When my friend asked, “How would you like to go to Baden-Baden this weekend?,” it took only a minute to realize that too many working weekends in a row can make “Jack (alias Adrian) a dull boy (girl).” Therefore, I said yes, packed my bags (minus a bathing suit) and hopped in the car to head due east to the famous and elegant ritual baths in the magnificent German hamlet on the other side of the French border from Strasbourg, Baden-Baden.
Five hours by car on the A4 Autoroute Thursday evening landed us in Strasbourg where we stayed overnight and spent most of our first day. The 327 mile trip across France is fast and painless, also quite beautiful. By Autoroute, you pass through the Ile-de-France, Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine and Alsace regions…rolling hills, bright green agricultural fields, vineyards, “petits villages” and several cities worth a special stop and visit: Reims, Metz and of course, Strasbourg. Keep your credit card handy and be prepared to stop at many toll stations along the way — you’ll spend more than 30 Euros each way.
Since all we wanted was a place to sleep and shower, we tested out “Mr. Bed,” a hotel chain somewhat equivalent to Motel 6. Yes, it was cheap (30 Euros for a double room), but it’s more akin to bedding down in a preformed Styrofoam container than a hotel. (I don’t recommend it.)
Strasbourg, however, is one of France’s most beautiful and distinctive cities. As the capital and principal city of Alsace, the préfecture of the Bas-Rhin department, the seat of the Council of Europe, of the European Court of Human Rights and of the European Parliament, the city’s Germanic name means “town (at the crossing) of roads.
The names of the streets are Germanic, and the architecture and the cuisine decidedly different from other regions of France. Follow the gentle curve of the canals, step across the tracks of the noiseless, pollutionless electric trams that snake their way across the city, discover the little streets lined with half-timbered houses, and you will immerse yourself in a perfect blend of French and German culture.
Baden-Baden is only 34 kilometers from Strasbourg, a short drive across the border and the Rhine river. My daughter remarked, “What kind of a stupid name for a city is that?” And “Baden” as it might be, it’s a particularly storybook enclave set at the edge of the Black Forest.
After dropping our bags at the Hotel Am Markt, a family-run intimate “hôtel de charme” in the center of town, we walked a few steps to indulge in three-and-one-half hours of decadence at the 125 year-old Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish baths. A bargain, with a soap and brush massage, the price of entry
is 29 Euros, and at the hotel, advance tickets were two euros less.
Mark Twain once wrote about the baths in Chapter XXI of “A Tramp Abroad” had this to say: “The appointments of the place are so luxurious, the benefit so marked, the price so moderate, and the insults so sure, that you very soon find yourself adoring the Friedrichsbad and infesting it.”
Little has changed since Twain wrote that passage in 1880. It can be a surrealistic experience, to be so completely comfortable in your own skin (and only that) in such a lavish, yet in many ways, stark environment. Men and women separate at the top of the tall staircase to their respective sides where stripped naked, placing all belongings in the lockers and then taken by hand to the showers. Here is where I could remain the rest of my life, under the warm cascade of water, but the sign suggests only a few minutes, before moving on to the next stop — the warm and hot-air baths (54 and 68 degrees Centigrade, respectively). With a cotton sheet to protect you from the wood slats of the lounge and arm chairs in a vast and dark space, it is the first point at which you shed your tensions and inhibitions, melting them off with the warmth and aromatic air.
In a massage room run by muscular women wearing white shorts and tank tops, one surrenders to the strong hands of the masseuses and the scratchiness of the exfoliating brushes. Lathered, rinsed and slapped on the rear denotes the signal for entering the next phase — a Eucalyptus scented steam room with a pyramidal tile stage where the higher you climb, the hotter it gets. Hot drops of water that form and fall from the lit glass domed ceiling burn your skin slightly at which point the pain/pleasure sends you scurrying to the big central pools of varying temperatures (only after another luxurious warm rainhead shower) where the bathing is mixed men and women. Here your own nudity is mirrored by the faux marble statuary and the other indulgent souls under the tall domed ceilings.
If you follow the schedule and move from pool to pool, cooling and heating your body with each immersion, it is said you will drop a kilo of weight. Before leaving and checking the scale, you are to totally cream your body head to toe then lie cocooned in warm towels and blankets in a softly-lit circular room where one can think prenatal thoughts and shed every ounce of tension.
At the end of the session, a bit waterlogged, but stress-free, we were ready for an evening at the Baden-Baden casino and cocktail lounge. At the gaming tables, we watched the international clientele place their bets, rather than gamble ourselves. In the adjacent lounge, we drank till we got drunk, danced till we dripped with sweat and laughed without reservation.
Baden-Baden isn’t only for bathing and betting. A Mecca of cobblestoned pedestrian streets, chic boutiques, excellent dining establishments and art galleries, it attracts a cultured European following. At the contemporary Museum Sammlung Frieder Burda, designed by American architect Richard Meier, we visited the Marc Chagall exhibit titled “A New Light” and at a slow pace shopped finding big bargains, by French standards.
I did not leave Baden-Baden without making one important purchase — a round stiff-bristled body brush just like the one that exfoliated our skin to pure goodness, if not Baden-ness.
Hotel Am Markt
Friedrichsbad Roman-Irish Baths
Museum Frieder Burda
Rathausglöckel Hotel and Restaurant
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