The Romans came to Baden Baden roughly 2,000 years ago for “salus per aqua,” from whence comes the word “spa.” This “healing by water” would rejuvenate their skin, relieve their internal ailments and release them from the stress of managing their empire. As you stroll the green byways of this town-in-a-forest, you should lift a glass of Riesling to those ancient Roman pleasure seekers who also brought the vine here.
In Baden Baden, wine flows more freely than beer. In fact, more wine is consumed here than anywhere else in Germany, with each citizen averaging 53 bottles a year. Every day more than 210,000 gallons of water, at a temperature of more than 150 degrees Fahrenheit, emerges from 12 springs on a hill above the town. Even on the streets, the people seem to be moving in that post-spa treatment zone. In fact, when you enter Baden Baden it feels more like you’ve entered more of a realm than a town - realm dominated by Sundays, because every day feels like Sunday in Baden Baden.
Where else will you find such a pleasant history? There are no old cannons on the green and no piles of rounded catapult stones. It was here where the powerful houses of Europe would lay down their arms and take a bath. In the 19th century, or the Belle Epoch as they call it here, even aristocrats from warring countries could take a glass of Riesling together in the gardens in front of the Kurhaus. In towns around the world, concrete encloses green space, but here vegetation frames the town, since more than 60 percent of the city is forested. The 356-year-old Lichtentaller Allee, a walking path of about two miles under spreading shade trees alongside the gently running River Oos, is probably the most important thoroughfare in town.
In recent centuries Baden Baden has experienced two periods of transformation: the first in the early 19th century and the second in the 1990s, which is continuing today. When Paris banned casinos in the 1830s, Jacques Benazet came to Baden Baden to open a casino for elegant gamers within the Kurhaus, a long colonnaded building of salons, galleries and ballrooms fronted by the gas lamps that Benazet brought from Paris. He also brought horseracing. Today, the Baden Baden International Racecourse hosts three of the biggest events on the town’s social calendar: the Spring Meeting (May 28-June 5), the Great Festival Week (Aug. 27-Sept. 4) and the Sales and Racing Festival (Oct. 8-9). The Great Festival Week is the premier event with its Grand Prix Ball taking the best of Vienna’s mid-winter festival and setting it in the warmth of late summer.
The second transformation, still going on today, is restoring Baden Baden to its role as a 19th century oasis, a preserve for the Belle Epoch, after a couple of despondent decades when the city devolved into a place to merely “take the cure.” The one-time “Summer Capital of Europe” was in danger of becoming a hospital ward. It was at that point that a series of investments revived the town by combining art and music with the existing spas, restaurants, and abundant tennis and golf facilities to reach a new audience.
In 1998, the second-largest opera house in Europe, the 2,500-seat Festspielhaus (www.festspielhaus.de) opened when architects turned a glorious 19th century railway station into the grand entrance of a new high-tech, super-acoustic theater. “Now we are offering the perfect weekend; a combination of spa, golf, the performing arts and art museums,” said a spokesman for the festival. With a schedule that brings the best names in opera, ballet, classical music and occasional jazz and pop, the Festspielhaus strikes a deep chord in a town that had attracted the likes of Berlioz, Strauss, Clara Schuman, Wagner and Weill. Brahms even had a home here.
Another game changer was the opening of the Frieder Burda Museum in 2004. It was a controversial addition since Burda went post-modern in his building by selecting New York architect Richard Meier. Meier created a perfect counterpoint to the nearby Neoclassical Kurhaus using straight modern lines, sharp angles and bounteous light to house the collection of more than 800 modern and contemporary works, which range from Picasso and Miro to Pollock and De Kooning. It also features some especially powerful German Expressionist canvases from Beckmann and Kirchner.
With these institutions, a popular theater, a fleet of 26 hot air balloons, a full range of high quality restaurants (three with Michelin stars), eight golf courses within an hour’s drive and all the public spas and hotel spas, the weekends were filling up nicely for the town’s hotels, especially in summer. The Baden Baden Convention Center, which is being expanded, came along to help the town fill its hotels in the midweek and in mid-winter.
Located in Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s most southwestern state, Baden Baden sits at the edge of the Black Forest about six miles from the French border near Strasbourg and in close proximity for daytrips to Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Lake Constance and Switzerland. Just minutes outside the town are the vine-covered hills of the Baden Baden Rebland, a place of rustic restaurants, inn-style hotels and wine cellars. In the town, the sounds of clomping horses, singing birds and waters pouring through more than 50 fountains is often louder than the sounds of cars.
Baden Baden lies 100 miles from Frankfurt Airport and is easily reached by train from the airport’s rail station. From within Europe there are many flights by low-cost carriers and Air Berlin serves Baden Baden Airport as well. Baden Baden also offers a great base for exploring the region or a great destination to combine with Paris or Salzburg or other cities in Austria, France, Germany or Switzerland. For more information, visit www.Baden-Baden.com.
James Ruggia is executive editor covering Europe for TravelPulse.com.