By ANITA RAO KASHI
The rippling water caught the rays of the evening sun streaming in through the vast glass walls and blanketed the sprawling roof in a moving shimmer of reflection. Water pulsed and flowed from smaller swirling pools and circular enclosures into a large pool lined with jets and streams. At the periphery of the pool smaller enclosures were scattered. The pools were dotted with people resting against the walls or seated on shelves inside the pool. But, apart from the sound of water, there was silence, and a soothing aura filled the atmosphere of Caracalla Therme spa in Baden-Baden, Southwest Germany.
Located in the health-giving Oos valley at the foot of the Black Forest mountains, Baden-Baden’s history goes back 10,000 years to the Mesolithic Period. However, the Romans settled here around 70CE, discovered the thermal springs in the area and their healing powers, and made it famous as a spa and vacation town.
Centuries later, Baden-Baden’s mildly indulgent image took on a decidedly decadent one when a casino was established. It added to the city’s allure and soon became the stomping ground of Europe’s upper classes, turning the town into the continent’s summer capital. Out of sheer luck, or by design due to its standing, it survived the ravages of the world wars and has continued to live up to its reputation as an international spa town.
Over time, the dozen or so thermal springs have coalesced into two massive public spas; it was in one of those that I was going to languidly pamper myself. Spread over 4,000 sq m, Caracalla has thermal water pools and jets, cold whirlpools, water currents, a rock grotto, cascading streams and even a portion that is open to the sky where the mix of warm water and cold air makes for a rather unique experience.
I gingerly stepped into the calm waters and was immediately enveloped in soothing, warm water. I waded in, taking turns to stand under rushing streams, hot water cascades and vigorous underwater jets that massaged my back and calves while a fresh, mineral-like aroma tickled the nostrils. It was fun to glide from one place to another in the pool, feeling weightless and buoyant.
It was also a sobering thought to realise that I was enjoying an activity that went back almost 2,000 years when the Romans discovered the curative powers of the thermal springs of Baden-Baden. They built the first thermal baths but traditional Roman bathing was institutionalised through the 130-year-old Friedrichsbad with elaborate architecture and sculptures resembling an ancient Roman bath. However, it was the more modern Caracalla that caught my fancy and I was glad to have chosen it as the finale of my stay in Baden-Baden.
As the sun went down and my skin began to get all wrinkly, I stepped out from the comforting warm water and immediately began shivering. But a hot shower took care of it and I made my way back to the centre of town via brightly lit streets towards Leopoldsplatz, one of the main squares. I sat at an outdoor café, sipping an invigorating cup of coffee and watched smartly dressed people pass by, laden with shopping bags, as I reflected on my brief stay in the charming town.
There wasn’t much to see when I arrived in the evening three days ago. But early the next morning, eager for my first impressions, I stepped out and was completely captivated. Tempting as it was to describe Baden-Baden as nice, I soon realised it would have been an understatement. Though much of its reputation hinged on being a spa town, it was also a city of amazing beauty, effortlessly weaving its charm and magic, and utterly mesmerising visitors. It was filled with grand buildings, a casino, historical association with Russian culture and academia, nouveau villas, sprawling parks and gardens, pavement cafés and chic boutiques.
My hotel, the Dorint, was located behind the theatre at the start of Lichtentaler Allee, a 350-year-old 3km-long avenue of parks and gardens. Autumn was almost ending and winter was in the air as I walked along an avenue lined with trees that had turned a stunning golden yellow and crossed a bridge over the river Oos. The river was more of a gently flowing brook lined with tall trees sporting leaves in a range of colours. A thick bed of brilliant coloured leaves lay on the sloping banks.
I noticed a father-and-son team revelling amongst the fallen leaves while elsewhere city workers were using blowers to gather up the leaves. Apart from the low hum of the blowers, the silence was broken only by twittering birds while a sappy freshness filled the air. I passed an occasional walker, jogger or cyclist, who invariably nodded in greeting, but otherwise, the place was pretty much empty.
However, the bliss was shortlived; vehicular traffic began as a trickle and increased steadily so I headed back into the centre of town for a quick breakfast before going into the old town. Past the main streets, I spied a little plaque to Nikolai Gogol and a bust of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, pointing to the town’s history and continued connections with Russia. Both were regular visitors here and have been credited with creating specific works while living here.
Round the corner from here, I was brought up short by a towering medieval-style statue of Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century German statesman who was a frequent visitor to Baden-Baden. Another compelling Russian connection was the Faberge Museum on Sophienstrasse, displaying three floors of invaluable objects mainly produced by Carl Faberge. The highlight, however, was four of his famous eggs, of which the jade and diamond one and the pink enamel one were the most captivating.
In the afternoon, I wandered up to Goetheplatz and from there towards the 19th century Trinkhalle in Kaiserallee designed as a pump room with mineral spring water. It is an elegant, tall building, almost 90m long, with towering Corinthian columns and 14 stunning frescoes by German muralist Gotzenberger depicting Baden-Baden’s rich history as well as legends and myths.
For a change of scene, I walked along the Lichtentaler Allee to Museum Frieder Burda designed by New York architect Richard Meier. On display were contemporary and classical modern art works but I was more interested in a couple of works by Picasso. Agreed, they were not his best, but I had a particular affection for his use of bold lines, compelling figures and bright colours.
From here, I would have liked to head to Maxmilianstrasse to see the house of German composer Johannes Brahms, considered to be the only remaining residence of his. But evening had already fallen and it seemed to be a particularly apt time to experience Baden-Baden’s other attraction – the casino.
In the evening light, the Kurhaus glowed, looking imposing and majestic. A grand structure with Corinthian columns, it was built in the early 19th century on the lines of a French chateau and was evocative of the era. It had rich stately rooms with domed roofs, elaborate chandeliers and plush period furniture. It had roulette tables, slot machines and other casino games.
And yet, there was none of the overt gaming atmosphere of Las Vegas or Macau. Instead, there was an air of refinement, formality and grandeur which was in keeping with the architecture and decor. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine myself transported back a few centuries. I was told the place bore witness to many interesting, intriguing stories including the fact that Dostoyevsky lost his money, even his shirt; the experience apparently led to the creation of one of his most remarkable works, The Gambler. I had no illusions about my luck and retired before I got carried away.
This morning, I felt the need for solemnity so I headed to the Stiftskirche, the Cathedral, a beautiful building whose tower rises above the city centre. It also houses the graves of the 14 Margraves (military commander and de facto ruler) of the Baden region. The deep silence and vibes of history induced a sense of profundity. As a perfect foil for this, I had gone to the Caracalla Therme in the afternoon. The spa’s waters continued to work their magic as I sat in the café and ruminated on my visit.
As the streets slowly emptied, I was lulled by the faint strains of lilting music from a nearby restaurant. It was the kind of night tailor-made for romance and enchantment and I understood why all kinds of artists were drawn to the Oos valley. Brahms had once wistfully said he “always felt a certain kind of longing for Baden-Baden”. I knew exactly what he meant. As nearby church bells began tolling the late hour and my visit wound down, I found myself facing the difficult task of extricating myself from Baden-Baden’s web of allure and heading home.