Nestled at the foothills of the Black Forest, the elegant spa town of Baden-Baden has long exerted its siren call. In the late 19th century, the German town used to attract the European aristocracy, which considered Baden-Baden the “Summer Capital of Europe”. The waters were used for bathing and salutary treatments, transforming the town into a modern health resort. “Taking the cure” also involved social exchange and amusements. Theatres, art galleries and a thriving casino all became part of the spa infrastructure. With over 1,000 protected heritage buildings in its historic centre, Baden-Baden is today a Unesco World Heritage Site, listed among the Great Spa Towns of Europe.
The obvious first stop for me is a visit to the 19th century Friedrichsbad, one of the town’s key spas. Barnacled with marble, ornamented with mosaic, this neo-renaissance structure was completed in 1877. Bathing in the warm thermal waters requires the abandoning of all garments. Since I was not ready to shed mine, I made my way to the more modern, glass-fronted Caracalla spa, which permits the use of a bathing suit. It is a wonderland of outdoor pools, grottos and treatment facilities that harness the mineral-rich spring waters.
I wander between steamy pools, waterfalls, neck showers, cold tubs, aromatherapy and steam stations. Three hours at the spa are enough for a quick dose of rejuvenation. Outside, the Fetquelle, one of the 12 historic thermal springs, pulses with warm water. The waters, which contain minerals like sodium, lithium and boron that cause the rock to oxidise to its greenish-black colour, have helped heal rheumatism, respiratory ailments and skin complaints over centuries.
Next on my agenda is a horse-drawn carriage ride that begins at the Neo Baroque Baden theatre. Odes have been penned to this ornate structure that recalls the Opera Garnier in Paris. The building is also the gateway to Lichtentaler Allee, a picturesque 3km avenue with elaborate wrought-iron lamps, flowery park promenades and 19th century Belle Epoque villas. Museums add to the contemplative essence of the strip. Museum Frieder Burda, designed by American artist and architect Richard Meier, is home to a superlative collection of modern and contemporary art that includes the works of masters like Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Gerhard Richter.
Nearby, the Stadtmuseum takes me through the 2,000-year history of BadenBaden, with exhibits ranging from Roman times to images illustrating the Belle Epoque heyday. The Belle Epoque, or “the beautiful epoch”, stretched from the late 1800s to the start of World War I and is considered an era of unparalleled peace, economic prosperity, scientific advancement and cultural innovation in Europe. The horse-carriage ride ends at Kloster Lichtenthal, a Cistercian abbey founded in 1245. It offers a chance to learn about abbey life, by taking a guided tour or attending a church service or concert.
The buildings in Baden-Baden may be monumental but the old town is small enough to be discovered on foot or by bicycle. Like a 19th century flâneur, I stroll back through the parkland, observing the glamorous set, out with their poodles, a game of tennis unfolding on the tennis court, a little girl splashing in one of the numerous fountains.
The bon vivant air extends to the Kurhaus. This landmark building, an ornate structure adorned with Corinthian columns, is home to a stylish club, Bernstein, a fine-dining restaurant, The Grill, and a spectacular casino. Even if gambling is not your calling, a walk around the casino that strives to “outdo the gilded splendour of Versailles” offers rapture for your euro. Everywhere there are chandeliers, objets d’art and stories concerning the roster of celebrated guests that sought comfort and pleasure here, chief among them being the 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Outside is the Trinkhalle, a covered walkway with frescoes that portray the legends of the land, including a striking one of mermaids rising from the Mummelsee lake. A few steps away, an alley studded with chestnut trees is home to stylish boutiques and cafés, including the Confiserie Rumpelmayer that is famed for its chocolate roulette balls, available only in Baden-Baden.
Another spot that seems straight out of a picture book is the summit of the Merkur. A 20-minute bus ride from the town centre takes me to the base of the mountain. From there, I hop aboard Europe’s steepest funicular railway to get to the peak and its spectacular views.
Even if you are in Baden-Baden for just a weekend, you would do well to head into the Black Forest that skirts the town. I opt to trek a part of the Panoramaweg, a 40km trail circling the town. After a 15-minute drive from the main centre, I begin the trek to the Geroldsau waterfall. The waterfall may be my destination for the morning but the journey past antique hay sheds, rhododendron bushes, rocky outcrops and streams is as absorbing.
The focus on sustainability and care for heritage spills into every sphere of life. Geroldsauer Mühle, the region’s largest silver fir wood building (where we stop for lunch), is a restaurant, a hotel and an organic food market selling seasonal products from wine to meats. A meal of Baden-Alsatian pizza, or flammkuchen, topped with Black Forest ham, red onions, cream and mountain cheese, is followed by Black Forest cake, overrun by clouds of cream and oozing with cherries.
All too soon, it’s time to hike back. The soundtrack that accompanies me is one of babbling brooks and cascading waterfalls. Let nature be nature, a motto displayed along these trails, implies a pristine, respectful scape with room for everyone. Take nothing, leave nothing behind.
Sonia Nazareth is a writer and an anthropologist based in Mumbai.