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The Bathhouses of Europe

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By Dick Dace
Photo by Paul Krehan

When my best friend, Hans, suggested that we try a Turkish massage at The Hamman as a cure for my jetlag after my flight to Germany, I readily agreed. Once inside the unassuming building near downtown Hamburg, a woman greeted us, and I realized this would be my first coed bathhouse experience.

After we changed into our bathing suits, we were shown to the main room, where we bathed by pouring warm water from a bucket using bronze bowls. We were then instructed to lay down on a raised heated marble platform in the middle of the room, which we shared silently with two women and another man. After roasting on our backs, we splashed water on the platform before turning on our stomachs. When a female masseuse became available, Hans went with her to a white marble table while I prayed for a male masseuse.

A tall, slender exchange student from Tunisia was the divine answer to my prayer. Self, whose name is Arabic for sword, was a near-literal interpretation of his name. A mechanical-engineering student at the local university, this was his part-time job to earn spending money.

After pouring warm soapy water all over my body, I was scrubbed by what felt like a loofah. He then inflated something like a small pillowcase, pressing it against my body and squeezing out the air. Billions of bubbles felt like tiny kisses against my skin. Next, he rubbed my body with a cloth. It was luxurious, sensuous, and incredible. Have I mentioned that the massage had not started yet?

Twenty minutes later, I staggered like a rag doll to an outdoor patio overlooking a walled garden. After sipping a cool tea, I realized that I was no longer jetlagged. As I enjoyed my newly relaxed body and mind, I began to ruminate on the baths and their history.

While in Vienna on a previous trip, I visited the Roman ruins at Carnuntum, a first-century military camp for 50,000 men on the banks of the Danube. The bathhouse was one of the first structures built, followed by a latrine for 60, each connected to running water. Here, Roman citizens of all social classes—young and old, rich and poor, free and slave—would mix freely after work, sharing the daily ritual of the baths.

To Romans, the baths proved that they were cleaner, healthier, and therefore better than other cultures. As the Roman Empire spread across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, the baths followed, bringing their brand of civilization to millions of people. As Turkey and the Middle East embraced the strict cleanliness commandment of Islam, the baths became very popular in their culture, making them a daily social meeting place as well.

Most Roman and Turkish baths were large and friendly places that often included outdoor areas for exercise and sports. There were also food stands and attendants who offered every sort of service.

Inside the actual baths were a series of heated rooms and pools, many carefully situated to make the most of the heat from the sun, and built to strict specifications so that their “hypocaust heating” would work properly. This system used water heated in fiery furnaces under the raised floors of the baths. The resulting steam was channeled through special chambers under the floors and in the walls.

At the baths, the rooms and pools were visited in a specific order. First, the dressing room, where they would leave their clothing with a servant or slave. Next, they would visit the gymnasium, where they could exercise and have their body oiled before the baths themselves. Then it was on to a plunge bath in the cold room, before relaxing in the warm room for a time.

The final room was the steamy hot room, which might also have a hot plunge pool. After all this, the oil would be scraped off their skin by a servant, using a special tool called a “strigil.” They would then revisit the same rooms in the opposite order. This happened the next day as well. How’s that 60-hour capitalist workweek lookin’ now?

When I discovered that there were many baths still operating in structures first built by the Romans and remodeled by the Turks, I had to see them for myself. You know, for purely professional reasons.

In Vienna, I discovered The Kaiserbründl Men’s Sauna, dating back to 1529 and now promoted as the “ideal relaxation zone.” For centuries, the Kaiserbründl has been regarded as the most distinguished and elegant bathing establishment in the city. The entrance leads into a casual restaurant where fully dressed visitors dine, separate from the activities in the sauna. From there, you enter one of the most beautiful and unique saunas for men in the world—four floors with gym, sauna, steam bath, massage, videos, and much more. 

The Kaiserbründl Men’s Sauna became infamous during the 1880s when Archduke Ludwig Viktor (who was known by the gay smart set in Vienna as “Luziwuzi”) allegedly got too close to an officer in the sauna, earning him a slap on the face. What makes this particularly racy is that “Luziwuzi” was the youngest brother of the ultra-conservative emperor Franz Joseph.

I enjoyed the amazing architecture, as well as the sauna, steam room, and solarium. And it isn’t just the stone that is sculpted to perfection—the men of Vienna are undeniably handsome and extremely friendly, and happy to present you with their wares (and, if you accept, a bill).

Other men’s saunas in Vienna include the Sportsauna, which attracts a young crowd, and The Apollo City Sauna, which has been serving the gay community for 23 years.

When I visited the saunas in Budapest and Prague, I discovered that the handsome, dark-eyed men with wavy hair and brilliant white smiles were more interested in the bulge in my wallet than my personality. Prostitute is legal in Hungary and the Czech Republic, and seems to be a bustling trade.

Before you go, check out each spa’s website or Facebook page to confirm hours and learn about special events.

Germany: The Hammam

Feldstraße 39 • 20357 Hamburg • das-hamam.de

Austria: The Kaiserbründl

Kärntner Straße • Street entrance (on the right, green door) or via the discreet side entrance through the main building entrance (uppermost bell).  Open daily from 2 p.m., Monday to Sunday until midnight.

Men’s saunas that are fun in Budapest include: Magnum Sauna, Sauna 69, and Funny Carrot; in Prague: Sauna David, Sauna BONBO, and Sauna Labyrinth.

Dick Dace is a frequent OutSmart contributor, and is willing to go to any destination for a good story.

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