There are few ways to relax that are more European than a trip to a spa. But there are also few things more fraught with potential embarrassment. Here, we provide a guide to the etiquette expected
‘You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool anyone when you’re wearing a bathing suit.’ It’s thought that comedy writer Gene Perret created this variation of one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous lines, and while it might raise a smile if you’re swaddled in a sweater, if you’re pool-bound and less than fully dressed, it could leave you quaking in your bikini.
We Brits have a reputation for being particularly prudish about nudity, and near nudity. Most of the year, our bodies are a private matter. Then the suggestion of spring makes us think of holidays and relaxing, perhaps heading to central Europe to unwind in a spa. However, as soon as we’ve mentally loosened the terrycloth robe we’re tense again, realising that we can’t fool anyone about our greying sun-starved bodies, our awkwardness or our cultural ineptitude.
To put it simply, most of our continental neighbours don’t wait for a giggly hen do or a clumsy couples massage to discover the health benefits of hot springs and plunge pools. In Switzerland, Sweden, Hungary and Germany, spas are where people of all ages, shapes and backgrounds go to bitch, bond and while away their weekends. It’s getting bigger than brunch – it might not be as Instagram friendly, but it gives you the chance to sit in a sauna and sweat out the week’s toxins instead of sitting at a cramped table sweating out caffeine and bacon.
Polly, a 34-year-old who works in digital content marketing told me that she fell in love with European spa culture when she was working in Geneva. ‘I’d describe it as a city in the throes of a love affair with swimming. When I was there, the focus seemed to be on wellbeing rather than fitness, although that was definitely a part of it – people cared about looking after their bodies, but spending time outdoors, in your body and in the water, was seen as something that was necessary for mental and physical health,’ she explains.
‘Culturally, I found that people could be quite serious and buttoned up, certainly at work. But at the weekend, they were quick to relax and the spa experience seemed to be a big part of that. Since I moved back to London I’ve been surprised to discover that everyone is obsessed with fitness. I think it’s a broadly good thing, but it does seem to get a bit consuming and fanatical.
‘We’re expected to throw everything into work during the 9-5, and then train like Olympians to ‘relax’. It isn’t relaxing. I think this is why we get so weird about spas when we’re abroad. We’re frightened of chilling out or doing anything that doesn’t reward focus or concentration.’
The travel journalist and author Anna Hart explains that if you look for long enough, you’ll find a spa to suit you. ‘All my life I thought I hated spas, because I’d experienced so many disappointing hotel ones with soggy robes and inflated prices. Then I went on a hiking trip to Iceland, and spent my evenings in a rustic sauna with local guides. Then, in a no-nonsense Swiss medi-spa, a team of crack doctors cured my lifelong insomnia. I’ve luxuriated in the gross-but-great seaweed baths of the Antrim Coast in Northern Ireland, my homeland. Now I know that a spa can be whatever you want it to be. So if you’re struggling to crack the etiquette of one spa, don’t bother. Just move on to the next sauna.’
Most hotel spas are created to cater for an international market, and don’t fully reflect the spa culture of the place you’re visiting. If you want to sauna like a native, you need to go native. Being willing to relax is the first step – however, if we were to generalise about British people, we might say that they are at their most serene when they have a few boundaries, and know what the rules are. Here are a few country specific spa observations to help during the holiday season.
If you’re visiting the Austrian alps, you’ll probably try one of the celebrated saunas. The most important part of sauna etiquette doesn’t have anything to do with how securely you knot your towel – it’s all about timing. It’s important to be aware of the periodic aufguss – the infusion of herbs and essential oils which are added to the sauna coals, causing the temperature to rocket for a few moments. During the aufguss, nobody comes in and nobody goes out (usually an attendant or a timer on the door will let you know if it’s in progress). If you don’t think you can stand the increased heat, try to get out before the aufguss begins.
If you spent Games lessons with a swimsuit under your PE kit in order to avoid any potential changing room nudity, you might find German spas challenging. It’s fine to wear your swimming costume in the pool, but if you wear it anywhere else you might attract a few grumpy glances. The steam rooms and saunas are towel only spaces. It’s also important to position your towel properly. It’s much better to let it all hang out and make sure that no wet skin comes into contact with the bench, than to wrap the towel around you and cause some accidental water damage with a damp knee.
Possibly after entertaining too many stag parties, the official Finnish tourist website is quite clear that getting naked in a public spa space is not an erotic exercise. ‘It has nothing to do with sex, and suggesting it will not score points with Finns… many suggest one should behave in a spa as they would in church.’ Nudity is de rigueur, but vulgarity is banned. Certainly don’t make any jokes about using the vihta – gently flagellating yourself with a bundle of silver birch twigs. It opens the pores, it’s not an excuse to find out the Finnish for ‘Oh, Matron!’
Usually, alcohol is not a recommended inside a sauna, and does not enhance the spa experience, as anyone who has been through ‘prosecco hiccups’ during a hot stone massage will testify. However, Swedish sauna goers will sometimes crack open a refreshing light beer during a session, especially if they’re outdoors and have been swimming and hiking. If you’re shvitzing in Sweden, don’t tut and pull your towel tight if your sauna neighbours are a little tipsy and chatty. Just remember the Swedish preference for lagom, or ‘just the right amount’ if you’re joining in. Two beers good, ten beers bad (and do drink plenty of water)!
In some spas in Budapest, getting naked does not usually present any problems for visitors, but working out where to store your clothes can be confusing.
Most of the thermal baths are modernising their locker system, but some require you to find a locker in the changing rooms, then flag down an attendant who will secure the locker themselves and give you a numbered tag. For security reasons, the number is different from the one on the locker. This means no-one can walk off with your belongings. It also means that if you relax too much and lose the tag, you might have to stay naked for a long time.
Daisy Buchanan is an award-winning journalist and author; her new book, How To Be A Grown Up, will be published by Headline in April