Sunday, August 18, 2013

Aha?

It seems a bit of folly. On one of the hottest days of the year and we are seeking to visit one of Germany's and Europe's hottest hot springs (source). Hmmm ....

History
Besides having a uni, Aachen is is Germany's westernmost town. But it is more famous for it's thermal baths.

Sometimes known as Bad Aachen, the history of it's thermal springs goes back a long way, a very long way.

As is customary in Europe, there's little knowledge of pre-Roman use of hot springs and this applies to Aachen (French prefer Aix-La-Chapelle) as well. Possibly the lack of this can be explained by the fact that the pre-Roman civilisations were less intent on building elaborate facilities for the simple pleasure of being able to soak, nor was writing, recording and/or archiving one of their best skills.

So as elsewhere in Europe, it were the Romans that put the first permanent mark on Aachen. Not many people might notice, but the city's name of Aachen seems to have been derived from Roman:
'After all, Aachen means water, derived from the Roman name of "Aquae granni", which in turn stems from the Celtic god of healing Grannus [God of light and healing]'. 
This sourced from Aachen's city's website with extensive info on it's origin and history. 
There is though an alternative explanation for the city name, which dates the naming from before the Romans:
'Der Name "Aachen" leitet sich übrigens von "ahha", dem germanischen Wort für "Wasser" ab'.
Do I need to translate? Aachen = was Ahha = was Germanic for water.

Anyway, the entwined history of the city of Aachen and it's thermal baths continues. Again from the above mentioned city website:
'The spread of Christianity quickly and permanently put a stop to the physical and pleasure-orientated bathing culture of antique provenance.
Everywhere since the early Middle Ages, the benefits of water and sociability in water became discredited: after all, the concerns of the Church Fathers regarding the salvation in the next life and the corresponding spiritual purification in this life were what counted.
In such a climate of outright hostility towards the body, the pleasures of bathing no longer had a right to exist. Only in Aachen - thanks to Charlemagne - did bathing culture experience a short-lived new high point in the early Middle Ages.
Gladly told time and time again - but only borrowed from the realm of legends - is the story of Charlemagne's trusty horse, that pawed the ground with its hoof to expose the first hot spring and thus triggered the foundation of a residence at the same location. Historically correct, however, is that prior to this, Pippin, Charlemagne's father, was building an estate close to the former Roman cathedral thermal spring to which he would retreat on important special occasions. Like him, Charlemagne, whose swimming abilities were praised far and wide, appreciated relaxing at the hot springs. These were, according to the reports of his biographer Einhard, the reason for Charlemagne choosing Aachen as the permanent residence and political centre of this empire: "This is why he gladly settled in Aachen, and set up house which already had a warm bath in it."
For Charlemagne, a spacious thermal bathing facility was built on the ruins of the old Roman baths and in the immediate vicinity of his palace. He frequented the baths every day, and wherever possible was accompanied by family members, officials or guests.
In this regard at least, Charlemagne was committed to the spirit of antiquity, since, for him, too, besides the therapeutic function, bathing also had an important communicative and social role to play. Following his death, the bathing culture in Aachen diminished noticeably - and it has taken a few centuries for this city - that attracts bathing guests from all over the world - to experience for the third time an era of unspoilt bathing pleasures'.

Karl's (Charlemagne) significance in European history was high as his empire was one of the first to emerge from the post-Roman period, in the 8th / 9th century. Stretching from north Italy, it encompaased modern day France, Germany and the low countries.

 Carl's palace with his own thermen, see top right of the artists impression (source).

After the fall of the Charlemagne it is supposed that bathing in Aachen returned back to that of ruins, however in the latter part of the 16th century, thermal bathing gained in popularity with the European bourgeoisie and Aachen established itself as a main contender in the upcoming Euro bathing industry. It also ensured that Aachen returned to it's former glory with the establishment of parks, bathing facilities and hotels. 

However, it's popularity lead to a increasing numbers of visitors leading the snobs of Europe to seek more exclusive retreats, such as in Baden-Baden. Or possibly the richer soakers moved because the sulphuric nature of Aachen's thermal baths became attractive as a cure for syphilis (Wikipedia). Which somehow meant that many a sex-worker washed up here ...
 
Aachen Kaiserbad 1682 (Wikipedia).

Here's a link to a pdf presentation concerning the history of Aachen's thermal springs. The German wikipedia entry is the most extensive site of online information.

Sedation
Luckily, modern day soaking in Aachen has evolved and is now preferably a sedate affair; it seems that this is what Germans prefer and probably most of Europe's elder clientèle of hot springs. That might be it: in Europe one soaks sedately ...

Harking back to the old days, just outside Aachen's historic and busy center, local authorities have maintained a large park over some rolling hillocks. It's home to amongst others the local casino and exhibition hall. Hid away on the outskirts of the park and accessed from a quite city street are one of the few geothermal bathing facilities remaining in Aachen.
Aachen and environs actually host more than 20 separate hot springs, though many of these have been closed (source)! The city of Aachen (and neighbouring Burtscheid) still have 3 Kürkliniken (medical centers) which use thermal waters (source) as a medicine, but other than that there is just one hot spring in operation.

The aforementioned Charlemagne or Karl in German, was also known as Carolus in Latin. Thus it's the choice for the namesake of this only operating thermal bath in Aachen (source): Carolus Thermen.

The waters of Carolus Thermen are sourced from the Rosenquelle (45ºC). This hot spring is located beneath a store in the center of Aachen. Water is piped from the spring to the Carolus Thermen. Other thermal sources located in the city's center are likewise piped away. For instance for bottling purposes (Kaiserquelle / Kaiserbrunnen) of for the use in cosmetics.

Claiming pure thermal spring water as it's provenance, Carolus Thermen are a very modern affair. Completed in 2001, parking is ensured in it's adjacent parking garage. The entry hall is spacious and very, very large.

This way please

The check-in procedure is highly efficient. All is explained to us in 1 second, after which we handed two coins. Ummm? There doesn't seem to be room for questions so we quickly trot on to the next station.
We exchange notes: 
'So you didn't catch anything either? Nooo'. 
We watch as others put coin in locker and get a bracelet in return. Aha. We do likewise and head off for the changing rooms. Everything is highly efficient and before you know it we are to enter the thermen themselves. Note the mandatory shower sign, a good idea, as we have worked up a good sweat cycling here.

The inside lay-out is very clear. In the center is a large pool (34ºC), with a number of massage showers and overflowing jacuzzi's (36ºC) above. To your right comes an entrance to the outdoor pool (32ºC) with fountains and waterfall, again with a number of massage showers, next to that a chill bassin (18ºC) and a hot bassin (38ºC). Opposite is another outdoor pool and exit to sun decks, one with sand. To your left upstairs are restaurants. Below these are the staff offices.


It's very delightful, taking in all the different baths. Especially the high pressure massage showers are very nice. At the moment of arrival an aquarobics programme is taking place so we research the smaller pools. After the finish of that programme we swim a couple of rounds in the larger pool.

Mandated, ja!
Finally we go up the stairs to the wellness center on the third floor. What usually requires a double payment of the normal Thermen entrance fee of €11 (€12 on weekends; this fee is valid for 2,5 hours, add €1,5 thereafter for each extra hour with a max of €15), now comes for free as it also has an extensive outdoor component which is currently being renovated. 

Because the Carolus Thermen are a municipal business they can not charge a fee for sauna entrance only: this would be an unfair practice for private sauna businesses. A pity ...

Entrance is through a small locker room as here nakedness is mandatory, whereas the pools before it was forbidden. Seems a bit odd?

Sauna = sweating which is best done naked (better sweating / no build up of sweat in swimming clothes), but what about the other baths in the wellness area? Here also the hygiene reasoning? But why then isn't the full thermal complex nude mandatory? 

Especially with current fashions which seem to dictate for men boardies which are worn with underwear underneath (preferably with name of underpants sticking out)! Just the other week one of Hollands largest indoor pool complexes had to close and the water changed as they couldn't maintain healthy levels of swim water quality (source)! Makes you think that naturally bathing might have more merit ... But anyway, local customs, local fore

Behind the entrance to the wellness area stretch two floors of relaxation. The third floor is dedicated to the Baltic sauna: there are a number of sauna's (3), shower rooms, etc.
Down a floor is a huge Oriental bathing area, which is very, very nice. Much has been done to replicate the experience of a true Turkish bath and it certainly works. A great hamam, warm Roman baths and the centerpiece: a peaceful pool (with thermal water, 34ºC) under an arched roof.

And somewhere there are massage facilities and a small area set aside for women.

Hours and hours can be spent in the sauna / Turkish bath area. And that's not even counting the outside area which was out of bounds during our stay. Apparently out there are another 4 sauna's and a small outdoor pool.

Despite the zero entrance fee (which prohibits those not wanting to fork out more cash), there were considerably less visitors than in the thermen; somewhat surprisingly as the experience was certainly great / better!

But possibly the new global prudishness has had it's effects. In the thermal pool, there was a fair representation of locals and tourists: young, old, families, singles, Germans, Dutch but also those of ethnic descent. 
The dress code of the wellness center unfortunately probably precludes the latter, while with the odd exception, families also seem to opt out. Certainly their loss?

After having been sweating, soaking and bathing for hours we are getting pesky; time to head for inner city Aachen for a cafeine buzz and something to fill up on.

We needn't have. Reviews of Carolus Thermen amplty highlight the catering: good and cheap. Next time then?

Share to compare
Well despite the lack of anything that would remind us of it's natural origins, the facilities of course afford many a visitor an entertaining experience / interaction with hot springs. For instance the German World Cup squad in 2010 mentioned staying here as delightful.

But what do others really think?
Let's look at that leader of traveller feedback opinion, tripadvisor. Tripadvisor has a litany of reviews summarized in the 4.5 stars given. Most use superlatives to describe the place. Interesting are the mostly English comments on the naked experience:
'For those who are apprehensive or fearful about going "textile-free", don't worry. The sauna is a place of rest and relaxation and people here are just minding their own business and relaxing. Within minutes, you'll totally forget your inhibitions and feel comfortable in your own skin. Soon, you'll lose track of time, realize you've spent more time relaxing than you imagined and you'll even find it difficult to leave! 
...
This is not a cheap experience, but it's great value for money. Don't bother with the thermal pools, they're pretty average, and head straight for the sauna. Any self-consciousness about mixed naked bathing disappears in a few minutes.
...
And then there's the upstairs part. For most UKers it's an eye opener, but when in Germany... Removing swimsuits was very liberating.... Steam rooms and outdoor heated pools were simply amazing. So relaxing to wander round with nothing on.
Only disappointment is that after this no UK spa will be able to compete. Feels wrong to wear a swimsuit in a sauna now!

...
Bathing costumes here are not allowed; most people walk around with towels but the saunas and pools themselves are required nude areas. Sexes are mixed and the Germans are very casual and relaxed about nudity here. Accepted etiquette precludes inappropriate behavior, and I found it very natural and comfortable - and wonderfully relaxing in the saunas and pools. 
...
The Germans and social nudity. Truly refreshing. Truly breathtaking. It’s second nature and it’s relaxed. If the whole world had the philosophy towards the naked body as do the Germans, well, then the world would be a safer and a more rewarding place.
Many note the friendly staff, which I must admit, they are everywhere, smiling and maintaing the cleanliness of the facilities'.
And when the reviews switch to those by non-English speakers, there's hardly a sentence on the wellness customs, how come?

Happy (Euro) face? source

So if compared to those facilities in South Europe why the mass appeal of thermal facilities here? 
Much has been done to appeal to all age groups while setting up the facilities, it's not for the sedate only. Modernized and clean it uses modern PR to reach out. For instance Facebook (note 12,000+ likes!). Another initiative: by donating blood at a local hospital, you can gain free entrance to the Carolus Thermen (but not valid for the same day!).
So there are ways to attract visitors is to keep up with in-crowd!

That said I felt the distinct lack of naturalness unearthing. There's little that discerns this from any other wellness / swimming pool experience in Germany. The water's said to be sulfated; well I didn't smell anything.
Yes, it's all very hygienic, clean, etc. Staff nice, not too expensive and yes, a great experience, but natural? Can I say no?

I'll leave you with a youtube intro vid:

Euro soaks visited