Note: None of these pictures are mine, because I tend to be too busy to take any pictures whenever I visit a Therme.
It’s somewhat surprising how much Austrians love water, being a land-locked country and all.
There’s no ocean, no sea in sight, with the closest major body of water – the Adriatic – about a 6 hour drive away. Nevertheless (or, perhaps, therefore), once the slightest sliver of warmth shines through after a long winter, Austrians flock to the nearest river, lake or pond, treating each one as if it were Waikiki beach. Sand is brought in and scattered along major and minor bodies of water from the Danube to the tiny pond down the street, and people lay out under umbrellas and on beach chairs, sipping wine and slathering on sunscreen. Maybe it’s a reaction to the four long months of constant snow, or the indignation at not having a coastline of their own, but during the summer, on a hot day, it’s hard to find an Austrian anywhere but near the water. The city shuts down. Entire families take off work. Austrians take summer – and water – seriously.
So what are they to do in the wintertime? Or what if the riverside is full, or what if they prefer chlorinated water to lake water? Austrians have a solution for that. They’re called Thermes.
You’ve probably heard of a thermal bath – a pool or hot spring using natural thermal water piped from underground. You Okies have Hot Springs, Arkansas just a couple of hours away. This is the original concept of a Therme (“tear-ma”), and historically Austria and Germany have had a lot of them. Germany has Baden-Baden and Austria has Baden, two small towns renowned for their thermal baths. The Habsburgs were known to frequent thermal spas, as well as famous Viennese like Beethoven and Freud. Austria especially has a seemingly abundant supply of thermal water, with historic spa towns popping up frequently up and down the Alpine foothills, many of them even established by the Romans in their Roman bath style.
But the connotation of a Therma has morphed from this strictly thermal spa meaning to something even more ubiquitous. You or I might possibly call it a rec center, but the focus isn’t really on sports. It’s kind of like a community pool, except it’s mostly indoors and has an extremely relaxed feel. It’s a combination spa, sauna, relaxation place and kids fun area. It’s everywhere, and it’s a typical weekend getaway, and it’s amazing.
I’ve been to 3 different Thermes now, and they all have the same concept: you pay nothing up front, but receive a wristband that opens your locker and with which you can buy food or pay for extras. You are charged at the end based on how much time you spend. You can spend 3 hours, or – like we did for our anniversary – 9 hours. Every Therme is different, but most have at least 3 or 4 different warm pools (most inside, some connecting to outside pools), hot tubs, underwater massage chairs or jets, plenty of lounge chairs for relaxing or sleeping, a kids area (probably with a couple of slides and a lazy river), at least one restaurant (swim clothing allowed), and probably a sauna area that costs extra (and, well, no clothing is allowed). Most that we’ve been to have an extremely modern feel to them, looking on the outside like a brand new hospital or office building, swathed in glass and angular metal. Some are themed more for adults, with quiet grottos and waterfalls, while others cater more to kids. Regardless, we haven’t yet found a more relaxing way to spend a Saturday in Austria.
The one complaint I’ve had concerns Austrians’ apparent interpretation of “hot”. Maybe it’s an American thing, but when I think “thermal bath” or “hot tub”, I picture at least 100º, 90º at the coolest. Not Austrians. The first time, we thought it was maybe a fluke when we went to the outside “hot” pool and it was no more than 85º – in the dead of winter. The same with what we would call hot tubs. But it wasn’t a fluke – at the two other Thermes we visited, “warm” meant about 75º-80º, and “hot” meant about 85º. Not my definition by far. And I know it’s not just an American thing – the Onsens I visited in Japan were all plenty hot. So this is the one thing about Austrian Thermes that baffles me.
However, that one thing isn’t going to stop me from going back. We have a card that gets us cheap into many of the different Thermes surrounding Vienna, and we plan to make use of it this summer. If you visit, and it tickles your fancy, we’ll take you to one.
We probably won’t take you to the sauna part though.