Bathing Rituals of an Alpine Spa
Photo courtesy of Therme Vals
I recommend you try Switzerland for a good bath. To be more precise: an internationally celebrated, meticulously designed, town-owned thermal bath in an Alpine commune.
The Therme was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor, and his sensory approach to building can be felt in every slab of locally quarried stone.
But first, you’ll need to have your wits about you for the drive from Zurich — which involves barreling through mountain tunnels and hugging roads as they swerve around sheep outposts, tiny temples that look like dollhouses, and thin streams of water diving off grassy cliffs.
Eventually you’ll approach the town, along with its fudge stripes and wooden shutters carved with hearts. A few more turns, and you’ll end up at the base of a massive minimalist construction. Hotel Therme is a ’60s silhouette, a retro-futuristic hotel cradled in an ancient valley of the Alps. The spa, which accesses the town’s natural spring, lives below the seventh floor lobby. It's a communal enterprise, so you don’t need to be a hotel guest to enjoy it — but there are advantages to checking in (like early morning and late-night access).
Now the spa is a thing of integrity, a pared-down place of pilgrimage. Indeed, it has the feeling of an old cathedral — there's solemnity and weightiness when moving from one pool of water to the next.
Which gives you a chance to appreciate the details of these water rituals. In one perfume-scented room, steps descend into a cool bath filled with millions of tiny yellow petals. In the sound grotto, accessible through a narrow passageway, sounds bounce off walls like a tuning fork and resonate in your fingertips. At the drinking stone, water flows directly from the mountain into little brass cups. Rays of light pour in from slits in the ceiling, creating shadows and pockets of sun near the lounge chairs. A swim channel connects an indoor pool to an outdoor one, framed by Alps and sky. One evening in summer, just before midnight, I joined the bathers floating silently on their backs, and watched shooting stars hurl themselves across the galaxy.
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FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE
"The Ascension of Peter Zumthor" (NYT)
"Water With an Edge" (WSJ)