The naked jape

For a nude dip in the spa, high-stakes drama atthe casino, or both, Baden-Baden is a place torelax in the grand old style, says William Cook

Travel

23 Mar 2016

‘Have you been here before?’ asked the bored young woman at the entrance to the Friedrichsbad. ‘Several times,’ I told her, as she handed me my ticket and a towel. I needed no warning that in this historic bath house, bathing costumes are verboten. The trauma of my first visit was still a painful memory, especially the shrivelled ignominy of my immersion in the cold plunge pool. So why do I keep coming back to dip my flabby body in these murky waters? I guess I’m looking for the same things that brought Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Turgenev (and loads of other layabouts) to Baden-Baden: health, wealth and eternal happiness. Is that really too much to ask?

Naked Germans of both sexes mingle freely in this ancient spa, built upon the ruins of a Roman bath house, yet whatever size or shape you are, these stern Teutonic nudists don’t give you a second glance. It does feel weird at first, wandering round this palatial building in your birthday suit, but as you get older it gets easier. On my first visit, 15 years ago, I was a bag of nerves. This time I realised I’d become invisible. Once you hit 50, no one cares what you look like in the altogether.

People have been coming to Baden-Baden for several thousand years to bathe in the thermal springs which give this town its absurd double-barrelled title. (Baden is both the German word for bath and the name of this left-hand corner of southern Germany — like a lot of German jokes, it loses something in translation.) Under the Romans it was a thriving health resort called Aurelia Aquensis, but when they were driven out it was more or less forgotten — an obscure backwater of the Holy Roman Empire, albeit one with running hot and cold on tap.

The bloke who put Baden-Baden back on the map was King Louis Philippe of France. When he banned gambling (spoilsport), an enterprising Frenchman called Jacques Benazet nipped across the border and opened a casino here. Wealthy foreigners flocked from all over Europe and a lot of British tourists ended up living here, including a sporty vicar, the Rev Thomas White, who introduced tennis and football to Germany. (If only he’d stuck to God-bothering, we might have won a few more World Cups.) Baden-Baden mineral water became an integral part of this package. Does it do you any good? Nobody really seems to know, but it was a good excuse for coming here. Victorians could travel to Baden-Baden for the good of their health, then sneak off to the casino.

Caracalla Spa. Photo: © Baden-Baden Kur & Tourismus
Caracalla Spa. Photo: © Baden-Baden Kur & Tourismus

Marlene Dietrich said this casino was the most beautiful in the world and you can see why. From the outside, it looks like a Roman temple: simple, yet supremely elegant. The interior is a riot of belle epoque, dripping with chandeliers and gold leaf. The location is special, too. Hidden in a leafy park, surrounded by the dark hills of the Black Forest, it’s beguiling but vaguely sinister, like the setting for a film noir.

Even if you don’t fancy a bet, a trip to the casino is a fascinating piece of theatre — an intense yet silent ritual of triumph and disaster. It’s riveting to watch someone stake €10,000 on the turn of a single card, and greet the result with sublime indifference. Dostoyevsky came here to play roulette and wrote The Gambler about his (sporadic) wins and (frequent) losses. His tense novella captures the queasy allure of this hushed hideaway.

The revolution kept the Russians away for most of the 20th century, but now they seem eager to make up for lost time. They’ve always been fearless gamblers. ‘Roulette until six in the evening — lost every-thing,’ wrote Tolstoy, after a visit here in 1857. Today’s Russian visitors are following in the same tradition. Cyrillic signs have sprouted all over town, especially in estate agents’ windows. The first time I came here I saw no Russians. Now you’d never know they’d been away.

The poshest place to stay in Baden-Baden is Brenners, Germany’s finest — and most famous — hotel. Founded in 1872, it’s as much of a local landmark as the bath house or the casino. Edward VII stayed here when he came here to take the waters and play the tables, and so did Edward VIII. Countless presidents and prime ministers have met here, from De Gaulle and Adenauer to Kohl and Chirac to Obama and Merkel. Yet there’s more to Brenners than political star-spotting. Despite its illustrious guest list, it feels remarkably intimate; less like a grand hotel, more like a comfortable stately home. The spa is brand new, but the furnishings are wonderfully old-fashioned. The period furniture is bespoke, not reproduction (that really is a Reynolds above the fireplace). It’s timeless and curiously classless, a refuge from the modern world.

Baden-Baden’s rich history has endowed it with a cultural scene quite out of keeping with its modest size. Barely 50,000 people live here, yet it boasts Germany’s biggest concert hall and one of the country’s best private galleries. Designed by the artist and architect Richard Meier, the Frieder Burda Museum is the creation of a jolly German publisher, designed to show off his astonishing collection of modern art. The exhibitions rotate regularly, so you’re always bound to see something new, and Meier’s sleek building is an artwork in itself.

The most peculiar attraction in Baden-Baden is the Fabergé Museum. Located in a grand old house on one of the grandest boulevards, it contains an opulent array of priceless knick-knacks, a monument to brilliant craftsmanship and spectacular bad taste. Peter Carl Fabergé had no particular connection with Baden-Baden, but since he was a Russian of French descent who spent some time in Germany, I guess this cosmopolitan little town is as good a place as any for a museum in his honour. As he showed me out, my Russian guide flung open a door marked private, revealing a room full of precious Aztec figurines, all made of solid gold. ‘Where did this all come from?’ I asked, agog. ‘Private collector, private collection,’ he told me, enigmatically. This bizarre haul seemed to sum up the strange appeal of Baden-Baden — a prim place with a spooky curio behind every door.

I finished my latest trip to where I’d begun, back in the bath house. Not the antique Friedrichsbad, but the thoroughly modern Caracalla Baths. (Caracalla was the nickname of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who transformed this place into a spa town.) In here, you can wear your swimming togs, thank heavens, but only in the thermal pool on the ground floor. Upstairs in the steam rooms, you have to take them off again. Not a problem, I concluded — I was used to this sort of thing by now. I stripped off and strode through the door, into what I imagined would be another wet room, only to find myself outside. Had I taken a wrong turn? It seemed not. The foliage was sparse — a few shrubs and leafless trees. I could see (fully clothed) people on the road below. I walked very briskly towards a wooden hut which I hoped to goodness was a sauna. Inside were bright pink men and women of all ages, baking in the musky heat. By now I felt quite accustomed to being nude around other nudists, and when a young couple got up to go, I happily tagged along after them. It was only when we got outside that I realised I was the only one without a towel.

IN NUMBERS

53,342
Population of Baden-Baden
2,000m
Depth of the hot springs
12
Number of thermal spas
Doubles at Brenners (brenners.com; 00 49 72 21 9000) start at €320. British Airways (ba.com; 0344 493 0787) fly twice daily from Heathrow to Stuttgart from £88 return, including taxes. Stuttgart airport is about 70 miles from Baden-Baden. Brenners can arrange transfers.

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