Travel + Leisure (USA)
THE ROYAL TREATMENT
Once a watering hole for the upper crust, the German spa town of Baden-Baden has retained its aura of grandeur while going high-tech and high-style.
IN 1878, MARK TWAIN visited Baden-Baden to seek relief from rheumatism. At the time, the German spa town, which lies on the edge of the Black Forest, was Europe’s most fashionable. (Among the crowned heads who spent their summers there were Queen Victoria and King Alfonso of Spain.) Twain didn’t like the blue-blooded crowd, finding them “aimless and stupid.” But the baths were another matter. He checked himself in to Friedrichsbad (carasana.de), then a new spa housed in an ornate Beaux-Arts building, where he spent hours luxuriating in a white marble tub filled with hot spring water. “I fully believe I left my rheumatism in Baden-Baden,” he wrote. “I would have preferred to leave something catching, but it was not in my power.” Baden-Baden remains Europe’s most famous spa town: last year it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. But its treatments have moved beyond the merely aquatic. One morning last fall I checked in to Villa Stéphanie, a grand Belle Époque mansion on the leafy grounds of Brenners Park-Hotel (oetkercollection.com; doubles from $660). Originally built to accommodate royal and aristocratic visitors—it is named after Napoleon’s adopted daughter, Stéphanie de Beauharnais, Grand Duchess of Baden—it now operates as a cutting-edge medical spa. At Brenners today, the thermal waters that made Baden-Baden’s name are an old-fashioned irrelevance. Instead, guests can consult specialists in internal medicine and orthopedics and have their teeth fixed, blood tested, and sleep analyzed. They can even have their genetic makeup scanned for hidden vulnerabilities. “This is serious,” said Harry Konig, MD, who runs the place. “We are not a pampering department.” My rooms suggested otherwise. I was shown to a suite on the top floor with views of the Lichtentaler Allee, the tree-lined promenade where Twain
watched aristocrats “limping about on canes and crutches.” The shelves lining the blond-wood walls were stuffed with art books and vinyl records, and my private exercise room came with its own sauna. Contrary to Konig’s forbidding pronouncement, as I settled in to the first of many cups of turmeric tea, I felt very pampered indeed. Thankfully, I had no need of Konig’s more invasive procedures. Like many people, I had spent much of the pandemic at home eating takeout while hunched over my laptop. This had resulted in a paunch and a chronic neck ache. At Villa Stéphanie, I was prescribed a strict vegetarian diet—dinners of stuffed zucchini, breakfasts of buckwheat porridge—and a course of massages and wraps to loosen my vertebrae and extract my toxins. So it was that on the first afternoon I found myself lying on a heated bed on the ground floor of the five-story spa. A mild-mannered massage therapist slathered me in dark-green algae, wrapped me in plastic from the neck down, and left me to marinate while ocean sounds lapped gently at my ears. Facilities like Villa Stéphanie have usurped BadenBaden’s baths as curative centers, but the thermal waters are still a draw for tourists. One afternoon I took a walk down Lichtentaler Allee toward one of the public spas. Although it was late October, there was a restorative warmth in the air. A horse and carriage with a top-hatted driver ferried tourists around the park and the Trinkhalle, a grand, Neoclassical pumphouse with a frescoed promenade under its portico. Peeping out from behind the trees, which were turning red and gold, were wedding-cake villas. The scene recalled the opening pages of Ivan Turgenev’s novel Smoke, which is set in Baden-Baden and describes its “bright houses” and “kindly sunshine.” COVID-19 kept Friedrichsbad shuttered during my visit—which in some ways came as a relief, seeing as nudity is compulsory. Instead, once I arrived in the town center, I went next door to Caracalla (carasana.de), which first opened in the 1980s and was named after a spa-loving Roman emperor. The building is now a slightly tired-looking tribute to classical splendor—marble pillars
surround a glass-and-steel rotunda—but it remains wildly popular. Its steaming outdoor pools and hot tubs were brimming with bathers, as were the more bracing hot and cold plunge pools inside. Even the staircase leading to a sauna where clothes are forbidden was carrying heavy traffic. Too bashful to join them, I instead sat under a waterfall and enjoyed the feeling of the thermal water hammering into my shoulders. Just as UNESCO has recognized Baden-Baden’s historical bathing culture, others are trying to give it a fresh spin. A short walk from Caracalla is Roomers (roomers-hotels.com; doubles from $220), a hip hotel that opened in 2016 in a boxy white building designed by Piero Lissoni, the Italian minimalist architect. Roomers is an offshoot of a hotel in Frankfurt known for its bar, and it has the same youthful, urban energy—the opposite of Villa Stéphanie’s medicalized luxury. The lobby is decorated with brash contemporary art, like portraits of Superman and Superwoman by Sacha Goldberger. Its excellent panAsian restaurant, Moriki, is run by a Vietnamese-German restaurateur, The Duc Ngo, who opened his first sushi joint in Berlin in the 1990s and now runs trendy fusion restaurants all over the country. “When I hear the words BadenBaden, I always think old, conservative, rich,” Ngo told me. Roomers is designed to “break with that conservative style.” The hotel had a rocky beginning, according to its manager, Marcus Scholz. “Baden-Baden is a difficult place to change,” he said. “Anything that is new is considered bad. The people here took a while to accept us.” But now the hotel is thriving. Shortly after I arrived, a crowd of twentysomethings turned up for a weekend away from Karlsruhe, a nearby university town and tech hub. I joined them at the rooftop spa, which encapsulates the exuberant image the hotel is trying to bring to Baden-Baden. Housed in a sharp glass box with views over the town’s rooftops, it is a place to party rather than to relax. That afternoon, the crowd lounged around the swimming pool in fluffy white robes, drinking cocktails and listening to house music. Among southern Germany’s tech crowd, at least, Roomers has supplanted rheumatism as a reason to take the waters.