I didn’t have many spa experiences growing up. We weren’t exactly poor but we never really had enough money to do things like that. A “spa day” in my house was putting some scented oil in a hot bath and filling the bathroom with candles. A mud mask or cuticle soak purchased at the local corner store sometimes featured as well. I remember once we were able to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas where we were treated to a soak in the “healing waters” but it wasn’t until I was living in Saudi Arabia that I discovered the magical heights that “spa day” can soar to. That experience will probably remain the most astonishing spa experience of my life, and I’m ok with that, but Carolus Thermen comes in at a very close second.
It’s not “bad”, that just means “bath” and according to the website “Aachen” is a linguistic evolution of the word “aaaahhh” that people exclaim when they enter the warm mineral spring water that flows naturally in this part of Germany. For 2000 years humans have been enjoying the thermal water there, from the Celts to the Romans, the Victorians, and now modern tourists from all over. Charlemagne actually declared Aachen his favorite place because he loved soaking so much! Royalty and celebrity have been visiting for centuries to “take the waters”, but when I went they were having a summer sale and I could enjoy all the tradition of pure spring water piped in from Aachen’s Rosenquelle spring along with all the modern amenities of pools, waterfalls, saunas and treatments for a mere 26€ for the whole day. I’m pretty sure that a home “spa day” with candles, bath bomb, face mask, and foot scrub would cost at least that much and not be anywhere near as glorious.
On July 18, I was staying in Lanaken, a small town in Belgium that is effectively a suburb of the larger (yet still small) city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Yes, those are two different countries, but for the most part, inside the Schengen zone of the EU, travel between countries is no more a hassle than travel between two states or provinces in other places. The main complication was the sudden switch from French to Dutch at the border and the fact that the public transit was run by two different nations. More on that in a dedicated transit article, but for now just be in awe that I woke up in the morning in Belgium, rode a Belgian bus to the Netherlands, then rode a Dutch bus to Germany to spend the day at the spa.
The final bus stop was about 1km from the spa and the walk was through a beautiful green park with lots of shade and fountains. The weather was still unseasonably hot for the area, but the large green space was cooler than the streets around it. I saw my first red squirrel there, too! He was too fast for me to snap any photos, but it was quite a pleasant shock as someone who has spent a lifetime surrounded by grey squirrels to see one of the fox colored ones in the fur, so to speak.
I ended up coming into the spa complex from the park, aka, the back entrance. I walked through part of the outdoor pool area where I captured my only photo of the day. Thankfully, the spa front desk had friendly, English speaking staff who explained the rules to me and issued my bracelet. No one carries keys or money or even phones around. The bracelet unlocks your assigned locker but also has a chip that you can use to buy any food or drinks, items from the shop, or extra spa services. Then when you leave, they add up your total and you pay all at once on the way out.
I didn’t have much in the way of spa gear, but I had brought my swimsuit and a sarong I got in Malaysia that now functions as my multipurpose travel cloth: light blanket, towel, scarf, skirt, shawl, dress, swimsuit cover, etc. I was prepared to rent towels and a robe if the spa required such, but no one said anything to me, and I saw plenty of other people who had brought wraps from home as well. As with all shared water spaces, the changing room included showers in order to get everyone squeaky clean before entering the pools. Once I checked in, I couldn’t take photos, so from this point on, all the photos are from the spa’s website.
The swimming area is like a water park for grown ups. There are eight indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, the unique brine steam bath “Strokkur”, a beautiful sun terrace and even a beach. The main pool connects with several others and includes amenities like bubbles, waterfalls, and gentle currents. I also noticed a lift for disabled visitors which I thought was great since the warm water therapy would be wonderful for people in PT or with long term physical limitations.
Most of the pools are in the “warm” range (35°C), with a few dedicated to more extreme temperatures. Two pools on either end lead outside to cooler (33°C) water. A small set of pools next to each other were set up hot (38°C) and cold (18°C) to go back and forth between. I perched under a massage waterfall in the hot pool for a nice chance to work out the tension, and I did the ice plunge to get my circulation going and because it feels bonkers when you go from hot to ice to hot. In addition to being a treat for the body, it is stunning to look at.
After exploring every pool on the first floor, I ducked back to my locker to grab my phone (functioning as e-reader) and a sandwich from my bag before heading to the sun terrace for a rest. The sun terrace is a lovely outdoor area surrounding one of the two outdoor pools on this level. There’s a little faux beach with sand and beach chairs, as well as a small bar/cafe where you can get refreshments. I noticed that many of the people who had reserved the larger beach chairs also brought picnic baskets filled with tupperware containers of snacks, some books, extra tanning lotion and other “beach day” necessities. I was a little worried the spa might not allow outside food and drink since they sell it there, but it seemed to be quite common after all.
After lunch, I headed upstairs to check out the sauna. I didn’t think I was into saunas because, except for the one in KSA, I haven’t really enjoyed them. I find them to be too hot and hard to breathe in. Because I read the website ahead of time, I realized that the variety of saunas offered at Carolus was so extensive it would be almost impossible for me not to find at least one I liked. Aside from the sheer volume and variety on offer, they also have scheduled special events inside the saunas that are free, and I was intensely curious about these.
It was amazing. However marvelous the first floor with all it’s pools and waterfalls, it is as nothing compared to the pleasures and sensory delights that awaited me on the sauna side. There are 15 different saunas and steam baths of different humidity and temperatures, a sauna lake, and the sauna garden.
While the thermal bath area requires swimwear, the saunas are bare skin. People don’t just walk around naked the whole time (although they could), but wraps or robes are hung on hooks outside each room, and you just use a towel between you and the seat as a cushion and heat barrier, and to keep your sweat off the wood, because you WILL sweat.
Right out of the showers, I first encountered the Feminarium (below), for women who want to sauna nude without any male observers. It’s much smaller but still had a dry and wet sauna option as well as cool showers, foot baths, and reclining chairs so that ladies could enjoy a full sauna experience in gender seclusion. I was the only person in it, and I just stayed long enough to test everything out before moving on.
The main floor has the dry saunas which are low humidity and often extremely hot. To do sauna right, nearby is a cold pool, a foot bath, and resting area. Outdoors there are even more pools, dry saunas, and quiet places to rest or nap. It also has the no-clothes terrace for those who don’t want any tan lines.
There is a large board displaying the day’s event schedule, showing what is happening in what room when. I was too excited by the variety to sit still and relax yet. Instead, I wandered around testing things out while I waited for the next scheduled event.
Oriental Bathing World
Downstairs from the dry saunas is a pool surrounded by steam rooms. These are higher humidity and had a wide range of temperatures. I enjoyed the Tepidarium (below), which, at 27°C, was just warm enough to feel it without trying to kill me, but my favorite was the Odorium. This room has my “Goldilocks” temperature with just little hints of air current to keep it from stifling. The Odorium is named for its aromas which were truly heavenly.
While the Odorium had my favorite smell, nothing in this place was odorless. I tested every room and only one had a smell I didn’t like. Many of the rooms were too hot for me to spend much time in. The warmest steam rooms were 45°C and 100% humidity! I read the proper way to sauna, but that involved spending 10-15 minutes even in the hottest of rooms and I just couldn’t last that long.
The whole decor of the sauna is dark, but in a refined classy way. It’s gentle for the eyes, with lots of soft lighting, color shifting LEDs and star lights in the ceiling. The dry rooms are mainly cedar benches, but the steam rooms are decorated with stunning tiles and patterns, intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath. Beautiful ornaments, and water fixtures were everywhere. Lamps made to look like cut lace and even globes with holes to let shafts of light out to dance in the steam. Each room was intricately beautiful and completely unique. It’s no surprise that area is called “The Oriental Bathing World”.
Under a high arching dome, in the middle of all the steam rooms, there was another pool with pleasantly warm water (34°C) and LED lights shining upward casting rippling light and shadow in the ceiling, as well as softly changing colors. Just as I was drifting there thinking oh yeah this is that “wow-is-this-real” feeling I love so much, and imagining all my friends reactions to visiting such a space and how happy it would make them to experience this magical crossover of visual beauty, amazing smells and skinny-dipping, I decided to float on my back and watch the ceiling lights. Suddenly there was music!
Startled, I sat up and it was gone. The music was only underwater. As soon as I submerged my ears the sounds of the people vanished and I could hear lovely soothing “meditation” music!!! Floating naked in a near body temperature pool with underwater music in my ears and the mingled fragrances of saunas in my nose (no bathroom or pool smell here) and my eyes feasting on the shifting lights and colors above… It was pure magic.
Steam Sauna Treatment
When it was finally time for the treatment, left the pool with no small reluctance. I needn’t have worried. Nothing in this place could possibly be a let down. The first activity I was able to join was a mystery to me. The name on the schedule was an all caps word I did not recognize and had forgotten by the time I got back to anything I could take notes with. Even though I had no idea what it was, I was ready to explore. I headed into Halvet (below), a very hot and steamy room, to see what would happen. This picture is nice and clear, but when I went in the room was filled with thick steam and the latticed orbs and windows shone soft beams of warm light.
Plenty of other people had the same idea and soon the benches were full. About a minute later, a young man in a towel came in with a tray of little plastic shot glass looking things that had a lightly golden liquid inside. Having no clue what I was supposed to do, I tried to surreptitiously watch the people around me and discovered it was meant to be applied to the skin. It was a delightfully scented oil! No one seemed hesitant or shy about rubbing themselves with oil in front of each other, and I decided I wouldn’t be either. Friends even helped each other, rubbing oil into hard to reach spots. I was sweating so much I wasn’t sure the oil was going on, but I kept at it until I had used the whole thing. I noticed the others who finished were heading straight to the showers and followed suit.
With only 15 minutes until the next event, I went to lay down in my favorite room, the Odorium (below). I felt like heaven. My skin was singing and so so so soft. The room was cool enough to help me relax from the hot steam treatment while still being warm enough to be comfortable naked. Not to mention my favorite smell of the day. I thought I was going to melt into the lounge chair with sheer pleasure.
Dry Sauna Infusion
The next event was a “popsicle infusion” back upstairs in one of the dry saunas. The dry saunas range from 60°C to 100°C (I didn’t set foot in that one). The infusion room is listed as 90°C (194°F) with a mere 5% humidity. The walls are lined with cedar benches, and a tall cylinder of hot rocks was in the center.
Popsicle infusion was remarkably popular. I have been to naked parties, and gone skinny dipping, but I do not think I have ever been in such a small space with so many other naked adults where no one gave a crap. It’s mixed gender. Men and women together, lining every available seat on the three tiers of cedar benches. Dudes were casually adjusting balls to rest comfortably on the seat, and chicks were wiping boob sweat. There was not one trace of awkward or creepy. The attitude was “sauna” not “sexy”. I felt completely safe and comfortable in a way I can’t even imagine experiencing in the US.
When all the seats were filled, another betoweled employee came in carrying a saucepan and a bucket of ice. He talked a lot and people laughed at certain points. I’m sure the story in German was good, but all I managed to decipher was something about the ice and that the infusion was orange.
When the speech was finished, rock music eased out of the speakers. With some disappointment, he called out to his assistant to crank it up and soon we were well and truly rocking out in these Death Valley conditions. He liberally sprinkled ice on the rocks and I swear it sublimed, going from solid to vapor without even passing through liquid on the way. He then took another towel and used it to fan the steam at us. Not in cute dainty wafting way, no. This was aggressive German air shoving.
You know that blast of heat you get when you open the oven to check on something? It was like that. The force of the hot air hitting us dead on as he went around the room. People put their arms up like in a roller coaster.
Next he added the orange infused liquid. The smell was intense but pleasant, and the moisture in the air was much more noticeable. Once more, he repeated the towel blasting. I was getting into it, but also feeling really hot by this stage and just starting to wonder if I’d have to leave when he picked up the bucket of ice and flung handfuls at the ceiling. It was coarse shaved ice and broke apart on the wooden beams, raining down on us as a cool shower.
As he started on a second round of infused liquid, a girl sitting in front of me headed for the exit. I decided if she could be a wimp, I could too. Honestly it was just as well. I was becoming dizzy and realized I could be flirting with dangerously overheating. I got to some cool water and started to feel better just in time for the popsicles! The staff passed out little orange creamscicles to everyone who had participated. I’d already been thinking that they must have named it the “popsicle infusion” because it smelled like that childhood treat, so the cold fruity reward was the perfect finish.
After the intense heat of the popsicle sauna, I took my time to cool off all the way. I had a cold shower, took a walk outside, lay for another rest in my favorite room, and one more dip in the cold pool (18°C) of the Balneum (below).
With plenty of time before the next event, I decided to head over to the sauna’s connected restaurant. You don’t get dressed to eat there, just throw on a robe or towel. It’s separated from the clothed area, and the terraces are protected with shrubbery to keep anyone outside from seeing in. The view was lovely, but the food was disappointing. I ordered the Thai crab soup, which tasted like someone went “soy sauce and ramen that’s Asian right?” It also had no crab or even fake crab, just teeny tiny shrimp. The cheap sandwich I brought in from the grocery store was better. Before you ask why I ordered Thai food in Germany, the restaurant is called “Lemongrass” and claims to specialize in Asian food. However, the staff was kind, and my mood was just to good to want to think about bad food so I just wrote it off, I was planning to pay 36€ that day before I learned about the summer sale. Thinking of it as bad free food it’s much less painful than thinking of bad food I paid for.
Feeling Like Fresh Bread
It would have taken an act of gods to ruin my glow that day, and while the restaurant may have been a let down, good food was the topic of my final experience: the bakery.
It’s a dry sauna meant to be like a red brick oven which is not uncommon in saunas. I’ve seen several in the Jimjilbang in Korea. However at Carolus, there’s actually an oven inside. Although the room is open for use all the time, every couple hours they bake something in the oven while people are there. I read about it before going and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to. I went into the room the same time the dough did and I lay in the semi-dry heat (60°C 40% humidity) dripping sweat and surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh baking bread. I can’t even properly describe this room other than to say I felt like I was in the oven with the bread…in a really yummy way, not in a gingerbread cottage witch way.
When they were done baking, it turned out to be pretzel rolls. Once she added some coarse salt, the attendant staffer passed around the piping hot treats. They were light and fluffy inside and crispy outside and almost too hot to bite into. It was so amazing to be with the bread and have the aroma as part of the sauna and then get eat it after as I walked around in the fresh outdoor air.
I never wanted to leave that place. After my baking treatment, I had only about 30 minutes left to visit my favorite highlights one last time before it was time to return to the non-magical world outside. Of course for me, that meant one more float in the musical pool, and a rest in the Odorium to air dry a bit.
My ersatz towel was completely drenched by this time and would do me no good as a drying method. I was a little worried about carrying my wet bathing suit and sarong home, so I didn’t get back into any of the swimming baths at the end of my day. I underestimated the facilities once again, since the locker rooms had quick spin cycle machines to whip the extra water out of any towels or suits. There were hair dryers, too. I didn’t need one in the summer, but I would have been grateful to see them if I were leaving on a cold winter’s evening.
When I put this spot on my travel calendar, I did not think I could spend 7 hours in a spa with no distractions, but I only read my book for about an hour at lunch. Other than that my phone was locked up the whole time. I didn’t even miss it. There were many more experiences, treatments, and classes I never had a chance to attend. I thought about trying to find a room in Aachen so I could stay until they closed at 10pm and come back again the next day, but the cost was even more than the bus rides. I thought also about returning another day that week, before I left Lanaken. I could go back every day for a week before I could see it all.
In the end I decided that the euphoria I experienced that day came from the wonderful surprises and the way nearly every part of the day exceeded any possible expectation I had. If I returned and it was anything less than pure magic, I risked disappointment. Lanaken and Maastricht were providing a nearly unbearable number of disappointments already, and I didn’t think I could take another. Better to keep this shining jewel of memory just the way it is. Visiting Carolus Thermen in the middle of some intense emotional turmoil (which I intend to share elsewhere for those interested in my turmoil and growth) was an incredible escape. It elevated me into a realm of calm delight that was not only a pure joy, but gave me the mental clarity to process a lot of heavy stuff. It is and will remain one of the highlights of all my adventures.
Writing away as fast as I can, I still can’t seem to get all the way to my goal of 2 stories a week. The new semester of classes has brought it’s share of challenges as I try to understand a whole set of course materials and students. It’s also bringing some new joys which may be taking away from writing time. I adjusted my schedule so that I could attend more weekend events out of town. Last weekend, I got to attend my first watercolor class which was a lovely social event and a chance to learn new art skills. I plan on going to book clubs, craft fairs, and of course to some Korean festivals as well. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve arrived at a place in my life where I get to have so many adventures of all sizes. I’ll do my best to keep sharing them with you, even if it’s not as quickly as before. Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂