You’ve probably heard the phrase, ‘New York, New York – so good they named it twice.’ You could argue that the same applies to the gorgeous German spa town of Baden Baden. This Black Forest resort was originally named Baden, which means baths. There was confusion with other destinations with similar names so they added the second ‘Baden’, which refers to Baden Württemberg, the area in which the town lies.
Before today’s German republic was formed, Baden Baden was the capital of its own state within the German Empire. Its monarchs were known as Margraves and they socialised with other European royals, including Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm. Soon Europe’s wealthy and well connected considered bathing in Baden Baden to be the ultimate summertime activity. “Paris was Europe’s winter capital and Baden Baden was the summer capital,” tour guide Valeria Casagrand told me.
When a local princess married into Russian royalty, Russians started flocking to the town. There’s still a gold, onion-domed Orthodox church in the town today. Tsars love spas, it seems.
Baden Baden is a refined Black Forest town filled with manicured, floral parks. There’s the same sense of quality and luxury that you also find in spa towns closer to home, like Buxton, Brighton or Harrogate. The large, Victorian, Belle Époque buildings with their ornate iron balconies won’t fail to impress you.
In the second century AD, the Romans discovered the hot thermal springs here. They believed that the waters possessed healing powers beneficial to both their Emperor and soldiers, so they built the town of Aqua Aureliae.
I headed to view the remains of Baden Baden’s Roman baths. The modern entrance to the town centre site is quite nondescript. It feels like you’re entering an underground multi-storey car park. But once inside, it’s impressive. Metal walkways let you peer down into the spotlit remains of these now dry pools, which were built around 200 AD. You can clearly see the layout of the complex.
“Only 10% of the site remains. They tore a lot of it down,” Visitor Centre manager Patricia Tosana told me. The ruins are now under a low ceiling but once bathers were shielded from the winter snows under an imposing 12m high roof. As I watched a video explaining the technicalities of piping and cooling the waters, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the engineering and building projects that the Romans undertook almost 2,000 years ago.
Patricia told me that the Romans followed a strict bathing procedure. The experience always began with a cold-water shock to the system. “That was the first pool, the frigidarium,” she explained. Next, it was the more pleasant-sounding tepidarium, where the Romans would chat, eat and while away a few hours. They wouldn’t ‘chill’ though. They couldn’t. The water was 25°C. The final stage, the caldarium, sounds feverishly hot.
The palatial Friedrichsbad resort next door continued the bathing tradition. When it was opened at the end of the 19th century it was considered ‘the most modern baths in Europe.’ They didn’t scrimp on the impressive interiors. Aristocratic clients expected columns, arches and domes. The wall tiles are hand painted, too.
Hermann Wittich showed me around the baths and explained that today’s bathers undertake eighteen different stages during their three-hour bathing experience. “It starts hot and the temperature gets lower and lower until it is 18°C at the end.”
All of the waters used in this complex are thermal and come from an artesian source that rises from the ground at 68°C and has to be cooled for bathing. It was very hot in some of the rooms. I don’t know how Hermann coped wearing a suit! Unlike many thermal waters, there’s no smell of sulphur here. “If you taste it, it seems a little bit salty,” Hermann told me.
We walked down white tiled corridors, under arches, past pillars and colonnades to reach a space where a small, light blue pool was circled by marble steps leading into the water. You might think that the €25 ticket is worth it just for the chance to dip in this pool, underneath the high, pink-domed ceiling, decorated with marble statues of goddesses.
Hermann led me to a much brighter, airier room lit with large opaque windows. It looked like a locker room but contained Heath Robinson style showerheads and accessories. This is where you can undertake a popular Victorian ‘Knipe’ hydrotherapy process. The water temperature alternates between cold and hot. “It’s invigorating,” Hermann assured me. I didn’t try it.
You can also book your own private bathing area, the Kaiser bath. Herman led me into a small room dominated by a walk in tub the size of a car. He turned the tap on a bronze standpipe and the pure, thermal waters flooded in. “It takes half an hour to fill,” he said.
Hermann also took me to view Germany’s first gym, which is also part of the baths complex. This space, with its conservatory windows and columns, is unlike any fitness club I’ve ever visited. Old photographs of waxed-moustached men exercising in three-piece suits amused me. I suspect Hermann would not have broken into a sweat.
During the morning or afternoon session visitors can opt for an additional massage, which is undertaken using a soapy round brush. They looked a bit firm and Hermann sensed my concern. “It doesn’t hurt. It is relaxing,” Hermann told me. Everything you need, including towels, is included in your entry fee.
Next door to these historic baths there’s a newer spa resort that features a large, thermally heated pool both inside and outside. Hermann told me that relaxing in warm water when snowflakes are falling is wonderful.
Baden Baden has a very international feel. Russians still visit in their thousands. Many come to see the Faberge Museum, which houses four of the rare and highly sought-after jewelled decorations. The British upper classes also left their mark. Germany’s first tennis club was established in the town.
And there’s a strong French theme. France is only fifteen minutes drive away. You’ll notice that with the architecture and the style of the town’s outdoor cafes. “In the 19th century, the high society would have spoken French, not German. That’s why all the hotels had French names,” Valeria explained. The Sophienstrasse is very French, too. The street has two traffic lanes, separated by a wide, tree-lined promenade. This upmarket shopping area is home to lots of Art Deco furniture stores and a handful of classy shops that wouldn’t appear out of place on London’s Bond Street.
The boulevard’s centrepiece is the Heron Fountain, a triangular stone basin capped by three metal birds. Steaming, thermal waters flow from their beaks. There’s a warning not to drink the waters though!
Valeria took me on a stroll around Baden Baden’s ‘green heart’ – a swathe of well-manicured parkland that runs alongside the River Oos, through the town centre, for almost two miles. This park walk was created for strolling, the most popular social activity of the Victorian era. “We’re known as ‘the green town of short distances.’ 61% of the town centre is covered by gardens and parks,” Valeria told me.
After ten minutes of walking alongside picnickers and people dining in the parkside cafés, we reached an impressive building – the Pump Room. Its Corinthian-columned frontage gives it the appearance of ancient Greece. It was actually built in 1842 using marble and terracotta to supplement the local pink-hued sandstone. The Pump Room was once the centre of high society.
At the front of the building there’s a covered walkway with open arches facing the gardens. This allowed women to stroll and socialise without any risk of getting a tan. Pale faces were de rigueur when the Pump Room was built! On the back wall, fourteen friezes illustrate local Black Forest folklore tales. On the front pediment there are stone carvings depicting people being cured of ailments after taking the ‘special’ waters.
Our next stop was the Casino, just across a spacious tree-lined lawn and considered the jewel in Baden Baden’s crown. It recently hosted the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations during the G20 summit. You’ll notice its stately, presidential air the moment you enter, with its handsome foyer – filled with wood panelled walls, marble floors and chandeliers.
As you wander around the casino, each room is different. “It was modelled on the French palaces. A lot of the decorations are gold-plated,” Valeria told me. European aristocrats would have flocked here to listen to the latest works by Wagner or Strauss. Brahms composed in the town. He first visited in 1865 and went on to spend nine summers here. But Baden Baden’s fortunes changed overnight in 1872, when all German casinos were closed. Gambling didn’t return to the town until Nazi rule in 1933.
I couldn’t help think how fortunate it was that the beautiful buildings in this town were spared Allied bombardment during the Second World War. “We had no major industry and it made no sense to bomb the town,” Valeria said. After the Second World War, the French forces overseeing this region of Germany used the Casino as their base. It must have been Europe’s most palatial operations centre! The casino is open to the public who want to gamble or drink in the nightclub. If you’re not keen on those activities then you can take a morning tour.
A few minutes walk from the Casino is the town’s Protestant church, with its two towers. Unusually, gambling paid for this place of worship. “When the church building project ran out of money, the Casino manager stepped in with the financial assistance to complete the church building,” Valeria explained.
There’s a large fountain in front of the church, one of fifty water features you’ll notice around Baden Baden’s centre. They add to the spa town’s sense of wealth and importance. “The spray used to cool people down, too,” Valeria told me.
Music still plays a major part in Baden Baden life. Opera is regularly performed in the Festive Hall. It’s an interesting venue, which has repurposed the town’s former railway station. When high-speed trains were introduced, this grand Edwardian building wasn’t suitable as a transport hub so they built a new station 7km from town. You buy your concert tickets in the old station booking hall, which is connected to the newer auditorium next door.
Opera is just one of Baden Baden’s artistic attractions. There’s a parkside area known as The Cultural Mile because of the range of museums and galleries. The contemporary art space, the Museum Frieder Burda, attracts thousands of visitors each year. Picasso’s works are displayed alongside over a thousand other paintings and sculptures. Some people just come to view the building, designed by the revered American architect Richard Meier. The sloping white walkways, which zigzag upwards between floors, are a work of art themselves.
From the top floor there’s a commanding view of the greenery and mountains that surround Baden Baden. One peak, the Merkur Mountain, stands out on the horizon. You can hike to the top. Or you can be lazy, like me, and ride the funicular railway.
I caught a cab from town, through expensive hillside suburbs, to the railway base station. Once I had boarded, the carriage slowly ascended towards the top of the 2,200ft mountain. As I looked back down along the straight railway track, which cut through trees and a tunnel, it appeared very steep. The gradient is 54% in places.
There’s a viewing platform and a small pub at the top. If you want the best views over the town below and the Black Forest, you can climb the steps of an observation tower on the hill. Sadly, low cloud and mist descended when I reached the summit. I waited for thirty minutes but it didn’t clear. Ironically, as I returned down the hill the mist lifted to reveal glorious sunshine!
Heading back to the centre of Baden Baden, I wandered around the streets that lace the hill rising from the river. There are colourful buildings lining pretty stone-paved streets and squares. I walked past a bierkeller, with flowers spilling from its window boxes and borders, and down passageways that led to hidden courtyards.
I found the town’s best restaurant in one seclude yard. Owner Philippe Fouille returned home to run Weinstube Baldreit after serving as chef at the Old Trout in Thame, Oxfordshire. Philippe’s dining rooms are atmospheric and bursting with history. One of the rooms tunnels into the steep hillside and was once a wine cellar.
I joined the other diners on tables in the restaurant’s cobbled courtyard and enjoyed a wonderful dinner that started with delicious, chilled strawberry and tomato soup, followed by the local, pizza-like dish of tarte flambée with crème fraiche. Dessert was the traditional Black Forest gateau, served in a glass. Philippe suggested crisp local white wine, which completed the meal perfectly. There’s a small garden terrace behind the restaurant where diners can sit and enjoy after-dinner entertainment shows.
The Radisson Blu Badischer Hof Hotel kindly accommodated me. This central hotel was once a monastery. There’s a spacious pool and separate spa facilities, using water from the hotel’s thermal springs. That provides a garden water feature too.
Baden Baden is an affordable weekend break destination offering great food, good accommodation and cultural experiences. The baths are a ‘must.’ You’ll feel refreshed and invigorated but you won’t be cleaned out by the cost of travel. You can book the 90-minute flight to the town from London Stansted on Ryanair for under £30. There’s more on holidays in and around this part of the Black Forest at Baden-Baden.com.