The Rhapsody of Steam. Day 4. Cologne and Neptunbad.

The City

The morning started with a walking tour of Cologne. The city felt different. Lit with warm sunlight, bustling with people, it looked like a collection of stories all trying to answer the question: What does it mean to be a Colognian? – in myriad different ways. From the Roman ruins and medieval mansions to the industrial pragmatism of the Hohenzollern Bridge (softened by the thousands of “love locks”) and the modernist architecture of Museum Ludwig, it was filled with evidence of the creative chaos, which can only exist in a 2,000-year-old city.

Some of local traditions embraced it. For instance, Cologne Carnival, originating from Roman Saturnalia celebration with elements of Germanic spring festival, was (and still is) a “break from daily life,” when the city descends into mayhem, and upstanding citizens call themselves “fools,” an official term for the participants of the event. This tradition lasted through all periods of Cologne’s history: from a Roman colony (hence, the city’s name) by ways of the free city in the Holy Roman Empire to its current state. Any tradition that survives for centuries points to something real, no matter how odd or out of place it may seem at the present moment. This gave me an answer to the question, the one that at least made sense: to be a Colognian is to be free.

More on Roman Saturnalia

The Cathedral

The walking tour ended at the main portal of the Cologne Cathedral, a 515 feet tall Gothic masterpiece, an incredible architectural achievement that took 600 years to complete. For people who designed it in the 13th century, it was a model of the universe and the representation of their value system – shaped like a cross with a high altar in the center, spires directed towards God, and gargoyles on the margins.

Video tour of the Cologne Cathedral.

Gargoyles of the Cologne Cathedral: Monsters on the Periphery of the Universe.

More than Biblical symbolism, I was always impressed by the light inside Gothic cathedrals. Passing through stained windows, it acquires an ethereal quality. Abbot Suger, an influential political and religious figure in 12th century France, widely credited with developing the philosophy of Gothic architecture, believed that the light itself can bring people closer to God: “The dull mind rises to the truth through material things, and is resurrected… when the light is seen.”

Walking through Cologne Cathedral, I was struck by the volume of information encoded wherever I looked. Just like the city around it, it was a collection of stories unified by a single theme. Many were literal stories – the Biblical corpus and the church history were represented in statues and stained glass windows. Another story was about the life of a religious community, and we caught a glimpse of observing the end of the service accompanied by powerful organ music.

But there was one story that directly focused on the central question of the Cologne cathedral (or any cathedral) – How can we experience the divine? Destroyed during the World War II, the window in the south transept was replaced in 2007 by the work of a contemporary German artist, Gerhard Richter. Although the original plan was to dedicate the window to 20th-century Catholic saints, Richter had doubts. He thought the representation of humans on a tall window would look unrealistic. This was never a problem in the earlier centuries, but in the age of photography, one can compare the portrait to the original, making distortions all too obvious. 

Gerhard Richter, one of the most important German artists alive.

Richter’s solution was radical. He selected 72 colors traditionally used in Gothic stained glass windows and arranged them in a random pattern of squares on a surface of 1,140 square feet, 11,263 glass squares. He then rearranged the pattern, mirroring some parts to introduce the sense of order and scattering other segments, where the resulting shapes accidentally acquired meaning.

Richter’s window was based on the “color charts” concept, developed by the artist in his work.

The result was a modern work of art that is, paradoxically, a perfect realization of the medieval philosophy of Gothic architecture and an answer to the question: We can experience the divine by observing the light.

The Bathhouse

In the afternoon, we went to Neptunbad, the oldest public bathhouse in Germany. Initially, the function of the baths was very pragmatic – the working-class citizens of the Ehrenfeld district of Cologne would come here for lack of other options to wash. After World War II, when swimming became a popular sport in Germany, the facility’s main attraction was a large pool.

In the 1990s, Neptunbad lost much of its luster – the city could not maintain the building. In 2002, it was bought by a group of investors driven by an idea to restore the facility following the original design and create a new establishment – a mixture between the traditional bathhouse and modern spa.

As we walked in – all 15 of us – we were explained that the goal of the facility is relaxation: the rules prohibit large groups, and if we were to come in, which should try to maintain a respectful silence. As you can imagine, if you have ever been to Archimedes, this is very different from what we were used to. Russian banya is all about socializing: you talk, discuss, and laugh. What is the point of communal bathing if you can’t freely communicate?

The philosophy of Neptunbad was clearly different, which you could observe both in the facility layout and the patron’s behavior. For instance, it was my first time to see a “quiet room” in a bathhouse, a dimly lit space equipped with lounge fac chairs, where no talking was allowed. Other visitors quietly strolled along the large Sento swimming pool under the glass roof, moving from one room to another, where they continued to sweat again in silence.

Neptunbad has 2 sauna areas: an Asian-themed space with 7 saunas, including a candle-lit sauna, a Japanese herbal sauna, a salt sauna (where you detoxify by rubbing coarse salt crystals into your body), and an incense sauna. The sun terrace with a Zen garden was perfect for breathing between steam sessions. The Aromatherapy (Aufguss, as Germans call it) was similar to what we experienced in Taunus Therme – the steam master poured water with aromatic oils on the stove and fanned the steam towards the audience using a towel – with one additional feature: an amuse-bouche (something like a shot of yogurt with berries, a mixed citrus drink, a tiny fruit cake) was served after each session.

Aufguss in Neptunbad. Photo is from Neptunbad’s website, but surprisingly includes one glaring faux pas: in Germany, you not only sit on the towel, you put your back and your feet on the towel as well.

The second area is part of the original Neptunbad building and is under protection by the state as a historical monument. There you can find two “historical” rooms: a Laconium, an interpretation of the Ancient Roman-style sauna with high humidity that emanates from the heated floors, and the Jugendstilsauna, designed in a tradition of the “Young style,” German Art Nouveau of the early 20th century.

And then there was a pool. Relatively small, covered in blue tiles, it – surprisingly – became one of my most memorable experiences from Neptunbad. Following the lead of other visitors, I placed styrofoam noodles under my neck and each of my knees and floated. I could not feel the water around me – it was kept at body temperature. But I could hear. As soon as I immersed my ears in water, I heard slow drops of piano arranged in a meditative melody. I closed my eyes and felt in space, untangled from gravity and alone. The relaxation was so complete that before long, I fell into a deep sleep with no dreams, just stillness.

When I got out of the pool, I felt the gravity weighing on me again. My thoughts restarted with their chatter about incomplete tasks and emails. A minute later, I already missed that feeling of weightlessness that I experienced in the pool. The rules against excessive socializing made sense now. I didn’t want to talk; I wanted to prolong the serenity.

All the stories of Neptunbad answered the central question of the place – What is a public bathhouse? What is it for? The answer for Neptunbad that now seems obvious: Bathhouse is a place where you can be with yourself…

… so that you can appreciate being with others.

%d bloggers like this: