This article originally appeared in the 2016 Winter Issue of Dreamscapes Magazine. Click here to see the original version
I am here for the waters, but everywhere I turn, this legendary spa town is brimming with history.
The Romans discovered the thermal waters 2,000 years ago, and you can visit the remnants of their baths in an open-air museum. Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the town was the summer residence for French, German and Russian aristocrats, and artist Hector Berlioz composed here, and debuted an opera in the Theatre, modelled on the Paris Opera. Baden-Baden is the setting for Ivan Turgenev’s novel, Smoke, and today you can follow the characters’ steps in this green walkable town, with its impeccable 19th-century buildings, flowering trees, museums, shops and public gardens. Visitors were attracted to the idyllic setting at the foot of the Black Forest. But it was the spas that made the place famous.
TIME FOR A SPA
The grand neo-Renaissance Friederichsbad spa must look the same as when it was built in 1877, with high-domed ceilings and pale green tiles. A sign says the spa building is heated thermally, just like it has always been.
Here clothing is not an option—bathing suits are not permitted—however there are ladies-only times. There’s a system: you go from station to station, directed by the numbers on the wall (thankfully, no English required), and signs indicate how much time you should spend in each pool or sauna, with showers in between. With no clothes to indicate modern times, domed ceilings and tiles decorated with peacocks and flowers, the atmosphere is dreamy and meditative. The ritual has l6 steps, and if you take your time, you could spend three hours here. Temperatures are calibrated to heat up and cool down the body, but there’s only one ice-cold pool at the end. Then you go to a nap room, which, I imagine, is like a girl’s dorm in a Swiss boarding school.
Next door is the other major spa, Caracalla. Sleekly modern, with bathing suits required, the 4,000-square-metre family-friendly spa dazzles with 12 natural springs supplying a hot and cold rock grotto, whirlpools, waterfalls and water jets, both indoors and out. There are hot and cold saunas and herb-infused steam rooms, where scents and sounds of New Age music create a multi-sensory experience.
You can sign up for massages and facials, but bathing seems to be the point here, just as it has always been in traditional spas.
For a facial, I head to the town’s legendary grand hotel, the Brenners Park-Hotel and Spa. Its expanded spa facility is now located next door, in Villa Stephanie, once the residence of a German duchess. My 80-minute, multi-step facial includes everything from aromatherapy to massage, and leaves me feeling aglow. The extensive menu includes massages, wraps as well as personal trainers, including cyclists who will take you on the biking and hiking trails of the Black Forest just beyond.
For me, the spacious luxe atmosphere, with terraces overlooking the gardens, is part of the pleasure of the cure. I swim in an azure blue indoor pool and then relax in the rest area.
SIP AND SAVOUR
And then lunch, and that other renowned liquid known for its relaxing properties: wine. It’s not surprising Baden-Baden, with its museums, concert halls and restaurants, would be a wine place rather than a beer place.
Baden, which includes the town of Baden-Baden, happens to be the third-largest wine- growing area in Germany. This warmest part of the country is likened to Burgundy, and the wine-growing region extends for 400 kilometres along the Rhine. There are high-quality vineyards just outside of town, carved out of the mountainous Black Forest. They specialize in Riesling and Pinots—blanc, gris and noir. The latter have been basking in sunshine and glory, winning contests and accolades for the past decade.
Sitting on the terrace of the Wintergarten, Brenners’ casual restaurant facing a park, I order a Pinot blanc, which is really a white Burgundy, to go with my first course of celeriac tart with truffle crumble, balsamic pine nut reduction and ragout of beans and tomato. Then a Riesling to match the Riesling froth on my seared fish filet, cauliflower and lentils and parsley potatoes. The dishes are impressive, and this isn’t even the two-Michelin-star dinner restaurant next door, where I spot the young star chef, Paul Stradner, designing the evening menu.
When it comes to restaurants, the Baden area is star-studded. The Jardin de France earned its Michelin star 15 years ago, and chef Stéphan Bernhard and his wife Sophie run the place with an emphasis on the authentic. “We don’t follow fads,” remarks the native of Alsace, just over the French border. I am sitting outside in a large courtyard with—of course—a gurgling fountain. Chef Bernhard’s wine list includes Baden wines and he has high praise for the local Pinot noirs. Today he suggests a Riesling to go with my tuna tartar starter—he likes it because it is light and minerally—and once again, I have a new appreciation for the range of Rieslings.
TAKING IN THE SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Back at my hotel, the elegant, but modern, Dorint Maison Messmer, I’m lured by the beautiful spa, which looks like Gustav Klimt designed it. After a swim, I start out on the grandest walk in town, the Lichtentaler Allee, bordered by acres of trees and flowers on one side and the town on the other. In between is the shallow river Oos, crossed by small footbridges. Of course, there are more fountains: in Baden-Baden even the bookstore (filled mostly with German books) has a water feature.
Across the street from my hotel stands the Kurhaus, one of the signature buildings in town. Built in the l820s, it looks much as it did then, with white pillars and a colonnade made for strolling. In front is a chic outdoor café. And there is plenty of space for music festivals and the Christmas market, for this is an all-season destination, with dramatic foliage in the fall, followed by cross-country skiing and cosy fireplaces in winter.
In the Kurhaus, the Casino, which Marlene Dietrich called the most beautiful in the world, inspired Dostoyevsky, critically in debt, to write his novel, The Gambler. The decor is Belle Époque excess, with gilt-framed mirrors, crystal chandeliers, cherub statues, vermillion carpets and roulette tables that have been spinning for 250 years. I am not tempted. I’m placing my chips on a sure bet: the Baden-Baden healing waters and the wine.
When it comes to restaurants, the bar is high here, so it goes without saying that restaurants use local produce whenever possible. The salads are exceptional, with a variety of fresh lettuce. And you have to try the Black Forest cake. So with that in mind, here are a few to check out:
Le Jardin de France, Lichtentaler Strasse: This one Michelin-star restaurant serves traditional French cuisine and lighter fare in summer.
Weinstube Badreit, Kuferstrasse: A favourite with the locals, this moderately priced restaurant is in an ivy-covered courtyard tucked away off a narrow street. Try the duck foie gras on walnut bread with lettuce dressed in a cherry balsamic. And do not miss the Mauftachen, a large ravioli dumpling stuffed with meat and spinach in a bath of herbed bouillon.
Brenners Park-Restaurant, Schillerstrasse: With two Michelin stars, this restaurant—and its neighbour, the Wintergarten—offer fine cuisine in an elegant atmosphere facing the Lichtentaler Allee.
Café Koenig, Lichtentaler Strasse: Franz Liszt and Leo Tolstoy were customers in this charming café that has been around for 250 years. The chocolate counter sells all manner of delectables, from truffles to chocolate-covered nuts.
Weingut Schloss Neuweier: Less than 20 minutes by cab from Baden-Baden, this terraced winery welcomes visitors to its tasting rooms and wine cellar dating from 1266. Owner and director Robert Schatzle is especially proud of his Maurwein, or wall wine, where the wall of granite and volcanic ash combine to give the wine a fine mineral quality as well as notes of citrus and tropical fruit.
Schatzle has travelled the world and thinks his wines are competitive. “We didn’t realize what we had, but the prejudice against German wines is lower now.” On the verdant grounds, a 12th-century castle was renovated in 2005 and hosts overnight guests and diners. A decade ago the restaurant earned a Michelin star.
Hotel Dorint Maison Messmer, Werderstr: Elegant and modernized, with amenities such as chair-level plugs for computers and phones, this hotel boasts a super location across from the Casino and Theatre and around the corner from the Lichtentaler Allee.
Heliopark Bad Hotel zum Hirsch, Hirschstrasse: Records show this operated as a hostel and bathhouse in the 1300s. Renovated through the centuries, it strikes an ideal balance between its art nouveau interiors and up-to-date amenities like free Wi-Fi. The Heliopark is one of only two hotels in town to have a tap for the town’s thermal water—in this case it is in the large bathtub. And the two large spas are less than a 10-minute walk away.
For more information on all there is to see and do in Baden-Baden, visit baden-baden.de.