I spent an exceedingly pleasant birthday weekend in Berlin last week. Friday morning to Monday evening was not nearly enough to take in the whole experience, but despite historic sites all around me, I spent more time in the sauna than any other place.
We were staying in the Hilton, which has a delightful spa area next to its pool. While we could have spent the weekend schlepping from one tourist spot to another, I opted for a bracing walk in the Tiergarten, a visit to the DDR museum and an inevitable wander past Checkpoint Charlie.
But each day we spent there, I spent at least two hours in the spa. It was just the relaxing experience I needed – despite a few initial hiccups.
For a start, rules are rules. As this was a German hotel, swimsuits were forbidden in the spa area. This was separate from the pool area, but also open to both genders. So yes, a mixing of male and female guests, all in their birthday suits.
This was a first for me – every time I’ve had to shed my clothes for a sauna or onsen, it’s been men-only. Seeing some (gasp!) naked ladies was shocking for all of about…ten seconds. After that, flesh is flesh. Honestly. None of the Germans there seemed to give a toss who looked like what.
But I had to make it difficult for myself.
After an initial quick tour of the facilities with one of the super-friendly hotel staff on Saturday morning after breakfast, I went back down after changing out of my clothes. Wearing my shorts and t-shirt, I followed another guest into the men’s changing rooms.
As promised, there were lockers available, beyond which were some showers and then the spa area and pool. I slipped into my swim shorts, went for a shower and wandered into the pool area. Assuming I could get some towels out there, I was quickly directed back out to the reception area to pick one up there.
I’d broken one of the other rules. You need to sign in to collect a towel.
Shrugging, I wandered out towards the pool’s reception, but stopped off at the entrance to the spa. Like the entrance to the changing rooms, it had a card-key area. I thought I’d test my card and went back to my locker to get my room key. This – of course – didn’t give me access to the spa.
So I went out to the reception area, after locking my locker. The door to the men’s changing rooms closed firmly behind me, just as I noticed there were no staff members at reception. So I was locked out of the changing rooms, wearing only a wet pair of swim shorts.
And some burning cheeks.
Honestly, I made fewer faux pas on my first visit to a Japanese onsen.
After wandering around for a couple of minutes, I found a member of staff who let me back into the changing rooms and gave me a couple of towels. I was so grateful for his help, I forgot to ask about the spa and its ‘broken’ card reader.
So after leaving a few moments to pass before going back out to him – I didn’t want to appear completely clueless – I had to have the entire process explained to me.
It turns out (famous last words), access to the spa section was at an additional cost, unless you had Diamond Status with the Hilton hotel chain. Which I do. So I had to a) prove it, using the card on my iPhone, stored in my locker and b) be escorted (like a naughty child) to the spa door and instructed on how to use the new access chip which was now strapped to my wrist. With a nod to the MASSIVE sign explaining it was a ‘textile-free zone’, I was left to my own devices.
This entire episode took no more than ten minutes, but it was stressful as hell. I had images of being locked out and having to go upstairs to the main hotel reception to ask for help. Just like one of those anxiety dreams where you find yourself sitting a past school exam, except you haven’t studied. And you’re naked.
Moments later, I was sitting naked in a sauna full of people, gasping for breath. It was essentially the hottest sauna I’ve ever experienced. Seriously. And I’ve been in Finnish, Swedish, Japanese and Korean saunas. It was (literally) breath-taking. I broke a sweat before taking my seat (after carefully placing a towel beneath me! Again, the rules).
Truly, after a quick look around in the dim sauna interior, I basically forgot I was effectively surrounded by hot, naked men and women. All I could think of was the heat of the air searing the inside of my nostrils and the pounding of my heart in my chest.
Every movement around me seemed to send a waft of boiling air in my direction. Sweat poured from every pore in my body. I continued to gasp. I looked around, but everyone else seemed to be taking it in their stride. Sweating buckets, obviously, but nobody seemed to be gasping like me.
My pulse was now throbbing in my head and I lasted all of ten minutes before having to leave for a cold shower.
Wandering towards the beautifully designed shower area, I saw you could choose from a variety of shower styles and temperatures. I over-estimated my temperature and my staying power and shrieked when the ice-cold water came down on top of me from the ‘tropical rain’ shower. Thankfully, I was alone at the time, all other guests snug in either the sauna or one of two steam rooms.
But I just know they heard me. I know it.
Anyway, the steam rooms were also a delight, but you don’t know pain until one of the drips of almost-piling water falls from the tiled ceiling and lands on your nethers. I quickly realised why all the men sat in there cross-legged and quickly adopted the same technique.
Life’s too sort for third degree burns to the scrotum.
The most fun between treatments was to be had as I rested on the cold marble benches, sipping some lemon water. I watched as new guests arrived and guessed their nationality.
Essentially, I played “Spot the Brit”.
British guests wandered in, reeking of uncertainty and fear. They would look around the spa area, holding their towels around them for dear life and after a few moments of whispered panicky “You go first”, “No, you go first”, they would drop their towels from their bodies and go into the sauna. For about two minutes. They’d then emerge gasping, much like I had, and seek out some cold water. And shriek under the same shower.
Rinse and repeat
By now, of course, I had adopted an air of familiarity with the whole place that was disgusting even me. Leaning back with my cold water, weighing up whether more time in the sauna was really good for me, I watched a couple of English guys come in. They had their towels gathered tightly around them, looked around uncertainly and then saw me, sitting confidently in the buff.
Towels unwrapped with a flourish, they walked into one of the steam rooms, but came out immediately, looking shocked. It had been full of women and by the looks on their faces, they thought they were in the wrong place entirely!
I nodded at them and whispered “It’s a spa for men and women”. Honestly, they looked like they’d never seen a breast in the wild before. Or maybe they’d never seen so many at the same time. We weren’t, if I’m honest, short on breasts. The guys wandered sheepishly into the sauna, for an inevitable roasting.
So. I went all the way to Berlin and basically spent hours and hours sweating with strangers, in almost complete silence, drinking heaps of water and showering myself cold again.
And it was glorious.
Self-conscious Brits and Americans aside, nobody made a big deal of the nudity rules. Except for when a particularly well-endowed guy walked – no – strutted into the sauna. He turned a few heads. Male and female. No cameras or phones allowed in the sauna, obviously – but it’s not something I’ll forget in a hurry.
He leaned back, legs spread like was about to undergo a waxing, smiling to himself and obviously very, very aware of the attention he was getting. Personally, I felt a confusing mix of disgust, admiration and jealousy.
Mostly the latter, if I’m honest.
The place was scrupulously clean and well ordered. Everyone followed the rules, (nearly) all the time. People sat on towels. They washed down the seats in the steam room. They kept their voices down to a whisper at all times. The silence even continued into the changing rooms, partly because I think everyone was too exhausted to speak.
Or, in the case of the English guys, too traumatised by all the German breasts they’d seen.
With practice, I managed to stay in the sauna for up to about 20 minutes at a time. Not impressive, I know – but I’ve never felt heat like it! Each day, I left the spa feeling an incredible mixture of exhaustion and enthusiasm. I was glowing, even after several freezing showers and smiling like a very chilled-out cat that got the cream.
(However, the health benefits of the sauna were almost certainly undone by the time we spent in the Hilton Executive Lounge each evening. But that’s for another post.)
That was my first German sauna experience and I’d definitely go back for more. If only they were all so clean and well-organised.