddess to saunter past carrying a platter of grapes.
Gradually, one by one, the men leave the pool and for several magical minutes I'm alone, floating on my back and gazing upward.
It's one of those moments I know I'll cherish forever and, with my newfound nude confidence, I decide to linger. Twain might have famously said "clothes maketh the man" but he also happily soaked away his ailments naked in this very pool. Some 130 years later, the grand tradition continues.
Lufthansa has a fare to Frankfurt from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1890 low-season return including tax; see lufthansa.com.
Trains run from the airport to Baden-Baden (90min); see deutschebahn.com.
Friedrichsbad is open daily 9am-10pm. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays and public holidays, bathing areas are mixed (central Roman pool is always mixed). A single three-hour admission costs €23 ($28) and a wellness package (3hr 30 min) including a brush massage costs from €33. Roemerplatz 1, Baden-Baden; see carasana.de.