Love in the Black Forest
The German spa town of Baden- Baden is moving with the times, replacing its aristocratic image with a modern look, writes Neil Geraghty
Baden- Baden and Banksy? You might think that the two go together like chalk and cheese, but in an unlikely twist of fate, the 21st century’s most talked about painting, the infamous shredded Love Is In The Bin, recently turned up here for its first public viewing and created quite a buzz in this well heeled Black Forest spa town.
I’m visiting Baden- Baden for a late winter break and I’m staying in the Brenners Park Hotel, a palatial 19th century pile that was once a summer retreat for royal families from across the globe.
The hotel looks out over the Lichtentaler Allee, a ribbon of English- style parkland that follows the gentle course of the River Oos.
Across the river the crisp, minimalist lines of the Museum Frieder Burda stand in total contrast to the Brenners Park’s flamboyant Belle Epoque architecture. The
Museum is a private art foundation that houses more than 700 works by famous artists including several by Picasso and in the foyer, I join a throng of excited visitors from all over the world queueing up for wrist bands that allow free entry into the room featuring the Banksy exhibit.
We walk up a gently sloping ramp to the upper galleries and a sense of pilgrimage hangs in the air. In front of the iconic painting, I walk through the crowds and catch snippets of hushed conversations.
Some compare it to a modern day Mona Lisa while others think it is a crude publicity stunt, but everybody seems to have fallen in love with it. From out of the blue, Baden- Baden has become one of the coolest towns in Europe.
In reality, the Banksy exhibit is symptomatic of subtle changes that in recent years have seen BadenBaden cast off its fusty aristocratic image to become a centre for more contemporary leisure activities.
Fine dining and cutting- edge wellness treatments have led the way and after checking in at Brenners Park Hotel, I head down to the lounge for an afternoon tea where I immediately get an inkling of the wonderful local ingredients that abound in the Black Forest region.
Top amongst them is black salsify, a Mediterranean root crop that thrives in the sunny lowland valleys. I try a glass of foaming salsify soup and the flavour is a delicious explosion of intense asparagus and wild mushroom notes.
The dense woodlands of the Black Forest are a haven for foraging wild boar and the hams and sausages of the region are famous throughout Germany.
To accompany the soup, I pick up a piece of crisp rye bread spread with a layer of onion confit and decorated with coils of wafer- thin smoked ham.
Of course no visit to the Black Forest is complete without trying its worldfamous gateau and on a three- tiered cake stand I spot several variations of this classic.
I choose a pudding- like version that resembles an Eton mess but is a masterclass in contrasting textures and flavours. The black cherries are enormous and when I bite into one, a spray of fiery kirsch slices through the moist chocolate sponge.
Alongside the food scene, the quality of Baden- Baden’s local wines has improved enormously in recent years and in the afternoon I take
Fine dining and cutting- edge wellness treatments have led the way
a scenic 20 minute drive through the foothills of the Black Forest to a wine tasting at Schloss Neuweier, a beautiful 12th- century castle which stands beneath a mountain slope covered in sunlit vineyards.
Over a mouth- watering platter of terrines, sausages and local cheeses, owner Robert Schatzle introduces us to his prize- winning rieslings. The wines have a complex minerality that cascades over the tongue and lingers long on the palette. The grand crus, Robert points out, would have been very familiar to visiting royals in the 19th century including Queen Victoria who visited the Black Forest several times. Sipping the aristocratic wine I could well imagine her hobnobbing with Kaisers and Tsars in the gilded salons of Baden- Baden.
Back in Brenners Park Hotel, I stroll over to neighbouring Villa Stephanie for a wellness treatment in their beautiful spa. Traditional therapies in Baden- Baden often involve long immersions in hot, salt- rich water that bubbles out of 12 springs in and around the town. This can be dehydrating for the skin and at Villa Stephanie the water is ionised with ozone for a softer impact on the skin.
After a visit to the steam bath and a dip in the plunge pool I undergo an upper body and facial treatment that combines shiatsu, exfoliation, lymphatic drainage massage and aromatherapy. I pick an energising peppermint and geranium oil mix for the massage and it’s a good choice. After an hour’s treatment of gentle scrubbing, stretching and massaging I feel completely refreshed and am raring to discover the culinary delights of Baden- Baden’s restaurant scene.
A common problem facing grand historic hotels is how to update their dining facilities without impacting the hotels’ heritage too much. In the case of Brenners Park’s new Fritz and Felix restaurant, the management brought in acclaimed Londonbased designers Gorgeous Group to sprinkle some retro magic over the interior design.
The bar is a delightful Art Deco inspired space straight out of The
Great Gatsby. Alcoves of marooncoloured banquettes lit by globe wall lamps surround an island bar where bartenders rustle up beautifully crafted contemporary cocktails. Thursday night is Negroni night and guests sitting at the bar sip tumblers sparkling like rubies as ice in the Campari- based cocktail captures and reflects the mellow light.
From the roaring 1920s bar the main restaurant transports guests to the 1970s where a fun lounge- like atmosphere encourages diners to relax and enjoy an informal slow food experience.
The culinary concept behind Fritz and Felix is to take a handful of the finest local ingredients and create light dishes with punchy contrasting flavours.
Head chef Sebastian Mattis believes in making the fruit and vegetable components of his dishes the star attractions and a tasting menu starts with braised rhubarb in oyster sauce accompanied by a slice of foie gras.
The delicate pink rhubarb is the first forced crop of the season and its sweet acidity tempers the richer flavours of duck and oyster. Other local vegetable treats include seared leeks sprinkled with shards of black truffle and baby carrots poached in orange blossom- infused buttermilk.
The food is a far cry from the traditional meat- heavy classics of Black Forest cuisine and although I get through eight courses, at the end of the meal my stomach feels as light as a feather.
I leave the restaurant through the bar which is filled with a casually dressed crowd enjoying the jazzy informal atmosphere. Baden- Baden has come a long way from the stuffy formality of yesteryear and as I glance at one of the cocktail glasses, I spot a miniature version of Love Is In The
Bin drawn on the foam. How cool is that?
Easyjet ( www. easyjet. com) flies directly from Edinburgh to Stuttgart with fares starting from £ 29 each way. Double rooms at the Brenners Park Hotel start at € 360 per night, including access to the spa and fitness
facilities. For more information visit www. oetkercollection.com
The view across the Black Forest spa town of Baden- Baden, main; the pool at the Brenners Park Hotel spa, above
The exterior of the Brenners Park Hotel in Baden- Baden