The Black Forest spa town of Baden-Baden is much the same now as it was when Dostoyevsky visited in the 19th century, said Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times. The great Russian novelist wrote The Gambler in this “sedate, elegant” Bavarian resort “between bouts in the casino, fights with his mistress,” and conversations with fellow Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, whom he regarded as a “prig.” Other members of the international set who have visited Baden-Baden over the years include Richard Wagner, Kaiser Wilhelm, Otto von Bismarck, Edward VII, and—much more recently—ex–Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. Now as then, this “green salon” of parks, fountains, and forests maintains a hassle- and stress-free pace. Visitors soon find they’re slowing down in spite of themselves. “Within 24 hours, I was ambling rather than striding.”
The town’s very name translates as Bathing-Bathing, a “spa town doubled or squared.” The tiny town center is a marvel of internationalism: It includes a Byzantine Russian church, a neo-Romanesque Catholic church, and a Gothic Protestant church. Among the other architectural treasures are a baroque theater modeled after the Paris Opera House and a 19th-century railway station that has been converted into “Europe’s second-biggest Festspielhaus,” or festival theater. Marlene Dietrich called the glittering Kurhaus, or Conversation House, the world’s most beautiful casino. It has a gas-lamp promenade, the “chandelier-dripping ‘Hall of the Thousand Candles,’” and furnishings covered in crimson damask.
Untouched by World War II, Baden-Baden is a preserve of “pristine German urban Gemütlichkeit,” or coziness. In true German style, the two large-scale baths that give the town its name are “leisure organized and perfected.” The stylishly modern Caracalla Therme features aroma steam baths, salt inhalations, rock grottos, and a plethora of whirlpools. The marble columns, mosaics, and statues of the older Friedrichsbad, standing over “the original bathhouse built for Roman soldiers,” date to 1877. Its baths offer “17 precisely delineated recuperative stages” that range from a hot-air bath at 154 degrees to a 118-degree thermal steam bath to total immersion in 97-degree water. At the Winter Garden of the Belle Époque Brenner’s Park Hotel Spa, I wondered how this corner of old Europe managed to be preserved “without coming to resemble a theme park.”