Merano is another small, charming Italian city nestled in a fertile valley between split ranges of gray-capped mountains dusted with snow. Here is where kings liked to summer, drawn by its noble-born inhabitants and the glowing, white stone of which its buildings are, well, built. The jewel of its tourism, however, is to be found within the Merano Thermal Baths.
Several large pools of steaming water are dotted with people splashing about and basking in the late afternoon sun that is soon to slip behind the soft ridge of a green mountain. Jacuzzis sparkle here and there offering highly coveted seats to the bathers, who chat and laugh in their respective tongues: Italian, mostly, but also the German of Austria, Switzerland and Germany herself. We swam about for a while in warm waters which extended outdoors into the cool mountain air before retreating for a light snack in the cafeteria. Our next destination within the spa was to be the sauna…
Once we passed beyond the gate which we opened with our wrist passes, beyond which only adults are permitted, I was soon to experience a phenomenon so European I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it coming. We found some lounge chairs together in a quiet corner and it was suggested that we go sit in the steam room for a bit. “But we go naked, covered only with our towels until we get there.” I paused… Was I ready? I’m an experienced traveler, not terribly ugly, and I did live in the hedonist paradise of Provincetown for quite some time… Could I really get naked and run around a spa for two hours?
Yes, yes I could. And I did. After my moment’s hesitation, I modestly stripped off my very American swim trunks–everyone else was in a Speedo… or nothing at all–and wrapped my towel around my waist as it seemed only appropriate. Lo, and behold, several dozens of Europeans who were walking about as if they had never been clothed in their lives, uncircumcised penises swinging like fleshy ornaments on odd trees, breasts bouncing perkily (or not) and ever so proudly beneath the dignified gazes of unabashed women. In the steam room, couples scrubbed each other with handfuls of sea salt as they soaked in the steamy half-light. I spent the first ten minutes with my hands placed modestly on my legs, not fully hiding my manhood because truth be told I have nothing of which to be ashamed, but modestly nonetheless as I acquainted myself to the feeling of celebrated public nudity.
After the steam room, and the recovery of my towel and flip-flops, we pondered what to take on next. As we stood by the door leading to the outside jacuzzi and its neighboring cold bath, a pair of what I was told to be Sicilians marched by, unceremoniously nude, and went straight through the door and plopped themselves into the cold bath. It’s true that a cold bath after a hot sauna is the best gift the skin can receive and I watched bemusedly and amusedly as this bit of scientific fact was tested and proven beyond the hypothetical before my very eyes. Perkier, and, for him, a bit smaller, they marched back inside and proceeded to their next stop. I opted for the sauna next and, after being briefly berated by the attendant for not having left my sandals at the door, I found some quiet comfort in the dark room, as I sweat out my inhibitions, naked on a soft towel, stretched across the hot wood bench.
We spent the next twenty minutes in the jacuzzi outside where I was befriended by a nice Italian man, 40-something with good hair and pretty eyes. He and his friends began chatting me up, as it was obvious that I was the only American in northern Italy that day. I am not fluent in Italian, so conversation is challenging, but I learned many tricks during my days as a server in the restaurants of Provincetown, and I am sure that he thought I understood every word he said. Apparently he was attracted to me but I honestly couldn’t tell… All Italian men have the style and the energetic presence of gay men. Too bad for me, as I have been suffering whiplash getting glimpses of the treasures of Italy, only to be reminded by the unreturned glimpse that, Oh, sorry, I know that everything I’m wearing would make me look like a homosexual in America, but alas, I’m just goodlooking and stylish.
I’m beginning to become convinced that the old American adage is the reverse here: All the goodlooking ones are actually straight, in Italy.
After an interesting fifteen minutes in another sauna where an amusing old man held a hell-hot holy court as he swung a towel around pushing waves of steamed heat which carried rosemary and lemon around the room to singe my nostrils, I took a quick dip in the cold bath. Before I passed out from the extreme change in body temperature, I was fed a few pieces of apple, and the sugar abated the hangover. We had a fresh pressed juice as I said goodbye to my new friend, who I still couldn’t tell was gay, until just after he left and my friends told me so. I was only briefly disappointed by having missed out on my first European daddy, but quickly found consolation in the continued evidence of my outward grace and beauty. As you read this, you may be questioning the inward counterparts… I assure you, they are still there, and I am only pulling your leg.
Outside the spa, Merano was jammed with thousands of tourists who came from far and near to partake in the giant Christmas Market (“mercato di Natale” or “Christkindlmarkt”). Hundreds of vendors in cute wooden stands purveying cheeses and breads and soaps and clothes and booze and sausages, as the mountains retreat into shadow and the twinkle of strings of holiday lights outnumber the unseen stars. We wandered for a while in the throng before returning to the car and to Moena, the even smaller mountain valley village where I was spending the weekend. Thankfully, the crowds were missing along with the winter snows, although for the local economy which depends on wintry weather to welcome ski-happy tourists, the sparse streets are probably rather dire. Fully clothed and jacketed, I reflected on the time I spent naked with the Europeans, and was glad. And my skin was glowing.
Merano Thermal Baths
Piazza Terme 9
tel. +39 0473 252 000