At the Friedrichsbad Roman baths, I learned that the path to inner peace is long, steamy and difficult to find.
“Now turn over.” These may have been the most unsettling three words I had ever heard.
It was not that the tone of Alex, my “bathing assistant,” was menacing. It was not even that I was unclothed. It was that I was lying on a slick marble slab not much wider than a surfboard, about four feet off the ground. I had made the seven-hour journey from Berlin to the Friedrichsbad, the famous Roman baths in the German spa town of Baden-Baden, to achieve the inner harmony its brochure promised.
I was not keen on leaving with a couple of broken ribs.
But then again, better people than me have put themselves through this. Everyone from Queen Victoria to Wayne Rooney has taken the waters here. Mark Twain wrote of his experience: “You lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20.” I’d lost my rubber shoes within five minutes and my locker key within 10. Still, I was determined to cling on to my dignity. And then Alex flipped me over with a massive squelch.
Baden-Baden is located in Germany’s southwest, sandwiched between the border of France and the Black Forest. It is a pretty town surrounded by glorious countryside, but it seemed a long way to go for a bath. Sure, as Alex had told me while he engraved me with his massage brush, the bathers here are mostly regulars, but there are also hordes of global visitors, who trek untold miles to take a dip in the Friedrichsbad’s thermal waters. Why?
This was the question that led me to make the pilgrimage, and the first thing I learned is that the word “dip” does not even scratch the surface (no pun intended) of what bath time here involves. Alex’s bracing soap-and-brush massage is only the fifth element of the Friedrichsbad’s 17-stage relaxation ritual, which dates back to 1877, when the spa was opened by Grand Duke Friedrich I. Clearly, 19th-century nobles had a lot of free time on their hands. I’d already taken a couple of showers and two warm-air baths—the second far hotter—and there were still hours of schvitzing to come.
When the mists parted, I was able to take stock of my surroundings: the domed ceilings, the frescoes, the statues and colonnades. It felt like walking through the Louvre in a towel. But then Alex ordered me to drop the towel and ushered me into an industrial-sized shower, where, according to a sign on the wall, I was to remain for 180 seconds (only the Germans could apply such precision to the pursuit of relaxation). After this, I headed off for a succession of sulfurous baths and pools with temperatures ranging from pleasant to you’re kidding.
By chance, I’d come to the baths on a men-only day (other days are reserved for women, or are mixed). I’d expected the halls to ring with clubby banter and multilingual deal-making, but there was no talking at all and little in the way of eye contact. Nobody even yelped when they sat on a scalding bench or plunged into a freezing pool.
Speaking of which: The jewel of the Friedrichsbad is the domed bathing hall, with its 56-foot-high ceiling, thronging nymphs and marble arches surrounding a circular pool. Disappointingly, it was not the bubbling hot tub of my dreams. This pool is actually meant for exercise, and the water is kept constantly chilly to encourage movement.
I bolted well before the prescribed five minutes were up.
I was soon back on track when my special cream treatment overran due to my Albanian masseur’s intense interest in Brexit. After this, my skin velvety but my nerves jangling at the prospect of economic calamity, I was led to a darkened room, where I was placed on a bed, swaddled in soft towels and left to snooze. I could hear several of my fellow spa-goers snoring arrhythmically in the gloom, and I quickly joined them.
I don’t know how long I was asleep, but when I came to it took me a moment to remember where I was, and why I was wrapped like a burrito. I fumbled my way to the door and headed for the final room, the airy “library,” with its teak loungers, herbal teas and German celebrity magazines.
Having learned about Boris Becker’s complicated private life, I closed my eyes and fell into a semi-slumber. I had to admit, the Friedrichsbad had done its job. I was overly fragrant and a little pink-skinned, but also undeniably relaxed—or at least more so than I’d been upon my arrival, which had followed a fraught effort to find the place. Wisely, I’d dodged the prospect of post-spa stress by booking myself into the nearby Roomers Baden-Baden, the town’s fanciest hotel.
Later, lying on my vast bed, I thought about something the 18th- century wit Samuel Johnson had said when asked if a beauty spot in a remote corner of Ireland was worth seeing. “Worth seeing, yes,” he’d replied, “but not worth going to see.” A few feet from my bed was a deep bathtub, but I didn’t use it. I was glad I’d made the trip to Friedrichsbad, but there are limits.