Two years ago in February I had some free days and decided to spend one in Baden-Baden, a small but famous town in the southwest of Germany set in a wooded valley of the northern Black Forest, 70 km west of Stuttgart, 30 km south of Karlsruhe and 40 km northeast of Strasbourg in France. I wanted to see a new museum and the collection of contemporary art therein.
Oddly, the only thing I remembered from a visit many years before was the train station, a rather pompous building for a small town of not even 30 000 inhabitants; when I got off the train I asked two women where the tourist information office was as I wanted to get a street map. One said, ‘In the centre’ and when I guessed that wouldn’t be far, they started laughing, ‘Not really, only 7 km!’ What? They advised me to take Bus No 201. From outside I looked at the building, but that was not the station I remembered!
One of the bus stops on the way to the centre was ‘Old Station’ and there it was: the pompous building I remembered with the neo-Renaissance façade, now the entrance of the Festspielhaus, a modern structure built behind it, the second largest opera and concert hall of Europe with 2500 seats (the fourth largest of the world). Later, on my way back, I went in and learnt that the last train had stopped there in 1977. What happened to the building after that date I don’t know, I only know that in 1998 it opened as the Festspielhaus.
I got off at the beginning of the pedestrian precinct (new cobblestones, put in for nostalgic reasons), nearly the whole centre is without traffic, very good this, and started walking. I liked what I saw at once (Baden-Baden was hardly destroyed during WW2 as the French decided already during the war that they wanted to have their headquarters there after the war and because of this didn’t air-raid it), although it was a bleak day in February I was able to detect the charm of the elegant town houses. Should you ever decide to stay there, you won’t have problems finding a hotel room, hotels there are in abundance.
One part of the town is called ‘Bäderviertel’ (bath quarters), I did not visit the Roman ruins, I didn’t have so much time although it is fascinating to imagine the Roman legions under the command of Emperor Caracalla marching through the German/ic forests in the 1st century AD who soothed their sore limbs in the hot springs of Aquae (Waters) as it was called then. I headed straight to ‘Friedrichsbad’, also known as the ‘old baths’ on which Mark Twain wrote, ‘I fully believe I left my rheumatism there’. I had seen photos of the splendid interior dating back to 1877, the period which is called Belle Époche, and wanted to peep in and admire the Renaissance style cupola, alas it was not to be. It’s a Roman-Irish hot-air bath with 16 different stages and textile free (men and women bathe separately on Mondays and Thursdays, all other days are mixed). I felt it would take research too far if I undressed only to be able to look at the architecture.
About 100m away from the Friedrichsbad is the Caracalla Spa, a modern building resembling a Roman temple with a wide-ranging choice of indoor and outdoor water areas with temperatures ranging from 18°C to 38°C (the healing thermal water flows from 12 springs reaching up to 68°C and is then cooled down). I didn’t swim there, either, but I wandered through the whole building and looked into the pools. Should my physician ever prescribe me a cure for my aging bones, I’d opt for Baden-Baden; we’ve got three spas in our immediate surroundings but they aren’t as stately and elegant.
Everywhere stand signposts pointing to the important sights Baden-Baden has to offer so that I had no problem finding the tourist information office (at last!). It is housed in the Trinkhalle (Drinking Hall), an impressive building with a 90 m long covered promenade supported by Corinthian columns. I couldn’t use the bathing facilities for lack of time but I wanted to drink some of the famous water at least! I got a plastic cup at the counter of the bar/restaurant and filled it under the tap.
Sipping the water I read what can be cured with it: general fatigue and exhaustion, arthritis, spondilitis, rheumatic arthritis, neuritis, neuralgia, heart and circulation trouble, dysfunctional metabolism, chronic women’s diseases, implications after accidents, problems with the airway - goodness gracious, the Baden-Badeners must be the healthiest people on the planet with this miracle water! What does it taste like? Well, it tastes just like water, but it’s warm! Yuck! I finished my cup courageously, but I can’t see myself drinking this water regularly.
What did I want in the tourist information office after strolling through the town all by myself and without a map and not losing my way? I wanted to know if it was possible to look at the casino, indeed it was, guided tours are offered daily every 30 minutes from 9.30 am to noon between April and September, and from 10 am to noon between October and March. The last admission is at 11.30 am. Tours in English (French or Russian) are available by prior arrangement. The woman behind the counter told me to hurry to get in with the last guided tour, I didn’t make it, though, I came five minutes late and decided to go to the museum I had really come for.
It’s only about five minutes from the Trinkhalle to the State Art Gallery and the new museum designed by the renowned New York architect Richard Meier (The Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona are two of the many famous buildings he’s designed), both buildings are connected by a glass bridge. Although about 100 years separate them, they look good together, the old building has a grey sandstone facade, the new one is covered with powder coated aluminium plates in muted white - the typical colour of Richard Meier’s buildings.
It was built for Frieder Burda, an art collector and patron from Baden-Baden, for his collection of more than 550 works of classical and contemporary art, 100 works were shown in the opening exhibition including paintings by the German artists Kirchner, Macke, Jawlensky, Beckmann, the American abstract expressionists were represented by Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, then there were seven Picassos and works by the contemporary German artists Baselitz, Richter, Polke, Lüpertz and Kiefer. (good cafeteria, stylish bathrooms)
The museum isn’t very big, a ramp links the different floors, walking through the building one looks not only at the artefacts but also at the architecture and out through the large glass windows into the park along the famous Lichtentaler Allee. From a newspaper article, ‘The new museum captivates by virtue of its clear structure, as well as by the application of light and glass. It creates an alternate relationship from its interior to exterior, from art in nature, and from the verdant Allee into the art world. Thus, a highly sophisticated ‘daylight museum’ is created.’ Indeed, and I like it.
I had seen what I had come for but I felt I shouldn’t leave the town without having been to the Casino; meanwhile the gambling session had begun and I decided to buy a ticket and look around the largest and oldest and most magnificent casino in Germany. An official document states that games of chance were already played in Baden-Baden in 1748, in the current casino ‘the ball has rolled’ since 1824.
The interior is all marble, gold and purple silk, with enormous glass chandeliers, it looks like the living quarters of a French royal palace accentuated by oil painting of noble people looking from the walls. What have they seen! What joy, what despair! European nobility placing their serfs as bets, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky losing all his and his wife’s money (in his novel The Gambler he drew on his experience in Baden-Baden).
When I came in at 3 pm only two roulette tables were open (one can play French and American roulette, baccarat, black jack, poker, punto banco and Klondyke, slot machines are in the vaulted cellars), I changed 10 Euro into chips, placed myself beside a female croupier and told her that I knew nothing about roulette but intended to put my chips on the table. As I was afraid I might not notice if I had won or lost I asked her to watch out for me. She laughed and promised to do so but didn’t have to concentrate on me for long, my gambling career was over in ten minutes. At least I wouldn’t need the address on the leaflet lying beside he cashier’s desk offering help for gambling addicts!