“Champagnerluft und Tradition”
German highways – autobahns – are known for quality and alleged lack of speed limits. What you have probably never heard about them is that they are also over-informative and micromanaging. The “No speed limit” situation happens occasionally. Still, most of the time, German road authorities adjust the speed limit every few minutes. Add to this road signs abundantly planted on both sides of the highway and it quickly starts to feel as if someone is talking to you: “Hey, listen, we started a road work here, so the speed limit is 50, although right here you can speed up to 70, just for the next 300 meters, where, by the way, you may have deers crossing the road, so probably take it slow and 50 is good”.
Two vans, loaded with banya lovers from the United States, were navigating this road sign chatter, rolling from Frankfurt to one of the wealthiest towns in all of Germany, known for a tourist slogan promising “Champagnerluft und Tradition” (“Champaign air and tradition”). It was the town of Bad Homburg.
Burnt Money and Manuscripts
“Bad” stands for “bath”. Although the city’s history is much longer, its modern iteration goes back to the two essential discoveries that occurred in the 19th century. First, the Elisabethenbrunnen – Princess Elisabeth mineral water spring – was founded in 1834, leading to the spa industry boom. Second, it turned out that among touristically-inclined aristocrats, no one beats Russians in their appreciation of communal bathing and spa traditions. Bad Homburg became somewhat of a Russian town. It was frequented by several all-time greats of Russian literature, including Nikolai Gogol, who for incinerated (for the second time!) the second volume of his long-suffering masterpiece “The Dead Souls” and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who didn’t burn anything except for massive sums of money in the town’s casino later fictionalizing his experience in “The Gambler.”
Statue of Dostoyevsky in Bad Homburg (left); Bad Homburg Casino in mid-19th century (top right); Bad Homburg Casino now (bottom right).
It wasn’t just about the “creative class” but the elite in general. Russian statesman Alexander Provorov — the honorary citizen of Bad Homburg, by the way! — spent so much time in the town that decided to build a Russian Orthodox church right in the beautiful corner of Kurpark, a majestic English-landscape style park commissioned by the founder of Bad Homburg Casino.
Kurpark and Taunus
Our first German bathhouse was also lost somewhere in the lush vegetation of Kurpark. After checking in to the Hotel Maritim, the group rushed to immerse itself in its natural beauty, embellished with historical buildings, statues, and fountains. There is an art to parks like that, and it’s pretty sophisticated. You want the park to appear natural but composed. It is a balance between the order of a human-made Garden and the chaos of Forrest: tip it too far towards the former, and it turns into a boring farm; emphasize the latter – and now you’re lost in the wilderness. Kurpark was in the perfect middle: organized but free, an opportunity to interact with nature while going about your life. In other words, Kurpark is the definition of civilized.
After a gorgeous fifteen-minute stroll, we arrived at Taunus Therme. Named after the mountain range on which Bad Homburg is situated, stylistically the complex was a fantasy on Asian motives. Bright colors, meringue-like porticos, floral ornaments, and pot-bellied bridges with flaming red guardrails – all without a claim to a consistent theme but with a clear goal of creating a space dedicated to one goal: relaxation.
The facility was divided into two areas. The one on the first floor contained several hammam rooms, lit with vivid pink and orange light. Our favorite area was on the second floor, called Saunawelt (Saunaworld). It contained ten saunas, each with a different combination of heat and humidity and often a unique feature: from the relatively low-temperature herbal sauna (115 – 120 F) filled with light scent of chamomile and lemon balm and used to treat respiratory tract irritations, to the hay sauna (140-150 F) where the aromas of dry grass thought to promote blood circulation, all the way to the exotic amethyst sauna, where you may cleanse negative energies or at the very least silently gaze into the mysterious glow of geodes.
Russian banya enthusiasts feel most at home in the hottest saunas. In Germany (and Taunus, specifically), these rooms had a twist: they were places for “Aufguss,” or Aromatherapy.
German Aufguss is an art form, and the steam master is the artist. The layout of the sauna for Aufguss is an example of form following the function: a large stove with hot stones was in the center allowed to spread the steam to all participants evenly. The benches around the stove were packed with people a few minutes before the start of the procedure, all sweating in a mellow steam, waiting.
The steam master, a bold lanky guy in his forties, entered the sauna with a tray carrying three snowballs the size of a large grapefruit. He gave a short speech explaining what would happen. He described the aromas used for the infusion – “Indian spices” and “Alpine herbs.” Then, the Aufguss started.
He placed the first snowball on the hot stones, filling the room with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. He generously poured water from a metal watering can with a long handle all over the stones and visibly melting snowballs. That brought the humidity up, which, in combination with a 90-100 degree temperature, created a blanket of hot aromatic steam. Then, the steam master took out an instrument that looked like a feather flag you see signaling sales in car dealerships in the US, which he used to grab hot air from right above the stove and gently send it towards his sweating audience. He repeated the process thrice, one for each aroma snowball, with the whole Aufguss taking about 10-12 minutes.
Following a required quick shower, I got into a cold plunge to cool down. I remember thinking about the importance of timing in aromatherapy: you get it wrong, and people overheat and exhaust themselves; finish too soon, and they will feel unfulfilled. The Taunus steam master got it exactly right.
I spent the remaining time in Taunus Therme collecting saunas and Aufguss experiences like a stamp collector – got to have them all! – punctured by occasional pauses for a pint on a terrace overlooking the greenery of the Kurpark garnished by the gray clouds carrying light and refreshing rain.
Jesus Flores sharing his impressions of Taunus Therme.
After returning to the hotel, the group discovered an issue that would persist whenever we attended a bathhouse. A nap is challenging to refuse once you’re back at the hotel after a day of German bathing. And yet, we usually would find the strength to reassemble later on. This time it was on the patio of the charming restaurant called “Aus Zeit” (“Time-out”), a place decorated with clocks all set to 5:50, the time when the owner was born.
It was fitting. Bad Homburg, for me, felt like a place where time stopped and gently, almost politely, invited us to take a break from to-do lists and schedules and from phones and emails to just experience. The park. The steam. The rain. The street. Good food cooked with love. The apfelwein and beer. The night walk. The life.