All I can hear is birdsong and the sonorous babble of water. As I walk through the 350 year old Lichtentaleer Alle, a protected park, looking at exotic trees, an English rose garden and stepping over iron footbridges, I am reminded of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s words, “The position of the town is wonderful. Everything is one garden.” Richard Wagner, Bismarck, Verdi and Brahms … all have been here before me. This town was called Aquae in Roman times and Roman Emperor Caracalla, was one of the earliest people to discover the therapeutic powers of the hot springs, when he built a bath for himself, his horses and his soldiers. The German story-book town of Baden Baden is located in a picturesque flower-strewn valley of the River Oos, in the foothills of the Black Forest.
Even today the hot springs are the raison d’être of this town—200,000 gallons of hot curative waters surge daily from 12 thermal springs. The waters contain minerals like boric acid, silica, magnesium which are touted as a panacea for all ills. My Indian prudery keeps me from “baring it all” at Friedrichsbad, a Roman-Irish bath dating back to 1869, which opened under the guidance of an Irish physician called Dr. Barter, and has a three hour and sixteen stage bathing ritual starting off with a scrub, followed by soaking in pools of differing temperatures and finally being swaddled in a hot towel in a “sleeping room.” This was the spa which inspired Mark Twain to say, “After ten minutes you forget time, after 20 minutes you forget the world.” There is only one dress code here: you have to be in the buff or what the Germans call a “non-textile” bath. My guide informs me that it’s a mixed bathing day
which means members of both sexes in the altogether, will meet during the marathon bath!
I head instead to the Caracalla Therme, which thankfully requires one to wear a swimsuit, and looks like an exclusive club spread over 32,000 square feet with seven different pools, fountains, whirlpools, saunas and solariums. I get a plastic wristband with a locker key and head towards a large dome under which canoodling couples and families share the sybaritic pleasures of warm waters. I wallow for hours in the pools of differing temperatures, loving the super-relaxed vibe here. I end my day at the Salina Sea Salt grotto constructed with salts from the Dead Sea and the Himalayas which helps to strengthen the immune system and cure respiratory problems. I spend a peaceful hour relaxing on a comfortable lounger in the salt room, with pinnacles of salt hanging over me like stalactites.
Our hotel the luxurious Dorint Maison Messmer used to be the Kaiser’s residence and has stunning views of the forest from its windows. Over the next few days, I discover the town with its luxurious Belle Époque villas, tree-lined avenues filled with Ferraris, stylish hotels, attractive cafes and high-end shops. I hear that there are over 1,500 protected buildings in this pint sized town where changes are not permitted without permission.
My favorite is the chestnut lined alley with two rows of elegant boutiques that leads to the Kurhaus which is the social murals on the walls and ceilings and gilded brass chandeliers. Walking through this casino is like going into time travel; its illustrious guest book shows visitors from Aga Khan to Marlene Dietrich who called it the “most beautiful casino in the world.” My favorite is the lavish Florentine room, the casino’s most popular gaming room also called the “Hall of the thousand candles.” Five large chandeliers, sculptures of women and gilded mirrors set the tone. It used to be a ball room and the ceiling comes alive with a celestial orchestra of cupids and angels framed with coats of arms of the Baden towns. I am happy when I hear that 85% of the casino’s takings from gambling are put back into the town’s upkeep, social development, and public works of the town. A casino with a conscience!
The town has more millionaires than any other German city and is a great favorite with rich Arabs, Russians, European aristocrats and spa devotees, many of whom have second homes here. I walk through the Trinkhalle or the Pump room of the town which is an impressive building, with its terracotta stone, Corinthian pillars and ornate loggia decorated with murals of Black forest legends and myths. The building also houses the tourist office, where I take a sip of the local spring water from a faucet—this elixir of youth has been bubbling for centuries, touted for its healing qualities. I follow the writer’s trail to the Dostoevsky House where the famous Russian novelist lived, when he incurred colossal losses, and frittered away his wife’s jewels, playing roulette at the local casino.
My tryst with luxury is at the swish Faberge Museum filled with exquisite treasures like snuff boxes, cigarette cases and silver objects shaped like animals. Located in a 19th century townhouse over four storeys with bullet proof cases and video cameras, this is a collection worth around $1.5 billion.
Offering a contrast is the modernistic Frieder Burda Museum set in the verdant Lichtentaleer Alee, designed by American architect Richard Meier which showcases modern and contemporary art with sleek glass and metal interiors. I take a break from opulence and art, riding one of Europe’s steepest funiculars to Mt Merkur named after the Roman god of commerce, for a panoramic view of the Black Forest and distant France. Once there, I am disappointed by the blanket of mist that enshrouds the peak. Sipping on a hot chocolate I bide my time and am rewarded by the mist clearing as if waved away by a magic wand, revealing a green expanse—rolling hills, and the town at the foothills.
My local friend Anne Greth Paulus tells me that there is no dearth of entertainment in this town—there are horse races, concerts and even ballooning! I am lucky to be in town at the time of the International Old-timers Meet when vintage cars drive here from all across Europe. I speak to the organiser Marc Culas, whose father started this tradition 36 years ago. Marc is a vintage car enthusiast owning fourteen cars himself. He talks with passion about the oldest car present at the meet which is a 3HP Benz Velo from 1899, with a speed of 12 miles per hour! I see people in period costumes with wine glasses in hand posing near their gleaming cars.
Looking at the artful window dressing of chocolate figurines and fancy biscuits, in shops like the iconic Rumpelmayer, makes me forget about my waistline. Cafe Konig with its gilded mirrors and peach interiors claims to be the home of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte, the original version of the Black Forest gateau. Smoked ham and trout is on the local menus as well as Gansewurst, a sausage made from smoked goose and handmade Spaetzle (a noodle specialty of the region). I wash down my meals with the local wine sold in distinctive round Bocksbeutel bottles. My best meal is at the rustic Traube Hotel at the foothills of the vineyards in the small town of Neuweier on the outskirts of the town, followed by a soulful church concert. By the end of my stay in this town, I am bewitched by its positive energy and restorative qualities. Dostoevsky lost his money in this town. Mark Twain lost his rheumatism; Emperor Caracalla lost his arthritic aches and I simply lost my heart to Baden Baden.
Kalpana Sunder is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai.
Fact File For Baden Baden
How To Get There
Fly Lufthansa Airlines from San Francisco to Frankfurt. Baden-Baden can be reached easily from Frankfurt airport within one and a half hours by train.
Where To Stay
Stay at the luxurious Dorint Maison Messmer which used to be Maison Messmer—the Kaiser’s summer residence and has stunning views of the forest and hills from its windows. It is fabulously located just next to the Kurhaus and the casino and a short walk from the thermal baths. It has two restaurants and a royal spa. Doubles start at around 270 Euros per night. Visit http://www.dorint.com/en
Where To Eat
Have a meal at the Restaurant Stahlbad (Augustaplatz 2) Tel:+49 7221 2569. It has a wonderful ambience with a terrace overlooking the verdant Lichtentaleer Alle, and food with French and Mediterranean influences. Order the local wine sold in distinctive round Bocksbeutel bottles
Where To Shop
Sophienstrasse and Gernsbacher Strasse are tree lined streets with upscale boutiques, including that of designer Escada.
The town is perfect for walking around. Even the locals rarely drive!
Best Time To Visit
The best time to visit is between May and october. If you visit Baden-Baden in the summer there are a lot of events in town, e.g. the International Horse Races, the International Vintage Car Festival and the Philharmonic Castle Concerts. If you like winters, then make a visit at the end of December when the town looks like a fairy tale with its Christmas markets.