FINE TIME BY THE RHINE

Philip Thorni­ley dis­cov­ers the time­less plea­sures of a Ger­man river­side hot-springs re­sort

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IAM in the west Ger­man spa city of Wies­baden, which sits be­tween the foothills of the Taunus Moun­tains and the Rhine River. This is one of those sat­is­fy­ingly com­plete, small Euro­pean cities, with a me­dieval Old Town closed to traf­fic and sur­rounded by el­e­gant tree-lined av­enues dat­ing from the 1880s.

A pop­u­la­tion of about 270,000 sup­ports a so­phis­ti­cated lifestyle with four the­atres, three orches­tras, four mu­se­ums, a casino and a host of fes­ti­vals and mar­kets. Think Vi­enna on a one-sixth scale.

Best white-knuckle ride: At Frank­furt air­port taxi driv­ers hud­dle and eye the prospects. I con­fer with the Turk­ish driver and agree on a fare of j35 ($60) for the 30km drive to Wies­baden. Within min­utes we’re on the A66 au­to­bahn and as the speedome­ter hits 180km/h, a BMW ap­pears be­hind us from nowhere and flashes its head­lights. My driver re­luc­tantly pulls over to let it pass.

Af­ter about 15 min­utes of this high-speed lane-chang­ing we leave the au­to­bahn and en­ter the streets of Wies­baden.

Best ar­rival: I check into my ho­tel and leave my bag, then wan­der down Wil­helm­strasse, the main street, lined with im­mac­u­lately pol­larded plane trees, and into Wies­baden’s Alt­stadt, the Old Town, headed for Kaiser Friedrich Therme.

Built on the site of an an­cient Ro­man bath, the Kaiser Friedrich Therme is enor­mous. Its cen­tre­piece is a pool heated by a hot spring, the same one that at­tracted the Ro­mans. Around the pool are ranged steam rooms, in­clud­ing a Fin­nish-style sauna, a cold-wa­ter pool and an ice rain shower.

Soon af­ter I en­ter, I’mpassed by two rather se­ri­ous-look­ing mid­dle-aged women, one of whom points to my swim­mers and says: Bader­ho­sen. As they are con­spic­u­ously naked, I re­alise what the at­ten­dant on the re­cep­tion desk meant by ‘‘ tex­tile free’’. I blame my over­sight on jet lag, re­treat to the change rooms to re­move the of­fend­ing Speedos and won­der what it is about Ger­many that uni­forms and nu­dity can be treated with equal se­ri­ous­ness.

De­spite this faux pas, I’m feel­ing pleased with my­self. It’s just af­ter 10am, two hours ago I was clear­ing Cus­toms at Frank­furt air­port, and now I’m about to spend a stress­free hour or two at Wies­baden’s main ther­mal spa. An hour af­ter I en­ter Kaiser Friedrich Therme, ev­ery pore has been opened and 24 hours of fly­ing seem a dis­tant me­mory. I col­lapse on to a day bed and doze.

The baths were built in the glory days of the Ger­man em­pire and opened just be­fore World War I. De­ter­mined not to let the French have all the run­ning in the fash­ion­able spa stakes, cities across Ger­many built elab­o­rate bath houses. En­try j17.50; www.wies­baden.eu/baths.

Best peo­ple-watch­ing: The Old Town is largely closed to traf­fic, its nar­row wind­ing laneways lined with 18th-cen­tury houses. Backer­brun­nen, Baker’s Foun­tain, on Graben­strasse, is the place where ev­ery­one meets. I’ve ar­ranged to join a friend at Becks am Backer­brun­nen, a busy pub, but can hardly see her across the smoky room. Ger­mans still smoke in restau­rants and bars, though Wies­baden friends tell me the lo­cal gov­ern­ment is draft­ing anti-smok­ing laws. We re­treat to an out­side ta­ble to watch the pass­ing pa­rade.

Best wurst: At Becks I come to grips with a 30cm-long bratwurst doused in hot mus­tard for j8 and wash it down with a long pils (pil­sner) at j2.40.

Best lit­tle moun­tain: A kilo­me­tre or so out of town is Ner­oberg, Wies­baden’s own min­i­moun­tain. Ris­ing just 500m, it is planted with state-owned ries­ling vine­yards. At the top sits the city’s most pop­u­lar swim­ming pool and a cafe ter­race with great views across the val­ley. It is reached by fu­nic­u­lar rail­way.

Best rail­way: I climb to the Ner­oberg peak via the fu­nic­u­lar. The yel­low-painted open­sided cars are a must-see for kids of all ages. Built in the 1880s and op­er­ated by wa­ter bal­last, they’re silent and pol­lu­tion-free. We all lean over the sides to watch the wa­ter tanks be­ing emp­tied with a whoosh from the up-car, then climb the 440m track through the vine­yards, pass­ing the down-car half­way and yelling greet­ings in a dozen lan­guages.

The train runs ev­ery 10 to 15 min­utes and it takes about 15 min­utes to reach the top. Tick­ets from the sta­tion; j3 for a round trip.

Best pool with a view: At the up­per sta­tion of the Ner­oberg rail­way is the Opel­bad, an out­door swim­ming pool built in dis­tinc­tive Bauhaus style and named for its spon­sor, the founder of the fa­mous Ger­man car firm. To­day it’s packed with fam­i­lies and I stop for a beer on the sun­deck and gaze over the stun­ning views of the city.

Best Rus­sian relic: There’s a great deal of Rus­sian be­ing spo­ken on the train as we climb the Ner­oberg and I ask where the speak­ers are from. Wies­baden, says one of a group of school­girls, and she ex­plains the Rus­sian con­nec­tions.

In the mid-19th cen­tury one of the rul­ing Nas­sau dy­nasty took a Rus­sian bride, a princess from St Petersburg. She died in child­birth, and mother and baby are buried in a golden-domed chapel on the Ner­oberg, at Chris­tian-Spielmann-Weg 2, over­look­ing the city. Af­ter Ger­man re­uni­fi­ca­tion a few fam­i­lies of Rus­sian speak­ers from Sile­sia in the for­mer East Ger­many also set­tled here.

We walk to the chapel and ar­rive in time to see two ba­bies be­ing chris­tened by a bearded Ortho­dox priest.

Best lo­cal trans­port: The two-day Wies­baden Tourist Card of­fers rail trans­fer from Frank­furt air­port or Mainz Main Sta­tion to and from Wies­baden, all pub­lic trans­port in and around the city, ad­mis­sion to Wies­baden Casino and a range of dis­counts on mu­seum en­try, sight­see­ing boats on the Rhine and more. The card costs j11.90 for one per­son, with a group rate of j22.50 for up to five, and is avail­able from Wies­baden Tourist Of­fice, at Mark­strasse 6.

Best art-nou­veau stroll: Dur­ing the city’s hey­day, at the end of the 19th cen­tury, wealthy Ger­mans built vil­las in the art nou­veau style, in the gen­tle hills around Wies­baden, along the Nero­tal stream and be­side the Rhine. They have been con­verted into stylish apart­ments for pro­fes­sion­als who work in nearby Frank­furt, a 20-minute com­mute away. The tourism of­fice runs es­corted art-nou­veau walks, among an ex­ten­sive range of other city tours. A 90-minute ex­cur­sion costs j7.50.

Best baroque palace: Schloss Biebrich, on Rhein­gaus­trasse, on the Rhine bank, is a flam­boy­ant palace of three wings, built be­tween 1700 and 1750 as a royal home for the fam­ily of the rul­ing dukes of Nas­sau (at that time, be­fore Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion, each city-state had its own rul­ing fam­ily). Only the gar­dens are open to the pub­lic.

Best shop­ping: For­get the kilo­joules. Three gen­er­a­tions of Kun­ders have been mak­ing choco­late and con­fec­tionary with a Wies­baden flavour since 1898, at Kun­der Con­fis­erie, Wil­helm­strasse 12. Among what seems at least 100 of­fer­ings are Wies­badener ananas­tortchen (pineap­ple tart) made from a recipe dat­ing from 1903. Rhein­gauer ries­ling- truf­fel (white choco­late with ries­ling wine and al­monds) and teufels­birnchen (an al­co­hol-soaked pear in dark choco­late). Pre­sented in boxes with views of Wies­baden, they make great sou­venirs if you can re­sist the temp­ta­tion to eat them on the spot.

For a length­ier ram­ble, Taunusstrasse, on the edge of the Old Town, is home to an eclec­tic mix of an­tiques and cu­rio shops. Look out for the dis­tinc­tive, lo­cally made wine glasses: green-stemmed for ries­ling and brown-stemmed for moselle.

Best fine din­ing: Restau­rant M, on the ground floor of the Ho­tel de France (see Best beds), has quickly be­come one of the re­gion’s finest. The din­ing room re­tains some of the fea­tures of the 1880s man­sion, with high ceil­ings, orig­i­nal mould­ings and chan­de­liers. Chef-owner Markus Seegert’s Aus­trian ori­gins and a fas­ci­na­tion with ori­en­tal cui­sine pro­duce the sort of fu­sion dishes Aus­tralians have be­come ac­cus­tomed to, though with in­ter­est­ing twists (and menu spellings). The list in­cludes mango-curry lemon-grass soup with veg­etable ‘‘ wan tan’’ and truf­fle tortellini. Among the desserts on of­fer are Aus­trian quark dumplings and warm choco­late cake with mousse au choco­lat and lemon grass ice cream. There’s a small se­lec­tion of lo­cal and Aus­trian wines by the glass; three cour­ses costs about j50.

Best sum­mer fes­ti­val: Be­tween June and Septem­ber, Wies­baden hosts the Rhein­gau Mu­sic Fes­ti­val with a galaxy of in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous per­form­ers and orches­tras. This year’s fes­ti­val in­cluded Am­s­ter­dam’s Con­cert­ge­bouw Orches­tra con­ducted by An­dre Previn, the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and the Mu­nich Phil­har­monic. One of the first to sell out was a Leonard Bern­stein pro­gram with the Lon­don Royal Phil­har­monic.

Sum­mer Fes­ti­val 2008 will in­clude per­for­mances at Eber­bach Monastery (a Mozart night at the monastery will cost from j28 and a vi­o­lin con­cert with Anne-So­phie Mut­ter j200). www.rhein­gau-musik-fes­ti­val.de.

Best win­ter event: The an­nual Christ­mas mar­ket (Wies­baden Stern­schnup­pen­markt) in Schloss­platz (Palace Square) of­fers a trove of arts and crafts and Christ­mas spe­cial­ties.

There’s a daily pro­gram of choir mu­sic, na­tiv­ity plays, con­certs and fairy­tale sto­ries to sea­son the shop­ping fest. From Novem­ber 27 to De­cem­ber 23. Check­list Qan­tas flies daily to Frank­furt. Emi­rates, Eti­had and most South­east Asian air­lines of­fer con­nec­tions. Wies­baden is about 30km from Frank­furt air­port. www.ger­many-tourism.de www.wies­baden.de

Bathing beauty: Clock­wise from bot­tom left, Wies­baden’s Rus­sian chapel; Schloss Biebrich; Old Town; the fu­nic­u­lar; Kaiser Friedrich Therme

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