FINE TIME BY THE RHINE
Philip Thorniley discovers the timeless pleasures of a German riverside hot-springs resort
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