Saturday, August 25, 2012

No bathing suit

Vacation is not a destination. It is not a time frame, nor an obsession. It is not planned. It is a state of mind. I realized that again in a pool in Altenau, Harz. It felt good there, both physically and mentally. Nothing beats an open air pool with a view on hills or mountains. And this one had a few surprises up its sleeve, if it had one of course. More then two weeks later, I still feel its soothing effects. Salt and sulphate, it turns out to be the answer to arthritic inconveniences. So I tell myself.

One of the outside 'sole' pools of Altenau's Kristall Therme.

I did not pack a bathing suit,” wrote a fellow Katwijk blogger, when she was keeping record of her adventures in Norway. Quite a shocking confession to my ears, because I never travel without my swim shorts. Now, I do not blame her, since she was experiencing an early autumn in the Norwegian July month. When I go on a trip, I always need one. A companion on many of my trips, has a problem of storing this in his mindset. There is a department store in Osnabrück, who keeps a special collection of bathing suits in the death of winter especially for him. He simply always forgets them, and meanwhile must have created an impressive collection of black lookalike swim trunks. This trip to the Harz mountain area was no exception. A visit to a swimwear shop already had to be made on the first day. 30 euros invested in Adidas, but not a wise investment as it turned out.

Bali Therme, Bad Oeyhnhausen.

Wellness is an essential part of my short stays abroad. The first day only took us to Bad Oeynhausen, maybe 300 kilometers away, but it made for a relaxing start of the trip. On close walking distance of the large and largely unoccupied hotel at the town's Kurpark, the Bali Therme was luring us for some saunastic relaxation. New and impressive, but a tad artificial. Because, let's face it, central Germany is not Bali, and that was what it tried you to believe you were. No, the real surprise were the Kristall Therme 'Heiser Brocken' in the Harz town Altenau. This little tourist town has seen better days. It suffered from the unification between West and East Germany, and many vacationers took the oppertunity to take a look in the former east German Harz towns – that were cheaper to stay too. It left Altenau, and other west Harz towns, with closed hotels and restaurants. But a great spa with pools and saunas should reverse things, somebody must have thought. And the Kristall Therme 'Heiser Brocken' indeed attracts many visitors.

Now, I should try to explain this name, but I'm afraid that this will be a rather futile attempt. 'Kristall' means 'crystal', and the crystal theme repeats itself inside the accommodation with fake large crystal objects placed in its various heath, steam and water features. Somehow crystal should have positive and healing results, and it is so much believed in, that there are numerous Kristall Therme throughout Germany and Austria. Crystal healing is big business.
Explaining the 'Heisser Brocken' name is even a bigger challenge. The Brocken is the highest mountain in the Harz region, and 'heisser' (hot) may just refer to the temperature of everything the Therme has to offer. But who knows, it might also refer to the wild and frightening annual pagan ceremonies, celebrated during Walpurgisnacht on the summit of the Brocken mountain. Yes, this is witch region. All souvenir stands, and every other commercial establishment come to think of it, will remind you of that by offering various witch dolls ranging from € 2,99 – € 99.
The Kristall Therme offer, apart from various saunas, two outside pools with pleasant warm water containing 1.5 and 3% salt, or 'sole' as the Harz people call it here. There is also a 37ºC / 98.6ºF degree pool treating you with sulphate and a 12% salt level. Swimming is out of the question in that one, it is impossible keeping your legs in the swimming position, since you are constantly pushed upward. Besides, it is too small to swim. The 'sardine pool' would be an appropriate name.

The largest of the two salt water pools of the Altenau Kristall Therme.

I am a sucker for mountain swimming pools. There are few things as relaxing as enjoying an open air pool that treats you with a view on mountains or green hills. I remember a pool in Vianden, Luxemburg in the 1980s, and I still can picture the view on a castle on the other side of the river valley. The Kristall Therme in Schwangau, Bavaria, should be mentioned too, simply because of the stunning view on the Alps, and the Neuschwanstein castle, illuminated in the warm evening summer. So, my hopes for the visit to the Kristall Therme in Altenau were high. Walking up the front desk to pay our admission, a sign attracted my attention. As if its announcement was the most usual thing ever, it simply said: “This is an easy going establishment. We invite our guests to enjoy the pools with or without bathing suits, just as they prefer.” So there I was, staring at that sign with my bathing suit holding against me in a plastic bag, trying to comprehend the consequences of that sign. “Does that mean that behind those doors people are just, well, ...?”
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not a prude, and certainly not after visiting saunas for over 30 years. But a public pool? Leaving the locker rooms, there was nothing that indicated that the visitor had to make a choice of either going to the sauna area, or to the pools – as is usual in most of these Therme. However, it was obvious that no visitor regarded this as a dilemma. Three out of four bathers just dashed in the water like Prince Harry in Las Vegas. Friends, 20 something girls, fathers and sons, couples and even Islamic looking guys, they all simply enjoyed the pools au naturelle. Not in the least bothered by, or bothering younger children in their shorts or bikinis and vacationing families who, probably just as surprised as we were, decided to stay on the safe side of modesty.

Strange and uncomfortable, you might ask? No, quite the opposite. Nobody peeked at others, nobody took offense. Just as it should be. And we adjusted. When in Rome, do as the Romans. So, for someone it was 30 Adidas euros down the drain. But the pools? They were great. Floating and soaking, swimming and just enjoying the view on the mountains, food was good, so was the Weizen beer, and the saunas were excellent. But I did not realize the best thing only until I was back home again. I don't know how they do with crystals, salt, sole and sulphate, but those two visits to the Altenau Therme have kept me free of any arthritic discomforts even during the most humid of days for two weeks now. What does this mean? It means that I am officially a person who needs to go on a 'Kür', as the Germans do. Another way of nature telling me, that my young and restless days are over.

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