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May 07, 2007

The Naked Truth About Spas and Germans


Getting the feet -- and everything else -- wet at Vigilius Mountian Resort.

Wir sollen Uns unbeschrenkt uber Nacktheit unterhalten.

The above sentence is German for, "It is now time we had a frank and open discussion about nudity." There's a good reason it's in German.

Let me paint you a picture: It is early evening at the Vigilius Mountain Resort, a hotel and spa complex Monte San Vigilio in Italy's South Tyrol. I have just returned from my triumphant via ferrata assault on Mount Fenberg. Though it is not the cheapest hotel I have stayed at on this generously funded circumnavigation, the Vigilius is the one I like best. It is modern, both starkly and warmly. To behold its neat interior vistas is to rinse the mind of clutter.

The_lemonadeI am tired. I stop to the Stube, the hotel restaurant specializing in Tyrolean cuisine. The Stube is the only part of the hotel that concedes to traditional Tyrolean cuteness -- wood beams and tables, pointed roofs, and square windows with shutters. I order a dumpling soup and a glass of lemonade, left. The lemonade is unbelievable.

Rehydrated, I visit my room, disrobe, crumple my sweat-soaked shirt in a ball, and pitch it at the wall. I pull on my bathing suit and wrap myself in a white terry-cloth robe, but I am not spa-ready yet. I need footwear. I do not want to wear shoes to the spa. There is a pair of matching white-terrycloth thong flip-flops in the bathroom, flimsier than undercooked crepes. Walking is barely possible, but the spa is close by. Opening the door onto the hallway, I see other guests ambulating toward the spa in thong flip-flops. I join in at the rear.

The pool is a crisp rectangle of clear water with infinity edges. Water slurps and gurgles over the sides like an overflowing glass of wine. Pink evening light pours in through a glass wall and at the far end of the pool; a man is standing under one of three enormous poolside faucets. He presses a button and the faucets -- brushed metal and beautiful enough to stroke like a pet -- spew out a luxuriant cascade of water. The man is more than adequately drenched.

Everyone but me is German. Their frolicking here could be mistaken for supervised exercise. A man and a woman are swimming laps. In the adjoining hot tub -- also rectangular -- three children, all blond and blue-eyed, dog-paddle in utter silence, their father looking upon them with understated parental pride. The restaurant was comparably joyless at dinner last night. There was the odd chirp of laughter and it would ring out against the backdrop of hushed conversation and the muted din of cutlery striking dinner plates. The laughter did not come from the belly. The Germans dressed themselves like architects, in technical-looking outfits that at one time must have looked good on paper. If there were a restaurant that catered to robots, I thought, that restaurant would feel like this.


Vigilius Mountain Resort's pool may look peaceful, but look out for those German lap swimmers.

Poolside, I down a glass of elderberry water and peel off the robe. Fluttering towards the opposite end, I can't seem to avoid the Germans swimming laps. I stop and stand under the middle of the enormous faucets and drench my head and shoulders. A German lap-swimmer is headed for me. I haul myself out and head for the sauna.

The sauna has a glass door. Looking through it, I see a slatted cedar floor and a woman's foot. I open the door and face the benches. There are three Germans, two men and a woman, all naked. The woman is sprawled on her back, as though awaiting examination by a doctor. Her eyes are fixed on me, but her expression is blank. On the bench above her, two men, also staring at me. I begin to feel as though I am staring at me. I apologize and step out. No one says anything.

Next to the sauna is the steam room. The door is fogged and I can't see inside. I open it and step in. A man is seated right next to the door, naked, his knees wide, exposing a bouquet of genitalia. He stares at me and says nothing. A squat naked woman sits next to him, sweating. I sit on the opposite bench, the fabric of my red bathing suit sandwiched between my body and the tile bench.

The last time I took a sauna was back on the Crystal Symphony. There were two men in the sauna, a retired engineer from the Boston area, and a Hawaiian businessman. We wore towels and talked about deep-sea fishing for tuna off Hawaii. The north side of the island, the Hawaiian man said, could get rough. As far as eating goes, his favorite fish was wahoo. We stopped talking only because we were in a sauna and it came time to leave and cool off.

In the German sauna, no one talks. There is tension hanging in the 185-degree air, a subtext that cannot be addressed. The closest anyone gets is me. I clear my throat. My throat clearing states: I am surprised and uncomfortable with this nakedness. The only response is the lack of a response.

I leave the steam room and step in the shower. The shower faucet is smaller version of the poolside water. A small river of unbroken water lands on my head. I let it rinse the salt and sweat off my skin. One of the German men is now waiting for the shower. He is standing directly opposite me. This is the first time eye contact has been made. He would like the shower for himself. His face is well shaven, as is the rest of his body. I exit the shower, he fills my place immediately. Back in the sauna, the woman is still there, seated on the lower bench, her knees drawn to her chest. I climb to the top shelf and sit. Her breasts and bottom are in plain, mundane view. There is no talking. After a few minutes, she gets up and leaves. The door clicking as it opens and shuts is the only sound.

I return to the shower. The squat naked woman from the steam room emerges from the fogged-over door. I make a hand gesture beckoning her to use the shower first. Danke, she says. This is the first act of speech the spa area has witnessed in days.

And now for the frank and open discussion about German nakedness: I will not criticize it, because it not my place to criticize innocuous cultural habits that are not my own. But I will say two things. 1) Naked human bodies are a lot like elaborate dishes: They always seem to look so much better in the pages of glossy magazines than they do in real life. 2) If you're going to be anonymously and co-edly naked together, you might try and least pretend to enjoy it.

Posted at N 46 37.301 and E 011 08.105


It's an age thing, at least with NORTH Americans. Mark, you're about my son's age and as far as I know, he only strips to shower...and I don't know that for a fact. My Great-Aunt Edna never, ever, took off all her clothes. She added or removed layers as necessary. I, on the other hand, and in the generation in between, would be perfectly happy never wearing anything. Especially swimming.

I don't know what Aunt Edna's reasons were, but I know why the Gen-X'ers have grown up shy. We brought them up to be wary of any glance from a stranger; no matter how benign, it MIGHT be sexual and that Must. Not. Happen. We've raised a generation of wimpy children who think they can in some way be diminished if someone looks at them and has thoughts the lookee does not control. It's the Fear of Being Seen. Lookaphobia?

Anyway, I LOVE the phrase "bouquet of genitals" and I am greatly admiring of you for having made it up. I promise to use it as soon as I can figure out a way to work it into a conversation.

Paul, I disagree. I was born in 1971 and my nakedness is manifest.

Now, I am jealous. I live in Italy, but, what I have lived for the past three years is going to Germany. It is by far my favorite place to be in Europe. The Europeans generally can tell an American first thing by the amount of clothing one wears - we will always be wearing a lot. For women, that means we will be the only one in the room wearing a one-piece swimsuit- Not me though, I worked in health care long enough to know that there will always be someone who looks worse than me.

I live in germany and agree about the robotic quietness. I see kids on public transportation and if a four year old gigglesin happiness the parent looks around, ashamed at having broken the regulatory silence, all the while shushing the kid. okay not all but often! Sometimes in a cafe I feel like I am in church, but not the happy kind. chit chat is not welcomed, and severe is the style. but...diplomacy time, if you can break through the ice, its worth it, where as americans can be flakey..lets do lunch..Germans take friendship serious..uhumm suprise suprise.

Im from the US and am half European. I have lived in Germany and live now not far from the hotel where Mr. Schatzker was staying. For starters, the robotic attitude he mentioned is not present all over Germany. Certainly not in Southern Germany. In any case, quite a few people there may well have not been German at all, but locals - in other words, Italian nationals of the local German-speaking ethnic group. As for the frank and open discussion about nudity, whether German or anybody elses: Mr. Schatzker obviously feels that a naked human body is by definition sexual, by definition something a little provocative. Northern Europeans simply do not see it that way. They do not consider a human body to be something to be consumed, like an elaborate dish. They are in the sauna to relax, and frankly could not care less what they or anybody else looks like. And that sort of relaxation, in Northern Europe, is not about loud conversation. The fact of being naked around others is not a prurient experience to be enjoyed per se. If there was tension, and I am sure there was, it was due to the look on Schatzkers face.

What a terrific article! As a German who has lived in America for a while now, the descriptions of the Germans is spot on. But it's not because we are unfriendly or "robotic". The word that comes to mind most often is "stoic". It takes a while to get through the rough exterior of a German before you find that they are nothing but marshmellows inside. I've tried to explain this to my American wife, who says I am unfriendly to strangers, or people I don't know. My response is simple - show me why I need to be friendly to them and I'll comply. As far as the "nakedness" is concerned, we just feel that the human body is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone has one, we all know what the basic parts are, so why get all bent out of shape when they're exposed. Americans are brought up in a Puritanical style that cannot ever be broken. They are taught that the body represents sex and sex is bad. Germans are quite the opposite. The body and sex are two different things, which is why there are fewer sex crimes in Germany. It's no big deal. But, all things being equal, I'm glad to be where I am, and, as I tell people who ask me what Germany is like, I tell them "It's a nice place to visit..."

Wow. Amazing. It's always intrigued me why people travel when they aren't, for the most part, going to enjoy or understand "it." Apparently the writer was looking for a frat party--not a true spa experience. I swim laps as part of my triathlon workouts and the worst part is dodging the people standing around in the middle of the lanes. You wouldn't stand in the middle of a jogging track, would you? The silence would be welcome in the sauna as well. My latest experience involved a crowded room with an Armenian a Jamaican and a good 'ol boy from Orange County, CA. having a heated and loud discussion on the Bush administration. I'm sorry the writer can't appreciate serene, quiet, peaceful moments or even the concept that other people in the room may not be interested in his fishing trip. Sound really does bounce around in those little rooms. I've found in most situations that for everyone to enjoy themselves is just a little consideration.
On my trips to Germany/Europe I have found the people there are as responsive to a smile and hello as anywhere else. The people at the spa were there for a relaxing day, not to "enjoy each other's bodies."

Did you know what to expect before you got there? I am thinking this is important information for the brochures. I am sure this is the normal daily activities for those people and they think nothing of it, other than "great another new guy in the pool", I applaud them for letting it out and just enjoying the spa. I could never relax after seeing the " bouquet of genitalia", I would have been like a little school girl giggling during church and they would have kicked me out of the spa. I do think it would be nice to able to walk into a spa, no matter what you look like, and feel comfortable enough to strip off and jump in and think nothing of it. What freedom from "society" they have! Shopping for a swimming suit would be so much easier that way ;-)

Now I am 70; for fourty years we weekly go to the spa/sauna,, besides I enjoy meeting particiants of a number of scientific congresses in the Hotel sauna at evening. Of course you are quiet in the sauna : Just stand the temperature of a real good sauna for ten to fifteen minutes !Just use the time for meditation, inbetween you have possibilities enough to chat. - By theway : Do not forget to greet when you first enter the sauna room on that day !

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