In Germany, to unwind is to undress. And beer helps, too. Within minutes of my arrival in Cologne, I had managed to track down the latter. Kölsch, as they call the local brew, is served in long, thin glasses rather than steins, and at the Kölsch Brewery, overlooking a flower-filled square near the city center, I indulged in the perfect post-flight pint. But Kölsch, of course, is the quick fix. Real healing, as any German will tell you, can’t be consumed – not, anyway, with all of your clothes on. It’s a full-body experience and a time-taking process, and it’s best not to rush things.
Although Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city, is better known for its massive medieval cathedral – at almost 625 feet, the twin-spired Kölner dome is the second tallest in the world – I found another sort of sanctuary on the other side of town. Leaving the elegant Hotel Ernst, one of the Leading Hotels of the World, I hopped on the über clean u-bahn, Cologne’s spiffy subway, and headed uptown to the Neptunplatz, home of the Neptunbad Health Club and Spa. Housed in a century-old building – one of the few to survive the air raids of the second world war – the Neptunbad is as stately a spa as one is likely to find, a beautifully (and recently) renovated relic of Germany’s past. During the lebensreformbewegung (life reform movement) of the late 1800s, many Germans, fed up with ineffective medicines of the day, began to seek out alternatives in the healing powers of nudity and sunlight and hot and cold baths. A return to one’s natural state, they held, was essential to healthy living. The Neptunbad is a testament to that belief.
My day began with Daggi Meis, the Neptunbad’s resident Woyo instructor and a career triathlete. Short for “workout yoga,” Woyo, Daggi explained, is sort of like yoga with training wheels.
“Ve make zee poses,” she said in heavily accented English, “but ve have props to help zee muscles.”
For a guy shaped like a brick and about as flexible as one, the props — a belt to stabilize the legs or arms, a Pilates ball and foam blocks — were critical. Not on my most limber of days would my lower back agree to a pose like, say, the downward-facing dog. But a simple cinching up of the belt allowed me to push my limits — little by little — in a way I couldn’t have accomplished on my own.
Woyo isn’t just for the flexibility-challenged, though. The room was full of young, fit, Spandex-clad men and women who wanted their strength training and their spiritual healing in one. (German efficiency extends to exercise, too). And Daggi delivered. After an intensive set of lifting — foam blocks pinched between the elbows and raised above the head — we finished with a meditative breathing exercise that rendered me refreshed and ready for the next stage.
Or so I thought.
At this point, I had assumed, men and women would go their separate ways. But, oh how naive — how very American of me.
“You don’t have this over there, do you,” Neptunbad manager Cornelius Rheim asked as he handed me my robe. “You can wear this, but not in the sauna.”
I happen to condone coeducational nudity, but I’ll admit, it takes some getting used to. In an effort to ease into the situation, I opted first for the emperor’s bath in the dimly lighted Roman-Irish sauna. Cloaked in candlelight with soft instrumental music piped through underwater speakers, it’s fit for even the most demanding Caesar, the picture of peace and tranquility. Indeed, the only thing that could have roused me from that warm water was news that it was 4 p.m. and, more important, that it was time for my honey wrap followed by a half-hour in the Japanese sauna. The wrap, in which my body was coated in pure honey then swathed in steaming towels, is a divine treatment and good for the skin.
With six different pools of varying temperatures, a garden and a bar, the Neptunbad’s Japanese courtyard, spread out on a spacious slate-floored rooftop and surrounded by teakwood saunas, is a warm-weather treat. I was glad I’d come in early September. The nights were cool, but the days just right for laying out, sipping a Kölsch and thumbing through a menu of massage treatments. If there was a hard part to any of this, I didn’t encounter it. Still, deciding which of the many massages is best for you can be a bit of a challenge. How to know, for instance, whether the strong and intensive ottomanische technique is superior to the hot stone therapy or the Ayurvedic? Such are the quandaries of supreme pampering I faced. But I didn’t face them alone. At the Neptunbad, an expert and very amiable English-speaking staff is always at the ready.
For comparison’s sake, and because Cornelius recommended it, I spent my final day in Cologne at what is in many ways the Neptunbad’s opposite and, depending on your taste, its equal. Located on the outskirts of the city, the Mediterana Spa — a Mediterranean-themed pleasure palace with its own restaurant (robes required), indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, steam rooms and wide green lawn — lacks the convenience of its in-town counterpart, but it makes up for it in the vast expanse of its domain, a veritable campus of comfort.
If the Neptunbad is Old World elegance, the Mediterana is decidedly new, a bright and colorful space with all of the pastel charm of a beach resort. On weekends, it fills up with middle-aged couples and, occasionally, their kids. That can mean long lines for the treatment of your choice. (Nationally recognized masseur Ali Kahraman and his 14-member team are typically in high demand). But the wait is worth it. After all, “waiting” in the sauna or the bath, the steam room or the pool is precisely what the spa experience is all about.
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