Thermal spas can be found all over Germany, where attitudes to nudity are relaxed, and the health benefits of mineral water are seriously appreciated. But, now that a mega spa complex has got the green light in Manchester, can German bathing culture catch on over here?
Soapy water is massaged into your body, before a rough brush scrubs it away. For eight minutes, a stern German lady gives you the skin peel of your life. You’ve already showered twice, and acclimatised in various saunas. Once a few layers of skin have been torn off, steam baths and whirlpools await. A cold plunge pool and — mercifully — moisturising creams will complete the procedure.
Oh, and you’re naked.
This isn’t the stuff of daydreams, or even nightmares. It’s the reality of thermal spas across Germany, and it’s an experience which might soon be making its way to Manchester.
Multinational company Therme Group have been granted permission by Trafford Council to construct a huge £250million spa complex next to the Trafford Centre.
The concept of the spa, and of building a resort over naturally hot springs, has its origins in the Roman period. We have the Romans to thank for the establishment of famous spa towns like Bath and Buxton. The Germans, however, took the concept and ran with it.
A Therme Group spokesperson told Mancunian Matters: “We were drawn to Manchester because of the impressive growth it is showing and the city’s dedication to innovation, particularly in the area of health and wellbeing.
“What we’ve done is to create a unique combination of experiences and the expertise to deliver them with sustainable technology.”
To get a better sense of the German Therme culture, I interviewed some real-life Germans who live in Freiburg, the capital city of the Black Forest.
Mark Teerlev, a 21-year-old student, first visited a Therme aged just nine. He said of the experience: “For a child, there’s not much to do, because the Theme is really all just about relaxing… Once I got older, I realised the benefits of Therme.”
At first, Teerlev seemed surprised at the premise of my questioning — that Germans have a particularly strong relationship to Therme.
“I’m not the best example of this,” he said.
During the course of the interview, however, he revealed he has visited Therme in Germany, Hungary, Siberia, and even Japan. The cultural links binding him to Therme run so deep he hardly recognised their existence.
“There’s nothing such as Therme advertisements, really,” Teerlev continued.
“In general people just know the Therme is a place to relax.”
Therme Group have high hopes that this will one day be recognised by the British population. The group aims to “bring the Therme Group proposition to within 90 minutes travel time of 90% of the British population.”
One of Germany’s most celebrated and best known thermal spas is the Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden. The name literally means ‘Bath-Bath,’ and the bathing is indeed good enough to justify naming the town twice. Friedrichsbad offers a 140-year-old bathing tradition in the so-called ‘Roman Irish’ style, in a 17-step process.
The process is taken seriously, as is the requirement to be nude. Tjark Blackmore, a native German with British parents, is not convinced this aspect of the bathing culture will catch on in Manchester.
The 30-year-old said: “To be honest, I feel like it’s just a lazy excuse for beer-bellied Germans, who DO like perverted nudity and claiming culture that isn’t theirs.
“I never liked undressing in front of other people. I’m very British in that regard. I was traumatised as a kid from nudist beaches and all.”
Teerlev also had reservations about the German propensity for nudity. He said: “Germany is known for the free body culture. However, this concerns mainly people over the age of 40. One can say that younger people tend to be prudish.”
That ‘free body culture,’ or Freikörperkultur, has roots in Germany dating back to the 1800s. It particularly took hold during the Nazi regime, who removed a wide-ranging ban on nude bathing in 1942, and under the east German communist regime, who eventually tolerated the practice.
In 2014, meanwhile, an Expedia poll of over 11,000 people from 24 countries revealed that Germans are the most likely nationality to get their kit off on the beach. Nearly a third said they had sunbathed in the buff, according to Der Spiegel.
The bathing experience coming to Manchester will accommodate prudes of all nationalities. With typical German bluntness, Therme Group told us: “There are no textile free areas in the UK resorts.”
Instead of nudity and the Roman-Irish process, the experience set to come to Trafford will be on a much larger, and more informal scale.
The website promises over 25 pools, over 30 saunas and steam rooms, and over 35 waterslides. A ‘fun family area’ is planned, with a wave pool, and relaxation areas planted with palm trees under a huge glass canopy.
The adults’ zone, meanwhile, will cover both ends of the health-spectrum, with therapeutic mineral pools, ‘therapies from around the world,’ and swim-up pool bars. At last, the thousand year bathing experience will be able to compete with the facilities at a Benidorm all-inclusive.
Blackmore brought up an interesting comparison between German and British bathing cultures: “There are definitely more hippie nudist people here who like to swim in muddy waters, but British people are similarly crazy for swimming in cold water.”
Here in Greater Manchester, you’ll often see people braving the waters of Salford Quays. The experience is not open to all Mancunians, however. It was revealed by The Mill that four of the hotspots for dumping untreated sewage are to be found within north Manchester. Crumpsall’s River Irk had untreated sewage poured into it for over 2,200 hours in 2022, something to put both local swimmers and anglers off.
Therme Group base their bathing offer on “research showing that access to water and nature, physical activity, thermal bathing and associated therapies have a positive preventative and therapeutic impact.”
One hopes Manchester’s polluted rivers will not be used for their therapeutic effects.
Therme Manchester is expected to open in late 2025.
Picture credit: Therme Group