Thursday 14 January 2016

Taking the waters in Baden Baden

I've always loved the sound of that phrase, evoking 19th century European spa/casino glamour (and somehow mixed up in my mind with a young, sexy Glenda Jackson and Helmut Berger in the Romantic Englishwoman). But I never imagined I would write those words from personal experience - until I visited Baden-Baden in autumn last year.

It can be disappointing seeing a place you have only vague, glamourised associations with, but Baden-Baden fully lived up to expectations for me. In the foothills of the Black Forest (the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse, the scenic route through the Schwarzwald from Baden-Baden to Freudenstadt begins here), this is a seriously and solidly wealthy, immaculate town with a timeless feel.

I walked around in the early evening,  overwhelmed by the art nouveau villas, colonnades, grand casinos and chic boutiques

all threaded through by the gentle Oos river, its banks lined with grandiose hotels and private mansions

and the gardens of the Lichtentaler Allee park and arboretum

where Richard Meier's stunning modern design of the Frieder Burda museum (containing one of the best modern art collections in Europe) is a complete contrast but fits perfectly into the park surroundings.

the Frieder Burda Museum of modern art, Lichtentaler Allee

But the main attraction is obviously the baden, the ancient baths built by the Romans on hot mineral springs, where Dostoyevsky lost his shirt at the casino and wrote The Gambler, where Berlioz found relief from his irritable bowel syndrome by taking the waters, along with Wagner, Offenbach, Gounod and Brahms. Mark Twain swore he left his rheumatism behind here, and even David Hockney claimed 'I can go in on my knees and come away dancing'.

And yes, I took the waters - not in the palatial Friederichsbad where Glenda and Helmut lazed beside the Roman pool, but in the equally impressive Caracalla Therme where the waters flow from inside to the open air.

Friedrichsbad left, Caracalla Therme right. Photo source:

Though I have no photos to prove it. Germans take their spas very seriously (state-subsidised spa treatments are a mainstay of the health system), though in a reassuringly pragmatic and down to earth way (nudity being a great leveller) - but photographing the experience would be a serious no-no. Instead, my last shot before nightfall, after café tables had been deserted for warmer interiors.

Baden-Baden, Germany, September 2015

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