Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Winter spaland: Baden-Baden

Baden-Baden has long attracted the European jet set. But it is not for the celebrity sightings that you go to this town in the famous Black Forest region, it is to enjoy the waters of Caracalla and Friedrichsbad spa complexes.

The benefits of taking the waters at Baden-Baden are centuries old, begun by the Romans who understood a thing or two about the pleasurable necessities of bathing. Since then, everyone from Tolstoy to WAGs have enjoyed the region’s mineral springs. So much so, that the name of the town, roughly translated as bath-bath, is said to mean double the bathing pleasure!

Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Bath is the eldest of the two complexes. It first opened in 1877 and for the last 130 or so years, people have taken enthusiastically to its waters. Famously Mark Twain said of the place: “Here at the Friedrichsbad you lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20...”.

It is easy to appreciate his sentiments in this setting of Belle Epoch elegance. The complex of marble stone, pools and painted frescos is a temple to the art of bathing. It is worth visiting just for the architecture but be prepared to go textile free (nude). There are 17 different stages to this spa experience that combine roman bathing culture with Irish hot-air baths. Bathing begins with a preparatory thermal shower and is followed by a soap scrub and massage and a series of steam spring baths. Bathing is segregated for most of the spa experience, with the exception of Sundays, where bathing is mixed.

In contrast, Caracalla Therme Spa offers a more modern experience to those seeking the benefits of taking the waters. Begin with the outdoor pool heated to body temperature. In the winter, the steam rises up from the warm water, lowering visibility to a metre. As you move through the water, bodies seem to appear from nowhere and the effect is almost surreal. Sit in the main spa for a rigorous start to your therapy. Be patient, the spas alternate every six minutes, so just sit back and relax until the spa starts. Cure your aches or pains, by standing beneath one of the waterfalls and be showered by plummeting hot water in this watery grotto. You'll feel like you've just had a deep tissue massage.

Feel relaxed? Move onto the second pool heated to a more temperate 32˚C. The attraction of this spa is the whirlpool that picks you up and carries you around the pool’s edge.

Several options await you when you return inside. You can either relax in the mineral pool or warm up by going for a dip in the 40˚C heated pool. This watery sauna heats the body and readies you for one of the most thrilling of therapeutic pleasures– the cool pool (18˚C). Your limbs with tingle as you plunge from the hot to the cool pool, then back again. This shocking of the body is said to be most therapeutic as it stimulates the body’s circulation.

To regain your composure, visit the inhalation room said to rehydrate the body after these extremes. From there, breathe deeply the rosemary and lavender oils of the steam bath. Patrons are invited to sit quietly, lulled by piped music and the heat. Stand by the fountain to get the most out of this aromatherapy experience. Conclude your spa experience by laying under the sun lamps – an essential for the winter climate. You will need at least three hours to enjoy this experience. Easily done at the very affordable cost of €13 .

Dinner at Gasthaus Löwenbräu in the evening with its winter wonderland of reindeer, santas and christmas trees will provide you with a memorable evening of Christmas kitsch. You’ll find the food hearty – think game goulash and potatoes dumplings. Staff are dressed in traditional German costume: it is all very heimlich. If the indulgence of either Caracalla or Friedrichsbad was not enough, then dine at the Michelin star restaurant, Park Restaurant at Brenners.

Christmas fare at Gasthaus Löwenbräu
From early December, Baden-Baden is home to a Christmas market. Rug up, put on your faux fur (or your real one), and enjoy a mulled wine or a local beer, perfect to wash down some good German fare, like dumplings with speck and sauerkraut. There are some good local delicacies to discover like wild boar salami and wildschweinbockwurst. These treats are the perfect size for your carry-on luggage and you’ll relish them during the northern cold months that are to follow.

Local delicacies from the Baden-Baden Christmas market

Near the market is Rumpelmayer. This is the place to buy your gingerbread house to celebrate the season. If it gets too cold, retire to the café inside the old pump house, The Trinkhalle. Art Deco in style, this café has all the feelings of a traditional coffee house with its hanging newspapers and lustred wood interior. On a sunny winter day, the light seems almost golden. Order a simple platter of cheese and your afternoon will simply pass by. While the interior is warm and inviting, there is always the option to sit outside and be tres European. Don the designer sunglasses, winter coat and gloves, and look chic.

Gingerbread Christmas houses from Rumpelmayer

Baden-Baden is an accessories city, so if you are looking to indulge this is the place to do it. There are numerous boutiques offering designer sunglasses and eye wear, watches and jewellery. But if you are looking for something a little more unique, then explore the two emporiums that specialize in art deco furniture and wares. From bracelets through to lamps and cocktail cabinets, you’ll find what you are looking for.

With its understated elegance, two luxurious spa complexes and boutique hotels, Baden-Baden is the perfect way to warn off the London winter blues.

Sloweater guide to Baden-Baden

Where to stay
Hotels in Baden-Baden are said to the most expensive in Germany. There are many to choose from but these are our favourites:

Brenner’s Park: For an experience that gets the golden nod from Conde Nast Traveler, Brenner’s Park – Hotel & Spa is our number one choice. From the Park-Restaurant to its private spa complex, you will enjoy the attentiveness to detail, the elegant décor and the unrestrained luxury.
Schillerstraße 4/6, 76530 Baden-Baden

Bad Hotel zum Hirsch: The recent makeover of this member of the Heliopark group is one of understated elegance. This hotel is the perfect location from which to explore the town centre and walk to the nearby spas.
Hirschstraße 1, 76530 Baden-Baden

Bad Hotel zum Hirsch

What to do
"There's not a lot to do in Baden-Baden" was the advice that I was given when discussing my holiday destination. "You go there to relax, eat and drink." Never have wiser words been spoken, and so I did.

Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Bath: You will experience the joys of the Belle Epoch as never before as you move from one spa to the next. Friedrichsbad has welcomed many to its waters: enjoy the experience and return home tranquil, if not comatose.
Römerplatz 1, Baden-Baden

Caracalla Therme Spa: This modern shrine to roman bathing is popular with families. Relax in the aroma steam room and let the hours sip away as you move from one pool to the next. It is very busy on the weekend, so come early or fly in midweek, where you are guaranteed to almost have the baths to yourself.
Römerplatz 1, 76530 Baden-Baden

Other distractions
Casino Baden-Baden Spielbank: Marlene Dietrich described it as the most beautiful casino in the world. See for yourself and while you are there pretend you’re a member of the European jet set and take a gamble.
Kaiserallee 1, 76530 Baden-Baden

Special thanks to LBM, my co-conspirator. Thanks for a wonderful weekend.