I was sitting in the restaurant of Carolus Thermen, a magnificent German bathing palace (the word “house” does not adequately describe the establishment) in the city of Aachen. Across the table from me was Pavel, a truck driver from Belarus, my accidental guide to the place. The waiter brought two pints of Dunkel, and the conversation was flowing.
Back in San Francisco, I remember Dr. Brodsky (the founder and owner of Archimedes Banya, in case anyone forgot) insisting that we should take Archimedes Banya hats and bathrobes with us. I thought this was mainly a way to save on renting these in Europe. But the real benefit of fifteen people wearing hats that say Archimedes on them is that people start asking questions. In every bathhouse we’ve been to, we sparked curiosity. That was how we met Pavel.
“…So they spend the whole Saturday in banya, consistently. From what I understood, they didn’t know each other before; they met in the banya.” – the memories of banya at Aquadrom Hockenheim brought a warm smile to Pavel’s face. “There were Kazakhs, Russians, Germans, all filtering in since morning, and by the end of the day, it’s just a big group of friends sharing pizza, beer, you name it, all united by the social culture of banya.”
Although his family remained back in Belarus, his home base was in Poland (Pavel speaks Polish fluently and has familial ties to that country). His months-long driving stints would take him everywhere around Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and, at times, Scandinavia. Wherever he finds himself, he faces the same problem familiar to most: what to do on your day off?
“Most drivers stay at roadside truck parking lots and get drunk. And once they’re drunk, they argue about politics. Some support Lukashenko; some are against him; some love Putin, and some – hate. It’s useless, but there’s nothing else to do. That’s not my cup of tea.”
Instead, Pavel finds an industrial area where he can safely leave his truck and immediately searches for a local bathing house.
His exposure to banya, however, started long ago, back in Belarus, with his grandfather taking him to the city’s bathing establishment. “For my grandpa, all illnesses were cured either by banya or by “feet steaming” – putting your feet in a bucket of hot water. I remember well how he would pour what felt like boiling water into a bucket, and if I complained about the temperature, he would brush it off and tell me to stop moaning. He was the one to introduce me to the venik – he gave me such a platza that I felt like the skin was coming off my bones.” I can tell that Pavel was proud of his grandpa, his characteristic Eastern European no-nonsense attitude, and his rough upbringing.
Then, his colleague introduced him to bathing in Europe, a perfect way to spend a Saturday for a trucker.
“Truck driving is stressful, – Pavel explains. – There are all kinds of bad situations on the road. So, when you have free time, relaxing is vital, and banya fits that perfectly. It is not very popular, though. I only have one buddy that shares the passion. Even if we are in different spots, we call each other and share information about which sauna each of us is at.”
I ask Pavel to tell me about his favorite banyas in Europe. “This is one of them, for sure. Because of its size, the quality of service, and, of course, because they have a mineral spring. Natural mineral springs are rare.” Pavel pointed to a feature born out of the unique geological characteristic of the area: the Aachen and Burtscheid area boasts more than 30 sulfurous thermal springs, which are among the most productive in Germany, delivering 3.5 million liters daily. One of these springs, Aachen Rose Spring, supplies the Carolus Thermen.
“Plus, the rumor is that it is owned by a Middle Eastern sheikh, just like another bathing house on the German-Belgian border. So the owners constantly compete, trying to one-up each other: one day, I see a gilded ceiling; another day – the main pool is rebuilt in a Roman style. They put a lot of effort into ensuring everything is perfect, plus the sheikhs have a lot of money.”
It rang true. Carolus Thermen was a magnificent, luxurious place. It stood out even when compared to the extravagant facilities of Taunus Therme in Bad Homburg or the subtle chic of Neptunbad in Cologne.
The inventiveness and design sophistication were enough to make an impression – 15 logwood saunas in a Baltic-inspired “sauna landscape,” outdoor and indoor mineral water pools styled after Japanese onsen, an Arabian nights-themed oriental bath world seamlessly blending Turkish and Roman traditions (listen to the room names – Odorium, Tepidarium, Hamam, Bingül).
Yet, those were the small details that stuck in my mind. For instance, a room called Oceanum: a place to stretch out on one of the comfortable loungers to enjoy a day on the Baltic beach immersed in a surrounding animation, sounds of the ocean, and salted wind completing the immersive atmosphere (I didn’t go there, to be honest; I had Estonia ahead of me, but the idea and execution looked alluring). Or a Balneum, Roman cold and hot water pools with convenient stairs going down and back up, and a ceiling decorated with sparkly stars. Or a shower – which looked simple and did not have a fancy-sounding name – that had a water pressure of a firehouse and left you feeling like gods opened up a deluge-level rainfall just for you.
“This place is very different from what I knew back in Belarus! The best thing there was maybe a nice venik made of maple. The sauna was made with just panel wood, not logs, as it should be. A bunch of guys would all sit in one sauna, put a few drops of hartshorn in the water, and throw it on the stove. And, of course, drink vodka.” The contrast was so absurd that we couldn’t help but laugh, and both of us got a bit nostalgic for those odd cultures that brought us up and that we still carry inside.
Unsurprisingly, a person who grew up in these cultures can’t help but miss them. There is a certain intensity in the Russian way of banya that the European bathing tradition doesn’t have. “They come to banya to relax. You can see it in their aufguss-aromatherapy. Notice they try to assume a lotus pose. That’s not how we sit! We sit as if we are getting ready for the struggle. Also, the steam-master is fanning everyone individually with a towel, keeping their distance, unlike the venik platza, where the contact of steam with the body is direct. There is something profound about it. Your whole body commits itself to the process.” Pavel and I agreed that for a person who grew up with a Russian-style sauna, there has to be a struggle – against the heat, humidity, or the venik.
The need for overcoming seemed just as important as it was comical: why would we want to do it to ourselves? Instead, why don’t we make the process more enjoyable? One of the aufguss I attended at Carolus Thermen was dedicated to Piña Colada, the cocktail. Skinny gentlemen explained the program, set up a small Bluetooth speaker, and started the infusion. For two rounds, the towel work spread the aroma of a tropical cocktail around the room. For the third round, the speaker came alive with the melody – “If you love piña coladas…” – and the steam master turned ballet meister, dancing around the room, gracefully pushing the aromatic steam toward the audience that was smiling and rocking along.
We were deep into our conversation when Dr. Brodsky stopped by.
“So you travel around collecting information about other banyas?” – asked Pavel, who now had a better understanding of the odd group of 15 foreigners in identical banya hats, but suspected that Dr. Brodsky had bigger fish to fry than to enjoy and relax. “You’re like Bruce Lee of Banya, aren’t you? He was collecting all martial arts into one, and you collect all banya traditions.”
Dr. Brodsky smiled: “Why not? We have all kinds of people with us: an architect of banya, banya staff. That’s not an accident! You see, people banya in different ways. For me, the most important has always been the social aspect. In Estonia and Finland, they are ok with going to banya alone. But here – look, the city is empty, and banya is filled to the brim. I want banya to unite people, and Germans are good at that.”
After spending most of the day at Carolus Thermen, relaxed to exhaustion, I went to see the Aachen cathedral. Compared with the stylistic purity of the one in Cologne, the Aachen masterpiece was different. I couldn’t figure out the style, and even the structure’s overall shape was hard to make sense of. One of the oldest churches in Europe was a mix of several different architectural traditions – Carolingian-Romanesque, Gothic, and Ottonian – oddly shaped yet undeniably powerful and imposing.
Two things crossed my mind as buildings turned into dark silhouettes over the backdrop of the sunset sky. First, many great things in this world are collages assembled by multiple Bruces Lees in search of the ultimate expression of the perfect idea.
And second: the world is undeniably filled with luck. Chance constellations of events are connected by the meaning we give them. Carolus Thermen, Pavel, banya hats, Piña Colada, and the medieval colossus in the center of the medieval city – all brought together into a single story.