by Elizabeth Heath
The first time I encountered Aufguss, I turned and walked away, as quickly as my floppy spa slippers would carry me.
It was day one of our stay at Hotel Quelle, a luxury wellness resort in Italy’s mountainous South Tyrol, and I was exploring the hotel’s 10 themed saunas on my own while my husband and daughter napped.
As I approached the “event sauna,” I stopped dead in my tracks: before me, in stadium-style wooden benches on the other side of a large picture-window wall, were dozens of naked people. Music was blaring from within, and everyone’s attention was focused on a bikini-clad woman who was dancing and waving a towel in the billowing steam.
My first impression was that she was an overzealous sauna-goer who decided to liven things up, or that I’d stumbled upon some kind of private naked sauna party. Was she stripping? Was there a pole in that sauna?
I turned heel and headed for the hot tub.
A day later, when my husband, Paolo, and I were scurrying out of the snow sauna (exactly what it sounds like—a -5C, snow-filled chamber with an ice bench) saying “cold cold cold!” and scrambling for our robes, another sauna-goer laughed at us sympathetically.
“It’s really important to cool down your body temperature after the hot sauna,” he said. As we imagined hot mugs of tea in front of a warm fire, he explained that he was a sauna meister and a proponent of Aufguss, a sauna ritual where the presenter pours water and essential oils over the hot stones of the sauna, then uses a towel to fan hot, oil-infused steam onto attendees.
Modern Aufguss adds music and lighting, while Show Aufguss incorporates theatrical-type performances, costumes and special effects.
Ahhh, so she wasn’t pole-dancing. She was Aufgussing!
Our new sauna meister pal was Nicola Gozio, a champion Aufgussmeister, and a practitioner of Show Aufguss, where he creates mini-dramas that tell a story and arouse emotion. His favorite, of a young boy who wants to be a fireman, often leaves his audience in tears.
Gozio explained that in the last 10 years or so, the popularity of Aufguss has exploded in the South Tyrol, to the point that the every spa hotel worth its salt scrub now offers the sauna ritual. Especially at hotels whose clientele are primarily Austrian and German—the South Tyrol was once part of Austria and German is still the majority language spoken there—Aufguss, it seems, is an imperative.
“Aufguss is already common in the German-speaking world,” explained Manuel Steinmare, a third-generation hotelier who runs Hotel Quelle with his parents and siblings, “and those guests expect to find it here.”
Italian guests, like my husband, who also make up a good chunk of the hotel’s business, are less used to the extremes—not to mention the extremities bared—during Aufguss. “For Germans, it’s totally normal to be naked in the sauna,” explained Steinmare. “Italians need some convincing, but once they experience Aufguss, they are surprised and pleased.”
Claudia Köllemann, spa director at Preidlhof – Luxury DolceVita Resort near Merano, Italy, agrees that for spa hotels of a certain level, Aufguss has become as essential as eucalyptus oil: “People have really started understanding the good effects of sauna, and of sweating with infusions, and that sauna is about more than just getting warm” she said. “While Aufguss is still a novelty to some of our guests, many come here because of it.”
The Aufguss equivalent of a Do Not Disturb sign was already on the hammam door when we arrived, and Gozio was waiting for us. I started one of those not-so-deft moves of wrapping my towel around my torso while I still had my robe on, hoping he and the other spa-goers milling around would get only minimal glimpses of my nakedness. I was out of luck.
“No towels, naked only,” Gozio ordered, at which point Paolo balked. So I hung up my towel and followed the Aufgussmeister, naked and alone, into the steam clouds of the dark hammam.
Gozio, who was clad in a sauna skirt (sauna meisters always perform clothed), turned on a portable—and presumably humidity-proof—stereo. The lights of the dimly lit hammam changed color as the music played, and Gozio passed a wooden bowl of homemade fruit and essential oils scrub, offering us each a small cupful.
As we scrubbed, he started to fan a towel, which had the effect of moving hot steam around the room. Spinning the towel over his head in a windmill motion, he pushed hot air upwards, downwards and laterally, pausing before each person to give them a personal blast of air. As the scrub would slough off with our sweat, he’d pass the bowl again, and we’d reapply.
By day three of our stay, my dear Italian husband had grown more at ease with all the Teutonic nakedness, and we were ready to try Aufguss in the event sauna. Unlike the hammam, where temperatures are a steamy 42C with 95% humidity, the Finnish-style event sauna tops out at a lung-searing 85-95C, with humidity of only around 10%.
The dry heat is intense on its own; add the air-pushing and swirling properties of Aufguss and the effect is disarmingly powerful. To help attendees cool off, the two Aufgussmeisters running this session passed around a bucket of snowballs, which melted into our skin as we rubbed them on.
Gozio later told me that Aufguss is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. “People think that it’s just flipping a towel around,” he explained, “but with the music, the oils, the lights, and our passion for Aufguss…it’s a concentration of so many elements.”
And he’s right; it’s difficult to convey the intensity of Aufguss. It’s dizzyingly multi-sensorial—the combination of lights and sound, the heady aroma of essential oils, the blasts of hot air and, of course, all that sweating, stimulate feelings that are at turns cathartic, meditative, invigorated, sensual and joyful, sometimes all at once.
“Flipping a towel around” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
If you want to experience Aufguss, try one of these South Tyrol spa hotels:
Hotel Quelle offers three Aufguss sessions per day year-round, with champion Nicola Gozio presenting Show Aufguss on weekends. The family-friendly resort offers packages that include accommodations, gourmet meals, sauna access and scheduled outdoor excursions.
Preidlhof Hotel & Spa, an adults-oriented luxury resort in the region, also offers an event sauna with Aufguss rituals. The resort’s restaurant was recently awarded a coveted Michelin star.
Active Hotel Olympic is a small, modern hotel offering themed rooms, regional cuisine and a sauna with Aufguss rituals.
Elizabeth Heath is a travel and culinary writer living in central Italy. She is a proponent of responsible, sustainable travel that forges connections and benefits local communities. Read more of her work at elizabethfheath.com.