Wellness: Naked Ambition in Austria


WELLNESS: Naked Ambition in Austria
Längenfeld’s Aqua Dome is a monument to an Austrian tradition
By David K Gibson

Those who know skiing history prior to the invention of the backflip mute grab will be familiar with Austria’s Tirol region. The birthplace of modern skiing has a slope culture — terrain, lodging, food, and après — that is the model for all of skidom.

But there’s another culture here with an even longer history: that of saunas and spas. Most villages, luxury hotels, and towns have a complex featuring steam rooms, saunas, a pool or two, and showers. In winter, when the Dutch and Germans pack into plastic-and-canvas igloo bars for après, the Austrians have a community sweat and swim.  And when they gather together, it’s in the altogether.

Their word for it is textilfrei, which refers to what you do not have on, rather than the English “nudist,” which refers to what you are showing off. Outside every hotel sauna is a sign giving the reasoning behind the mandatory nudity in one of several preprinted iterations that become as familiar as “Employees must wash hands” signs. But after a few days of cheeks flushing with embarrassment, even the most self-conscious American becomes comfortable in his birthday suit.

The true test of this comes at Aqua Dome in Längenfeld, a few minutes from the glacier-strewn resorts surrounding Sölden. There the art of the therme is taken to heights normally reserved for the surrounding mountains. On any given day 1,000 bathers line up for admittance. Half — the half with children — head to the pools, which include a massive indoor pool, a children’s pool in the shape (and presumed size) of Noah’s ark, an outdoor “river” and lap pool, and three pedestal-mounted pools: mineral, whirlpool, and saline.

wellness_iceThe others shed their inhibitions along with their clothes and proceed to the Gletscherglühen Sauna Complex. There, on two stories with assorted decks, patios, lofts, and basements, are a hay barn sauna, an herb bath, a brine steam room, a sauna canyon, a traditional steam room, and a three-tiered stadium of a sauna centered around a giant copper clockwork that drops a kettle of water onto the stove at regular intervals. From every wall spouts some interesting variety of shower, and behind every door is another steamy mystery — a saltwater grotto, a 95-foot waterfall, an ice cave — and I doubt I have named half of the facilities. There is even a restaurant; you’ll have to wear your robe while you dine, but the people swimming in the pool just outside the plate-glass window are strictly forbidden from doing so. If nothing else, it encourages one to order a low-calorie meal.

wellness_kettleWith so many things to do inside the complex — coupled with the necessary waits between high-temperature treatments — guests take on the air of passengers in a train station, dashing o in one direction, pausing here and there, and studiously avoiding eye contact with strangers. Aqua Dome encapsulates, in glass and tile, the essence of Austria: warm and unselfconscious, and delightfully absurd.