“So,” said the Swiss man sitting opposite me with no clothes on. “Sind Sie zum ersten Mal hier?” Roughly translated as “Do you come here often?”, it wasn’t a chat-up line, but polite conversation in the sauna.
Last week I was in Leukerbad, in the “Valaisan sauna world” at the Alpentherme, one of the resort’s four impressive public spas, warming up before taking a dip in the thermal baths. By chance I had caught the place as it emptied out, an hour before closing, so there wasn’t a sea of stitchless bodies to navigate when finding my seat.
If there had been, I doubt if many would have been my countrymen – whether or not any of them are coming to Switzerland any more. Because although British skiers like the idea of spas, and the saunas and steam rooms they contain, they still haven’t got the hang of them and find the whole thing excruciatingly awkward.
When I was an Inghams rep in Obergurgl, some Germans staying in the Edelweiss & Gurgl complained to reception about some of our guests, because, as they said, “Zey are vearing zeir clovthe-zzez in ze sauna”. And when a friend and I visited the Aqua Dome recently, also in the Oetztal, she took one glance inside the “Nacktzone”, where men and women of all shapes and sizes wandered at ease in the altogether, and fled. Rarely have I heard English spoken in a hotel or public spa with a strict dress code.
In Austria, even very modest b&bs have a small sauna, and sometimes a steam room. I am not into “treatments”, but I like a sauna, summer or winter, and in all Alpine countries, I’ve found that most hotel or b&b spa facilities are streets ahead of British equivalents – and that’s not even counting the genuine Alpine spa towns, such as Leukerbad and Bad Gastein, where mineral springs with healing properties were put to use centuries before today’s “wellness” bandwagon.
I think it’s a shame many Brits miss out, so by way of encouragement here is my 10-point guide to using a sauna in a ski resort – without risking being reported to the authorities by seasoned Continentals.
1. Drink plenty of water, and go to the loo.
2. Take everything off, including jewellery (as it heats up uncomfortably), and put on either a towel or a dressing gown. If you’re in a gown, take a towel too – most places provide a stack of them.
3. Have a shower.
4. If there’s a choice of saunas – hay, herbs, Finnish – work out which is the least hot and start there. Leave your dressing gown on the hook that is inevitably on the wall near the door, and go in with your towel – it’s not forbidden to wrap it around you.
5. Stake out where there is space as you open the door – it is usually transparent, so you can see how busy it is before you go in. If there’s a row of hourglass-style egg-timers on the wall then swivel one upside-down to time your session (and people will thing you’re a pro).
6. Sit down – some spots are darker or more “sheltered”, which beginners may prefer. The higher, the hotter.
7. Either sit or lie on the towel or wrap it partly around you, or fully if you cannot bear to bare. If the place is empty, I sometimes lie down; with feet towards the wall is most modest.
8. Do not stare, nor do you need to die of embarrassment or wonder where to look. It is fine to make conversation with strangers – you soon get the hang of just looking at the face.
9. You’ll soon be sweating away. If you feel unpleasantly hot, move to a lower level, or get out. For beginners, five or 10 minutes at a time is sometimes enough. Then have a cold shower and/or lie down for a while (there are usually sun-loungers), or wade into a freezing tub if there is one (in the Valaisan sauna village this was 12 degrees). I prefer this to fathoming the wall or rain showers, whose controls can be mysterious.
10. Repeat if you like, drink more tap water – and enjoy!
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