sauna room at hotel chalet mirabell facing trees and mountains

Most well-traveled Americans know that in some parts of Europe, people are relaxed about public coed nudity. Experience has shown me that when spa attendants say swimsuits are optional in saunas, only uptight transatlantic tourists will be wearing them. I wasn’t even surprised when I visited a Slovenian ski resort last year and was told that swimwear was forbidden. 

Fine with me. I’ve never been a fan of sweating in spandex. 

But even I was surprised by my first foray into the world of the “event sauna.” Now that habits have changed and the boozy après-ski no longer holds so much appeal, mountain resorts in the southern Alps have gone all in on wellness, dedicating entire floors to hot and cool pools, steam baths, and, above all saunas. 

mountains covered with greenery in avelengo italy
Image by Adem Krasniqi via Unsplash

There are saunas with alpine views and infrared cinemas. There are saunas that are just somewhat pleasantly warm, and there are saunas that make you wonder about spontaneous hair combustion. And now there’s a whole world of live sauna entertainment. 

Such entertainment is called aufgussloosely translated as “infusion” in German, though that’s only part of the story — and my first attempt at enjoying it was in the Tyrol region of Austria, at a family-owned mountain resort near Salzburg. As I’ve established, I have no problem with coed sauna nudity. But we live in a society, and clothing still seems like a good idea in places like elevators.

So I stepped out of the elevator on the spa floor in my sweater and jeans, thinking there would be a changing room where I could pre-robe in preparation to disrobe. I didn’t make it that far. A young man (wearing a swimsuit!) barked at me in German in the corridor. When I apologized for not speaking his language, he switched to English: “This is a textile-free zone!” 

I gave up. Sweating with naked strangers is fine, but I’ll draw the line at rude ones. I waited until my next stop, another family-owned hotel across the border in the Italian Dolomites. 

spa room at hotel chalet mirabell with a view of snow capped mountains in italy
Courtesy of Hotel Chalet Mirabell

When I checked in at Hotel Chalet Mirabell, I received a list of meal and activity times, as well as a sauna performance schedule. There were “classic aufguss,” “modern aufguss,” and “relax aufguss” sessions, each of which lasted about 15 minutes. I was resolved to try, and so I changed in my room and wore my robe in the elevator. This did the trick, and I was granted access to the adults-only section of the wellness floor. 

Past the various small saunas and relaxation rooms, I found the event sauna, which seated 30 people comfortably. Of course, there were more rules: it’s BYO towel for sitting, and I was gently corrected for not also keeping a towel beneath my feet. A few women remained somewhat wrapped up, but most people seemed comfortable to bare it all. Parts are parts, and we all have them. The manspreading was a surprise. 

I looked at the floor until the performers — called aufguss masters — walked in. Thankfully, they wore towels around their potentially distracting parts. 

someone tossing a towel over rocks in the sauna room at hotel chalet mirabell in italy
Courtesy of Hotel Chalet Mirabell

Aufguss takes its name — and its legit wellness bona fides — from the infusion aspect of the whole thing. The aufguss masters are there primarily to douse the hot sauna rocks with water and essential oils, which then infuse the air with beneficial aromas. Then they wave towels over the rocks to increase the heat and steam and waft it around the room. 

This is still their main job. But they also infuse it with a whole lot of showmanship. At Hotel Chalet Mirabell, they arrive with what look like giant snowballs, which they spin around before dropping on the rocks. They dance as they wave their towels, bringing to mind both Olympic rhythmic gymnasts and red sauce joint pizza makers. 

Then there’s the music. During one of the “relax aufguss” sessions, a dancer swayed with her towel as Chris Isaac crooned “Wicked Game” and the windows stayed uncovered to reveal the view. The evening “modern aufguss” sessions were more animated. One evening it was sea shanties — a sort of scrappy club remix of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” (instrumental version) that somehow also called to mind the Pogues. 

closeup of a fireplace facing windows with snow-capped mountain views at hotel chalet mirabell in italy
Courtesy of Hotel Chalet Mirabell

It reached a surreal peak on a Saturday evening, when both aufguss masters performed together, passing the towels back and forth and executing a sort of sweaty pas de deux. As it was after dark, the visuals included both a black light and strobe lights. They poured schnapps on the sauna rocks (while assuring us we wouldn’t get a buzz). A German-language rock song blared the riff from “We Will Rock You,” and 30 strangers smacked naked thighs and clapped hands in unison. 

Afterward, on the terrace, they handed out nonalcoholic beers and encouraged us to take a dip in the naked pool. None of the other guests seemed to think any of this was particularly strange. 

In fact, the hotel’s general manager thought it was strange that I’d never heard of the aufguss before. It’s such a popular activity in the Dolomites that the hotel has periodic Sauna Weeks, during which they put on six aufguss performances per day, plus banya birch-beating sessions first thing in the morning. 

And it turns out that aufguss is a thing far beyond the Alps. There are world championships, a sort of Eurovision of steam, and even the U.S. and Canada will be competing. There’s also a separate World Cup. There’s a whole circuit, in fact, and a big following. One of this year’s main competitions will be held in the Netherlands in September, with tickets starting at 100€ a pop. The finals are already sold out. 

Featured image courtesy of Hotel Chalet Mirabell

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