A thermal pool in Vienna and what really happens in an Austrian sauna

Posted by on Dec 22, 2011 in Austria, Europe, Travel | 0 comments

A thermal pool in Vienna and what really happens in an Austrian sauna

Guest post by Wayne

December in Vienna can be bitterly cold. While we were there, the thermometer hovered at a relatively constant zero degrees Celsius, when it gets this cold you really only have two options to properly warm up.  Seeing as we had already had more than our fair share of mulled wine, we decided to investigate Therme Wien, a spa and wellness centre situated on naturally occurring thermal pools within the suburbs of Vienna.

We threw ourselves into the throngs of Christmas shoppers to look for swimmers which as it was winter we hadn’t packed, but to no avail.  Despite some rather heroic attempts at mime (including physically acting out swimming to a bemused shopkeeper), it appears that Viennese shops only stock winter clothing in winter, leaving us in a bit of a predicament.  We decided to head to the thermals anyway, hoping blindly that there would be a swimwear shop attached to the pools as there most likely would be in Australia.

A metro and tram ride later, and we were in the middle of the ‘burbs of Vienna – a side of the city we hadn’t yet seen. Therme Wien itself was a little underwhelming.  I guess we were expecting some sort of mythical place, with incredible bubbling natural pools, and massive plumes of steam.  Instead, we found a swimming pool complex, albeit a pretty extravagant swimming pool at that.

Essentially a large, modern building of glass and steel located smack bang in the middle of a local shopping area, surrounded by a restaurant, car park and a cheap hotel.  The mediocre surroundings didn’t exactly evoke the same thoughts we had first imagined, so we entered warily.

After purchasing our swimmers (Speedo of course) from a man with a world class moustache, and leaving our belongings in our own personal change room, we headed up to the main pool area.  The major clientele at this time of day seemed to be retirees, however there was also a healthy smattering of younger Austrians.

In Austria, a wellness centre (as they call them) such as this isn’t so much about relaxing as it is about healing and rejuvenation.  From what we could gather centres such as these are a regular part of the lives of everyday Austrians as a sort of health and wellbeing routine.  For example, within the two main pools are a series of six jets, which serve to massage different parts of your body.  All day long, elderly men and women line up along these water jets, rotating together at seemingly random intervals to ensure they each got a full body service.

The pools are divided into several different sections, called ‘stones’.  There is the ‘stone of silence’, a dark, romantic tunnel with a waterfall where talking is forbidden.  There is the ‘stone of adventure’, where there are two (rather good fun) waterslides, a diving board and a high dive tower.  There also seemed to be some sort of ‘stone of aquarobics’, though I couldn’t quite stretch my German to translate it properly.  Suffice to say that Austrian grandmas love it as much as Australian grandmas do!

Naturally, we wanted a taste of everything the pools had to offer, so we dove straight in.  We had a quick splash in the stone of silence, which actually turned out to be quite noisy – it seems we weren’t the only ones who couldn’t read German!

Next, we had a go at the massage jets, with varying degrees of enjoyment.  The two largest pools span both inside and outside, and it is quite an experience to sit in 30 degree water while the air temperature hovers around freezing. Massive amounts of steam billow off of the water’s surface and the contrast between the water and air is intense.

While the pool section of Therme Wien seems to cater to a large audience, it not the crux of a traditional Austrian spa visit.  For an extra 7 Euros, you can have access to the ‘sauna stone’, which is at the back of the complex.  This is, as they say, where the magic happens.

Thanks largely to my internet research I had a somewhat limited understanding of how an Austrian Sauna works.  From what I could gather, nudity is mandatory and there is a complex, unwritten system of etiquette that you can only possibly understand completely if you are Austrian or Finnish.  Emma was quick to dismiss any thoughts of the sauna, though I was a little curious.  At times it can feel like there aren’t any truly authentic experiences left in Europe’s capital cities, so I felt like this is something I should try, even just for the sake of experience.  Surely this would tick the box as an authentic experience I couldn’t have at home?

After roughly an hour and a half of lazing around in the thermal pools, curiosity got the better of me.  I left Emma in the stone of silence and headed, somewhat apprehensively, for the sauna stone.  I wasn’t so worried about people seeing my body, I was more worried about what I might see!  I was also a little confused about the seemingly secret code of conduct, which was made all the more secret by my lack of German.

After swiping my chip bracelet at the gate, I rounded a corner and copped an eyeful of a middle aged couple, casually showering in the change rooms. Welcome to the real Austria.  Did I mention that Austrian saunas, and most European saunas are mixed gender?  That includes not only the steam rooms, saunas and plunge pools, but also the showers and change rooms.

The first piece of etiquette seemed fairly straight forward, despite my lack of insider knowledge.  A row of hooks lined the hallway from the change rooms to the main area, from which hung a number of swimming costumes of all shapes and sizes. I hung my shorts between a bright red bikini and a pair of black speedos and continued on down the hallway, checking several times that my towel was done up tightly around my waist.

At the end of the hall, the room opens up into a massive open plan area, which is quite similar to the pool area I had been in earlier.  The steam rooms and saunas were around the edges, with showers and a deep, cold plunge pool in the middle.

There was an outdoor heated pool, identical to the one I had just been in and deck chairs around the outside, just like all the other ‘stones’. The only difference with the ‘sauna stone’ is that everybody was naked.  Maybe they were wearing a robe open, or perhaps a towel slung casually over their shoulder, it seemed almost exhibitionist!

The demographic was just as wide and varied as it had been in the other pools.  Elderly couples lay next to each other on sunbeds, whilst groups of young friends, male and female, chatted in the corner.  At first, to my virgin eyes, it was shocking, but everybody else seemed completely at ease being naked in the company of others, and there was a very relaxed and friendly vibe throughout the room.  I had imagined large groups of seedy old men sitting around naked, but it was much more diverse and casual than I had anticipated.  All I could think was, ‘this is so European!’

The real intricacies of European sauna etiquette essentially come down to where to put your towel when you sauna. There are a variety of rooms, with differing temperatures and humidity.  Take your towel into a humid room, and you will end up with a soaking wet towel.  However, if you leave your towel outside when you enter a dry room you will leave a big, sweaty wet patch in the shape of your rear end on the pine bench, which is most certainly frowned upon.

I just followed the philosophy of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’, and I don’t think I made any great feux pas. Here’s a useful tip for the uninitiated – DEFINITELY take your towel into the room where the benches are made of stone, those stones are HOT!

Again, following the Austrian philosophy of wellness not relaxation, most of the people in the sauna were working their way through some sort of routine or another.  This generally involved long periods of time in the sauna before short dips in the plunge pool, and then back again.  In the outdoor pool, there was the same circuit of water jets as in the regular pools, and elderly men and women were again working their way around, making sure they got a full work out.

The dash through the ice cold air from the warmth of the building to the warmth of the pool seemed particularly brutal in the nude, but the locals were casually sauntering around as though it were a warm summers day.  There are just as many rules that apply in the sauna as anywhere else in Austrian society, but for a culture that seems so uptight and proper, it is an odd contrast to see them strutting about so freely and uninhibited.  This is a side to the locals that not many tourists see, and, while it is more than a little revealing, it is also fascinating.

There is no more authentically local experience one can have then sharing a sauna with the locals in a suburb in Vienna.  I have no doubt that among the many naked bodies sweating it out in the sauna today, I was the only foreigner.  There are not a lot of activities you can do in Europe, where you can confidently say that!

Once the initial shock of mass nudity had worn off, I began to see some sense in it all.  The Austrians see the wearing of swimmers in saunas as unhygienic and unnecessary.  The material becomes laden with sweat, and often can smell in the heat.  They much prefer to have a good shower before, and do it in the buff, and I must say I kind of agree with them!

After about an hour of alternating between steam rooms and plunge pools, I began to feel pretty comfortable amongst my mixed bag of fellow Europeans, who, just like the swimmers I saw on the way in, come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and all ethnicities.

As I left the ‘sauna stone’ in my newly purchased speedo shorts, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, I noticed that my swimmers seemed to be a little more uncomfortable than when I had first tried them on.


Therme Wien


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