One day, I’ll have a travel blog. Or better yet, a TV show. I’ll explore the world – nay, the universe – trying exotic foods (after someone’s tasted them first) or dangerous activities (shot strategically by my camera crew). Or maybe I’ll be the real deal and do all those things without a safeguard. Either way, I’ll certainly get paid.
Until then, I’ll leave out the laundry list of details that led me to this remote spot along in the Dolomites of Italy, and instead focus on an experience I feel is worth sharing with the masses. Because I know the readership on this blog is growing at breakneck pace. Twitter, watch out.
Understandably and unfortunately I was unable to snap an actual photo of this experience, so the photo I’ve shared is one from earlier today, while I was traipsing the mountains in a smashingly successful first attempt at cross country skiing. Breathtaking, no? Paradise? Perhaps, if I quote my ski instructor Barbara, who had been skiing since she was 2 years old. Alternate universe? Certainly.
Now then. On with the story.
I wandered the carpeted halls of my hotel, looking for the sauna.
It had taken quite a bit of detective work over the past 24 hours to figure out (a) that there was a sauna and (b) when I should plan to go. The amenities were printed exclusively in German or Italian, and only 20% of the staff was 50% fluent in English, while I had failed to brush up on – oh yeah – my nonexistent German and Italian speaking skills prior my arrival. This wasn’t the only confusing thing about the hotel. It was shaped in such a way that was perfectly mismatched to my utter lack of instinctual directional sense; the first night of my stay, I spent a good ten minutes trying to hack my way into a stranger’s room, convinced I had mis-remembered my room number as 318 instead of 381, because I simply couldn’t fathom the room number 381 into existence, after wandering the halls hopelessly for ten more minutes immediately before.
But now I knew where the sauna was, and when to go. I plodded assuredly along the red embroidered carpet to the spa, strategically clothed in a plush hotel robe and – pause for gasp – absolutely nothing underneath. To the right laid the Family Spa, where costume (or clothing) was required. To the left laid the Adult Spa, where incomprehensible but certainly delicious water-based luxuries awaited, only accessible by those in the nude. I took a deep breath of confidence and swiped my hotel key. The glass door slid open slowly.
The inside revealed a space so suggestively large that magick was certainly afoot. Relaxing curved wooden furniture. A variety of fruit infused cooling drinks. At least five different doors, leading to five different destinations, all labeled in language completely foreign to my eyes.
A woman entered, but she looked too purposeful and naked under her robe for me to disturb. A couple entered. Similar assessment. I wandered the room, waiting for someone who seemed like they worked there to appear. I could have started opening doors at random, but I have no shame in admitting I was just a healthy bit afraid of whipping open a door only to be greeted by something old and scraggly and horrifyingly nude. I drank some water as a stalling tactic, trying not to appear like some weird obviously foreign Asian girl stalking peaceful sauna goers; probably failing. I exited the sliding glass doors to wait in the reception area, nearly catching my robe in the process. There was no discernible way to open the sliding glass door from the inside of the spa, not that I could tell. I mean, I know that’s not possible, but the mechanism to open the doors certainly wasn’t the same as how you came in. Really? Why? Was this some sort of maze meant to weed out Americans so the Germans and Italians could sauna in peace? I refused to surrender.
To be perfectly honest, earlier that day, I had almost reneged on the whole sauna idea, along with the cross country skiing adventure, all because I felt tired. (Understandable, after an eight hour flight overseas, followed immediately by an eight hour drive through the mountains, to reach an altitude at which I feel confident no man was meant to live.) The only reason I did do these things – and yes, however poorly you think this story is going, I did successfully sauna – was to uphold a certain brand – to myself, to people I know, to strangers altogether. I want to be this adventurous, answer-seeking, gutsy and just a tad smart, free spirit. And so I be. At first I had an allergic reaction to the thought, but I’ve come to be entirely OK with that. What is real but the life I choose to live, even if it’s not always easy to choose to live it? I’m only in Italy on a grand adventure at all because of a series of choices, because I happened to impulsively decide to travel solo to Thailand last year, and I decided to continue the tradition this year, because do I need a better reason than the storybook allure and romance of it all, and wasn’t I having just the best of times?
Given my dogged pursuit, it was eventual but inevitable that I learned how to navigate the labyrinth of a sauna. I stared hard across an expanse of dipping pools, at the entrance of the Infinity sauna, where men and women alike were already gathering and shedding their robes on the hooks outside, some of them walking naked across the courtyard. I grabbed a couple towels and made determined steps towards the light.
Robe went on the hook. Towel was safely around me. Second towel in my hand. I entered the room.
In the center of the room was a big long furnace, on top of which laid plentiful hot rocks. Around the room sat 10 to 15 men and women of varying age, as naked as kingdom come. A blast of heat hit my face as I looked around the room for a place to sit. Looked without looking, that is. I found an opening to the right and sat down quickly, towel still around me, second towel at my feet.
The woman who ran the sauna program walked in. I’ll call her Sauna Girl. She wore a bright blue bandeau top with black bottoms, and grinned when she saw me. She knew this would be a new experience for me, given how confused I had been as she tried to explain the spa to me a few minutes prior.
Everyone seemed geared up in anticipation. Only one woman still had a towel around her body. I gritted my teeth and told myself, Don’t be a prudish American! before shedding my towel to join the naked Germans next to me. Heat started eating at my body, but not unpleasantly. This was easily the hottest sauna I had ever experienced.
Sauna Girl proceeded to introduce herself, and the sauna we were about to experience. First would be coffee. Then lemongrass. Then anise. An energy sauna, this was called.
Then with another grin, she started the music. An acoustic rendition of Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi. I knew then and there that I was going to like whatever the heck happened next.
Half dancing, half hopping around the bed of hot rocks, Sauna Girl placed big mysterious translucent balls onto the rocks. She artfully tossed ice on top like a sundae topping. She ladled water in too. Then she picked up a towel and proceeded to whip the towel and dance about the room, sending air now fragrant with coffee in great whiffs at everyone sitting in place.
At first I thought this was a playful thing. It wasn’t long before I realized it was purposeful and a part of the ritual. She danced around the room to the beat of Bon Jovi. There was an art to how she was spinning the towel that I was convinced would take me years to master.
The song ended. Time for the next set of aroma. She laid three more big translucent balls onto the hot rocks. These were lemongrass. Sauna Girl danced that lemongrass away, blasted our bodies and our faces with hot lemony air.
Now came the third and last song. It’s My Life, by Bon Jovi again. Full rock original. Sauna Girl turned up the volume by a few notches, and the naked man sitting across from me started bobbing his head to the music, after which I felt I could do the same. Oh, OK, got it, this is like a cool rocking kind of sauna. I can be into that. I can be super into that.
Again, Sauna Girl laid big fragrant balls onto the hot rocks. Anise. This time she went extra with the ice and water. She danced a frenzy, spinning a towel in each hand with such energy I legitimately thought she might booty bump hot rocks onto the floor. The heat jacked up a few levels. I closed my eyes as she came around. By now every pore in my body was dripping. It crossed my mind to wonder if certain bits and tips of me were getting slightly cooked at this point. It was a good kind of pain. I bobbed my head to Bon Jovi. I took it all in.
The song’s final notes trailed off, and Sauna Girl gave us a great big smile. We clapped for that glorious finale. I was second out the door, not sure how much more heat my body could take, not wanting to be that dumb American who passed out in the sauna and had to be carried out, naked, by a group of naked Italians.
I chugged the cold orange juice with lemon and looked up. I realized for the first time that this whole magical maze of pools and saunas was actually outside. My body was light. My aches from before had melted away with the ice on the rocks. I gazed up at the open night sky and breathed cool mountain air.