Fiona Laughton spends a day at Berlin’s newest spa…
As a native Australian, my exposure to public nudity has been limited to the occasional backyard sunbake – which probably lasted about 15 minutes before I turned a rather un-Australian shade of red (shout out to my Irish heritage).
Despite the casual, easygoing nature of the Aussies, our attitude to public nudity is often quasi-British in its prudishness, bolstered by the harshness of those Down Under UV rays. In fact, there’s only a handful of beaches out of ten thousand where nudism is even permitted.
My first experience of Freikörperkultur (known as FKK and translated as Free Body Culture) came in 2013 when I migrated to Germany and attended a music festival where – as with the gym and public pools – showering naked in groups was apparently de rigeur. Luckily the facilities at this particular music festival ranked high in the cleanliness stakes, but unexpectedly having to shower alongside around 30 other naked people was quite the shocker.
Freikörperkultur (FKK) has its origins in the Wandervogel movement, a youth movement that since 1901 has advocated quite a ‘slow travel’ philosophy, dedicated to “shaking off the restrictions of society and getting back to nature and freedom”. The movement was an immediate hit with spirited young Germans intent on exploring nature “like wandering birds”, completely at ease with their nudity.
As I witnessed at the music festival, the nudist culture remains fairly pervasive even in big cities, hence the latest day spa to be constructed in Berlin, Vabali, is decidedly textile-frei, which means swimming costumes are strictly verboten in all wet areas such as the swimming pools and saunas.
Upon arrival, I check my clothes into my locker, wrap myself in a robe, grab my darkest pair of sunglasses and a book and make a beeline for the bar. It’s not even 11:00am and my friends and I kick things off with a Hugo, a delicious spritz hailing from Austria featuring Elderflower cordial, prosecco, sparkling water, mint and lime. It’s Vabali’s signature cocktail and a spa that isn’t pretentious about serving alcohol before noon is exactly the kind of place I need in my life.
The entire resort – a sprawling 20,000 square metres – is the biggest therme in the whole of Berlin and Brandenburg. They’ve done a genuinely authentic job of invoking the, dare I say it, chilled out vibes of Bali, with most of the teak shipped in all the way from Indonesia. In hidden corners of the perfectly manicured gardens, you’ll see a Buddha facing off with Ganesh, as well as plentiful amounts of daybeds and private pavilions – perfect for couples or individuals seeking even more solitude.
In fact, the indulgence runs wild and free at Vabali. The obvious adornments are available to hire, such as robes (fluffy winter ones or cotton summer ones, take your pick) and slippers (which can take home!), and the restaurant-bar serves a pan-Asian and vegan-friendly menu and everything from bio-smoothies, teas to standard beers and wines. And get this: smoking is even permitted (in restricted areas).
One cocktail down and I realise my only responsibility of the day is to arrive to my massage appointment on time. I’ve booked mine ahead, but I realise once I’m there that the slick touch screen displays allow you to book a whole variety of treatments spontaneously with a quick scan of the wrist band.
Needless to say this is both convenient and dangerous. The seriously cashed up can even splurge on private Day Spa Suites which are fitted out with massage tables, bathtubs for two and showers and receive wellness treatments in a romantic atmosphere.
My massage therapist Anja works what can only be described as therapeutic magic. I booked the Klassiker Massage and what follows is a dreamy 50-minute full body rub down that’s equal parts relaxing and reinvigorating. Starting off face down naked on the table, I don’t blink an eye when she invites me to roll over, doing so with such body confidence that I feel I’ve notched up yet another win for cultural assimilation. It’s a pleasing moment.
Vabali’s almost disorientating dimensions make it fun to explore, trying out the different saunas and steam rooms (all included in the entrance fee) along the way. There are female-only saunas, indoor and outdoor aromatherapy saunas, garden saunas, saunas with a view, Russian-style saunas and more. There’s an onsite gym if you want to blend your chill-time with some cardiovascular action. There’s even a special darkened room dedicated purely to sleeping.
One of the lighter moments of the day is entering a sauna filled with naked bodies whilst a staff member paces back and forth flicking a pomegranate-scented towel vigorously back and forth as the room gets hotter… and hotter…. and eventually reaches Dante’s Inferno levels.
It’s the longest 15 minutes of my life and I immediately launch myself into the nearest cold plunge pool, celebrating the steamy ordeal with a water bottle and numerous buckets of ice.
The other neat thing about Vabali is that it’s kitted out to be enjoyed all year around. On humid summer days you can take an outdoor sun-lounger and you really will be transported from Moabit to Seminyak. When temperatures plummet, the outdoor pool area is heated to an inviting 30c and scheduled events such as DJs and complimentary head and facial massages taking place in the Classic Lounge (check the website for the monthly schedule).
Many Germans may be used to public nudity, but for those who are new to it, Vabali offers an easy and relaxed atmosphere for baring all. By the time I’m ready to leave, my relaxation levels have hit “bliss” and I’m happily swanning around in front of friends and strangers alike without a care in the world.