I have always been a huge fan of hot springs. When I was younger, my mom and I would go to Glen Ivy, a mineral spa as a special girls day, where we’d luxuriate in the clay mud baths, cool off in cold pools against the baking Southern California sun, or go for a relaxing massage. I always felt like an adult, and even in the days before a constant always-connected culture, Glen Ivy allowed me to detach from the world, at least for a few hours.
This love affair carried over, and soon David and I went as a couple. First we started with some of the hot springs in Northern California, but began incorporating “bath culture” into our travels. When we’d go to Japan, we sought out onsens wherever we stayed. In Spain and Switzerland, we visited their wellness centers.
And in Germany and Austria, we fell hard for the various baden towns and the stunningly beautiful temples to bathing and wellness they contained. For example, here’s Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden, Germany
German therme (thermal spa) and sauna culture is very different compared to America. For one, going to the spa is much more communal. You go there with your family or friends. You visit with other members of the community and make new friends. Second, like Japan, going to the therme is just a regular thing you do, matter-of-fact, like going to the grocery store. It’s also heavily rules-driven. There are protocols for everything — where to go, how long you should stay in a sauna, what you should wear (or not wear), when to shower, etc. Sometimes the rules are clearly understood, but often non-Germans are left to decipher the rules through pictures, watch what others are doing, or occasionally by getting sternly reprimanded by a guest or member of staff, usually in German, and then broken English.
It’s also a requirement that you be naked in certain parts of the spa complex, especially in the mixed-gender sauna area. You’ll see signs like this on entry:
Clothing (or textiles) are not optional in these zones. They are entirely verboten. The Germans (and Austrians, Swiss and probably the Nordic peoples as well), believe that bathing suits harbor bacteria. Therefore, you textilefrei, and bring your towel. Whatever you do, don’t ever put your bare ass on the sauna bench. That will make everybody VERY GRUMPY.
In sauna areas, you rotate around a circuit of rooms and pools, sampling different showers, saunas (Turkish, Finnish, infrared) at different temperatures, damfbads (steam rooms) with fragrant natural oils in the air, cold and hot pools, and ruheraums (relaxation areas). If you’re not used to the whole nude thing, it’s a little off-putting at first. But you learn to get used to it, go with the flow, and keep your gaze strictly at eye-level.
There’s one other thing that’s common in German and Austrian saunas — the aufguss.
Aufguss: You’re naked, it’s hot, and there’s a guy waving a towel in your face
In February 2019, David and I visited the spa town of Bad Wildbad in Germany, where we had our first aufguss experience.
Aufguss, which is German for infusion, is a purification ritual performed in the sauna (usually a Finnish sauna or Turkish hammam), by an “Aufgussmeister” or Sauna Master. Like most things German, aufguss are run on a schedule. A sauna will have a sign that looks something like this on the door when an aufguss is in session:
Aufguss is happening. Don’t come in, otherwise ANGRY GERMANS. Also, you can buy this sign on Amazon.
The sessions are usually posted with times, and details about what’s in store — specifically information about the type of infusion(s) being used. At the Bad Wildbad sauna, I was told that aufguss are performed to recirculate the air every hour, and restore the heat and humidity levels to a proper balance.
How to Aufguss
The aufguss begins with an open sauna door, which lets the outside air in. The door is left open for a few minutes, and as showtime approaches, groups of people come in, set down their towels, and mentally prepare for what’s next. Unlike most sauna experiences I’ve been in, aufguss events are highly social. There’s a lot of chatting, catching up, and small talk, especially before the action happens. Even though all the conversations were in German, it was pretty obvious by the body language that my fellow aufgussers were well acquainted with one another.
Someone (usually a spa attendant) then brings in a bucket full of ice, a few bottles of special aufguss ‘konzentrat’ oils, and one or more towels, fans, or flags. Next, the attendant, or a specially-appointed audience member, is chosen as the Aufgussmeister. Importantly, the Aufgussmeister is clothed, at least from the bottom down. He or she then fans in some of the outside air into the sauna, which feels amazing, and then closes the door. For the next 15 minutes, you’re at the meister’s mercy.
Then, something like this happens:
The whole process of fanning and pouring cold water on the stoves creates an intense level of humidity and heat, and brings the perceived temperature up, even if the relative temperature stays about the same. The heat from the Aufgussmeister’s fanning display also hits you instantly — the hot air sears your face and any other delicate exposed bits. It feels like you’re roasting. In short, you feel a bit like a rotisserie chicken.
The ritual differs depending on where you are — with more or less fanning cycles, different infusions, different props. Sometimes, the Aufgussmeister is nice, and offers you a fistfull of ice to cool down before he lays on the real fan action. Other times, you’re in a room with an utter sadist. It’s a mixed bag. But it’s also a lot of fun, and you leave with a rush of endorphins and a deep urge to immediately jump in the coldest body of water you can find.
But wait, it gets stranger!
Right. So that’s the basic premise of an aufguss. But for those who want a little more excitement, there’s also show aufguss, something David and I were able to experience first-hand at the Alpentherme Gastein in Bad Hofgastein, Austria.
In show aufguss, you’ve got all the regular aufguss rituals, but now the attendants dance and wear costumes. There’s also music, and a light show, and … comedy? IDK, it was in German/Bavarian Austrian, so it was hard to tell. Show aufguss is like going to a reverse strip-tease. The attendants do all of the dancing, but they also keep all their clothes on, while the audience is doing the full monty. By the end, everybody is sweaty.
For our first show aufguss, we’re seated in a room the size of a small club, with around 50 men, women, and children. Red, blue, and green lights are on, and there’s a buzz of activity around us. At close to 7pm, the show starts — two men enter, dressed as nuns, carrying white towels. David and I stare agape as one nun heads over to the sound and light system, presses a few buttons and Abba’s Mama Mia floods the room, while a small fog of scented smoke billows from two vents below the amplifier. Then the disco-ball lights up.
So here we are, feeling the heat, smelling the smells, hearing the music, and watching two grown-ass men get their drag-nun on. The guys parade around the room, dousing the sauna stoves with ice and water. They also toss crushed ice and water at the audience for good measure, all while doing a remarkable amount of spinny shit with the towels.
On cue, one of the nuns goes back to the PA system, changes up the music to the gospel standard ‘Oh Happy Day,’ releases another gas infusion, and joins his fellow sister spinning and gyrating around the sauna pit like a drum-major. At this point, the audience is singing and clapping. I start singing and clapping. I halfway expect an Austrian to get up and start praising Jesus. This shit is surreal.
Then it’s the third act. At this point, the Aufgussmeisters have been at it for nearly 10 minutes, all without shedding a single bit of their costume. While I don’t recall the name of the third gospel song, it was as equally energetic as the first two. The nuns begin slow-jogging around the room in time, pushing increasingly hot air against our sweaty bodies. By the end, they’re spent and panting. Everyone cheers. David and I look at one another and wonder if we really experienced what we think we did.
And then everyone gets up, flushed red and dripping, full of endorphins and good feelings. We all walk out the door. In 45-minutes’ time, the Aufgussmeisters will do the whole thing again, with a new routine.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that in the process of writing this article, I discovered that there’s actually an Aufguss World Championships, where Aufgussmeisters compete for the glory of being declared the best towel twirler in the world. In last years’ tournament, Poland took the gold, both in the Individual and Group categories. You can see some of the action in clips footage here. I assume no full routines are viewed because it still involves doing this in front of naked people.
Saunas with aufguss are still hard to find outside of Germany, Austria, Finland, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, and the Czech Republic. You can also find some aufguss in America and Canada. Still, if you do make it to a therme or baden town, it’s worth doing a little searching to see if there’s an aufguss nearby. Thermes are amazing experiences in their own right, and participating in an aufguss is one of those things everyone should do at least once.
 It struck David that in a country with such a high Catholic population, this sort of show was almost sacreligious. Campy yes, but I don’t think anyone in the room was taking it as anything more than a weird version of Sister Act.
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