Like ghosts in the mist, white hooded bodies move silently through the 200 year old wooden structure. The dense fog strangles the senses as sight and sound are distorted. Slowly, the bodies pace back and forth. The only noise is the faint trickle of water. These pilgrims come to the Keltenbad spa (or Celtic Bath) in Bad Salzungen, Germany for “The Cure.” As I quickly learned, the Keltenbad Bad Salzungen is like very few places on earth.
For over a thousand years, this small valley in the Germany’s Thueringen region was known to possess natural springs of salt water. Salt, being an important and expensive commodity, brought early wealth to the region. Even today, the town of Bad Salzungen has many beautiful old buildings and the town has a posh charm of a city far larger than its 15,000 inhabitants.
In Bad Salzungen, the evaporation method was used – the water was boiled off and the salt crystals that were left behind could be harvested. The town museum has very well done display showing this process. The process of harvesting salt was made more efficient by increasing the salt concentrations in the water (brine). The water from the salt water springs (3-4% salt concentration) is dripped down 30-foot high walls of twigs. Water evaporates and leaves the remaining brine concentration at a much higher percentage (12%). This increases the efficiency during the evaporation process.
But what on earth does this have to do with a spa? Over the years, it was discovered that breathing the air with the small aerosol droplets of salt water improved the health of people with respiratory conditions. They called the process “The Cure.” And the massive walls that were used in the industrial process of collecting the salt were perfect for this use. Before the turn of the 20th Century, respiratory therapies in Bad Salzungen became very popular.
Fast forward to today, a massive spa complex called the Keltenbad has been erected in Bad Salzungen. Built in the year 2000, the Keltenbad spa provides treatments and compliments a number of medical clinics in the town specializing in respiratory and musculoskeletal disorders. The Keltenbad spa complex features the original 200 year old evaporation walls where visitors walk like ghosts in the mist, two saltwater pools, nearly a dozen different saunas in an area called SOLE Saunaland, as well as traditional spa services like massage and aromatherapy.
I visited the Keltenbad Bad Salzungen on a cold winter day. My first observation was noticing the hooded white figures moving silently along the evaporation walls and wondering what on earth they were doing. I joined them in their silent vigil. Walking along the evaporation walls and breathing in the salt droplets was relaxing. I don’t know that I received any particular health benefits from the experience, but I’m guessing you need to experience this more than once.
Since Bad Salzungen literally means a spa town with salt water, the Keltenbad pools are naturally salty and are warm, but not completely a “hot springs.” The main pool has a 2% salt concentration, which gave me a slight natural lift in the water. The pool is round, but there were a couple of alcoves with benches take a rest. About twice an hour, a little siren would sound and everyone would rush into the pool. I’ll admit to being completely perplexed by this until I felt a moderate current begin to circulate. For about five minutes, the current would push everyone around in a counter clockwise direction – a kind of lazy river inside the pool. It was great fun for children and adults alike.
The second pool at the Celtic Bath is the Salt Pot. This small pool has a 15% brine solution and makes you float like you are at the Dead Sea. I felt completely weightless in the pool and closed my eyes while bobbing on the surface. It was a surreal experience.
However, the Keltenbad’s premier attraction lies beyond a sturdy door: SOLE Saunaland. Passing through the door, I had to swipe my wristband to get into the Saunaland. An infographic was attached to the metal turnstile and indicated that bathing suits must not be worn and the sauna was totally natural. Passing beyond the juice bar and a few sitting chairs, an elderly couple was coming out of one sauna completely naked. A few steps away, a very attractive young woman came out of an open shower, also completely naked. No effort was made to cover up with towels or robes. The Keltenbad is not nudist per se and I seemed to be the only person taking an interest in this.
There was only one option: experience the Keltenbad like a local. I stripped the swimming trunks, hung up my robe on a hook, and walked proudly nude into my first sauna with my towel in my hand. I have been in many saunas in the United States, but each has been a kind of inauthentic sauna experience. This was the real deal.
The whole sauna culture at the Keltenbad had a kind of ritual to it. I just tried to follow the locals and not make a fool of myself. Times were posted on a large board hanging on one wall. At the appointed hour, there was a mass rush into one of the saunas. The door was propped open and an employee came in. From a bucket, she poured water and an essential oil onto the hot stones. The locals called this ceremony “Aufguss” (which, as near as I can tell, seems to translate into “pouring” in English). A ‘do not enter’ sign was placed on the door and the door was closed. The employee proceeded to whip a hot towel over her head and then push hot air on each and every person in the sauna. She must have made the whipping motion over a hundred times. It was quite a workout for her. And then it was half time. A few folks bolted from the sauna, but everyone else stayed for a repeat of the towel whipping show. The whole ceremony lasted about 25 minutes. After, we all rushed naked out into the gender-segregated showers for a cold rinse.
There are about a dozen different saunas in the Keltenbad’s SOLE Saunaland. Some focus on salt inhalation, some are a wet sauna, and some are a dry heat. One looks like a hobbit hole straight out of the Lord of the Rings movies and has a fireplace inside. There are also three or four relaxation rooms where guests can sit in the quiet, take a nap or read a book. I spent over two hours popping between the various sauna rooms and experiencing their differences.
My relaxation was further enhanced through a couple of spa services. Above the saunas, the Keltenbad has a first class spa. I enjoyed an amazing massage at the hands of very strong masseuse. Then I had some kind of wrap procedure. I was wrapped in a blanket, then wrapped in plastic and partially submerged in a tank of warm water. The room had both aromatherapy and lights that changed colors. It was quite the experience!
From ghosts in the mist to the incredible relaxation of hot saunas, the Keltenbad Bad Salzungen is one of the most remarkable spa facilities I’ve experienced anywhere in the world.
Keltenbad Visiting Information
Location: The Keltenbad Spa is located right along the river in town at Solbadhotel 4, 36433 Bad Salzungen. It sits at the end of a small private road right off the Bahnhofstrasse. There is a private car park. It is also possible to visit the Keltenbad via train via the hourly trains from Eisenach. It is a very short 3-minute walk from the train station to the spa.
Hours: The Keltenbad is open from 10:30am 10:00pm daily.
Prices: A full day ticket is €20.00.
Dining: There are two restaurants on site. The traditional Café Saline serves spa favorites like fish and salads, as well as heartier dishes of steak. I had a large salad and the Hawaiian Toast came highly recommended by a local (and looked delicious). Inside the Keltenbad, the Vital Bar serves light snacks and juices.
Services: There is a single mixed gender locker room. There are changing cabins for privacy, although most of the locals change in the open. Lockers come in a range of sizes and are locked using your wristband.
While in Weimar, Germany, I was the grateful guest of the German National Tourist Board and the Keltenbad spa. As always, all opinions are my own.