The elegant German spa town of Baden-Baden has always been about the pursuit of pleasure as well as health.
James Collard looks explores its glorious history – and contemporary appeal.
The dome of the Friedrichsbad, Baden-Baden’s temple to the art of bathing
There are several towns called Baden, which means “baths” in old German, but there’s only one Baden-Baden – a handsome spa town nestling in a valley on the edge of the Black Forest, a few kilometres from the Rhine and the French border. And it gets that charming double moniker – so good they named it twice? – because this Baden also gave its name to the region that surrounds it. Today, that’s the state of Baden-Württemberg in the Federal Republic of Germany, but in the 19th century it was the Grand Duchy of Baden – and Baden-Baden got very grand indeed.
People have been coming Baden for the thermal springs at least since Roman times, and visitors today can still take a dip in the naturally-heated thermal waters – either in the modern Caracalla Therme baths (named after the Roman emperor who came here to relieve his aches and pains back in the 3rd century AD) or at the splendid Friedrichsbad, a Belle Époque wedding cake of a building – worth a visit for its splendid interior alone. But by the middle of the 19th century, Baden had emerged as Europe’s most fashionable summer playground, with royalty leading the way. Napoleon III visited Baden, while Queen Victoria even owned a villa here (on Kapuzinerstrasse, a short stroll across the gardens from the Trinkhalle or pump room), and so many wealthy Russians summered here that, just like the fashionable winter resorts of Cannes and Nice, Baden-Baden had its own Russian orthodox church, built at the behest of a Romanov princess who’d married into Baden’s ruling family.
The arrival of Napoleon III at Stephanienbad, the hotel that would ultimately become Brenners Park- Hotel & Spa
Dancing on the terrace of Brenners in the 1920s. The hotel opened in 1872, and has hosted royalty, statesmen and presidents
Mr and Mrs Brenner, of the Brenners hotel dynasty, in the 1920s
But these wealthy visitors weren’t just coming to Baden to take the waters or for a health cure. They also came for fun. Witness the splendid theatre, modelled on the Paris Opéra, or the Kurhaus’s magnificent casino, inspired by the Palace of Versailles, not to mention the excellent shopping to be enjoyed, then, as now, on Sophienstrasse. Visitors came for the high-society parties and picnics, for the Thoroughbred racing at Iffezheim, for the gambling, the gossip – and the exceptional food and wine.
Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa has been hosting fun- and health-seeking visitors since the 1870s, and is therefore a good place to consider why – no matter how much else has changed since that era – Baden-Baden retains its charm and singular appeal. For a start, there’s the delightful setting – which, like Baden’s English namesake, Bath, combines urban architecture at its most elegant with pastoral, bucolic surroundings. “Do come to Baden-Baden,” wrote the Russian author Turgenev to his friend, the author Flaubert. “Here are the most magnificent trees I have ever seen. They do wonders for the eyes and the soul.” And Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa backs onto parkland, the river Oos and those trees Turgenev enthused about, above the Lichtentaler Allee. This, in the 19th century, was one of the most fashionable carriageways in Europe. Today it’s a lovely park which is also home to the handsome Richard Meier-designed Museum Frieder Burda, which houses visiting shows and the extensive collection of modern and contemporary art collected by the print entrepreneur and philanthropist of that name.
For as well as Belle Époque charm, Baden-Baden exudes contemporary culture. As Brenners’ general manager, Simon Spiller, sees it, this is very much part of Baden’s appeal. “It’s extraordinary that this small city in Germany has such a world-class cultural offering,” he explains, citing the world-class art at the Burda and the frequent performances by the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic or the Marinsky Ballet at the impressive Festspielhaus (a deft architectural fusion of Baden’s old Belle Époque railway station and a vast modernist auditorium). On a much smaller scale, some of us would also cite the town’s many antique shops, stocked with wonderful Art Deco, or the quirky Fabergé Museum, with its bejewelled eggs, lacquered cigarette boxes and finely worked bonsai trees made by the court jeweller to the Romanovs.
But as the name suggests, the twin pursuits of pleasure and health remain key to the appeal of Brenners Park- Hotel & Spa – which perhaps has at is heart the idea that those two pursuits needn’t be mutually exclusive. For example, although it opened just a few years ago, Brenners’ Villa Stéphanie spa wing has quickly emerged as a leading destination spa, with superb wellness and medical facilities and expertise on hand. But its handsome suites couldn’t be less spartan, and in the Villa’s lounge area, guests can enjoy a glass of delicious wine with their healthy fare. Meanwhile at Brenners itself, guests enjoy all of the comforts of a classic grand hotel, surely German’s nest, now with a contemporary twist in the form of the new Fritz & Felix restaurant, which is all about innovative use of the best local produce and a sense of fun.
Fritz & Felix, the new restaurant at Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, with an emphasis on sharing plates and casual fine dining
The restaurant’s Swiss-born chef, Nenad Mlinarevic
The chef visited local farms to find “the very best of everything”
“For us it’s all about having an exciting restaurant experience,” explains the Swiss-born chef Nenad Mlinarevic, who came up with the concept for a kind of restaurant “that has not existed before in this form in Baden-Baden – and one that should remain in the minds of diners.” The motto here is “casual fine dining” – with a sense of playfulness and fun – as in the name. Fritz and Felix aren’t chefs, but imaginary locals – a Black Forest fox and hare – and local is also a key element for Mlinarevic here, as it is in his own restaurant in Switzerland.
“We visited and carefully evaluated local farms,” he explains, “to find the very best of everything”, including the nest meat and “a wonderful Black Forest trout”.
The décor at Fritz & Felix – by London-based designer, Robert Angell – harks back to the Jazz Age, and for chef de cuisine Sebastian Mattis the look and feel of the place is as important as the food. “We want people to enjoy the atmosphere, and themselves, which is why we included music in the concept, with swing and jazz to create a more club-like ambience, whether guests are just dropping in for a quick snack at the bar or to spend an evening here.” Or, as Mlinarevic describes what they’re aiming for, “Simple but with more than a touch of sophistication”, which sounds to me like a combination that is quintessentially Baden-Baden.