Not far north on the easy and free autobahn is the grand old spa town of Baden Baden. After 14 days of travelling we had clocked up just over 600 miles as we entered the aire on the outskirts of town.
The parking area was emptying of vans when we arrived just after 9am. Our timing was good, within an hour it would be full of touring Italians bringing their particular brand of calamity. We found a bus into town, which we could travel on for free, having paid the tourist ‘kurtax’ of a euro each for a day.
The elegant town is surprisingly small. The main sights of the Trink Halle, Casino, Belle Epoch hotels and of course, Friedrichsbad spa, are within a short few minutes’ stroll.
The expensive fashion boutiques and plentiful health and beauty treatment rooms in the centre cluster around public fountains and its squares and the wide streets wind up towards the foothills of the forest.
The plentiful tree lined walkways and inviting seats and benches reminded us that this is a town where the main business is about relaxation. It was however, very quiet.
The boutiques were empty except for bored looking staff, and the coffee houses and restaurant terraces hosted many empty chairs and tables.
Perhaps a clue to the lack of visitors was evident at every gathering point – the town’s famed water fountains were dry. Even in the Trink Halle, the colonnaded neo-classical pump room built in 1839 for visiting bathers and drinkers of the town’s rich mineral waters, the sound was of silence.
Signs advised that the water systems were being cleaned and were expected to be working again in September, 2013. Clearly one year later there was still an issue.
We asked about bathing in the historical and elegant baths but were, frankly, put off by the reality of public nudity and the strict regime of the seventeen bathing stations.
Once the three hour process of cold showers, hot showers, saunas, soap and brush cleaning and finally bathing in the thermal waters was explained to us.
We were advised that “you must take off all of your clothes now and we will give you a towel only when you are going to use the sauna, but you must not wear it only sit on it” we made our exit blushing our thanks.
Saturday night in Baden Baden is about its casino. However as neither our budget nor our wardrobe lent themselves to spin at the tables we elected to bike to a nearby supermarket for supplies where we found most of the locals enjoying early evening shopping at the huge ‘Europe cite’ complex.
The locals clearly have a different life to the town’s paying and pampered customers. Giving a nod to the champagne lifestyle we toasted the town with a bottle of our Luxembourg cremant as the heavy rain slowly cleared.
The next morning, it was an early start to scale the heights of the ‘Schlossberg’ and see Baden Baden from above.
Perhaps predictably we took a wrong turn and gave ourselves a far longer and steeper walk than was necessary. However scaling Hard Berg in 400 meters was fun as we discovered the wooden huts of winter hikers and enjoyed the morning mists rising up through the forest.
Stopping for a welcome coffee at the ‘Altes Schloss’ we joined guests enjoying their Sunday morning breakfast.
The red sandstone castle was built in the 11th century and despite being partly in ruins its scale remains hugely impressive. From a windy walkway above the ‘knights room’ where an original Opperman wind harp sang out eerie notes we had clear views of the Rhine winding its way along the border, and of the French Vosges mountains.
Both of the town’s imposing castles are now derelict but interestingly it is the older one which is faring better.
We discovered the ‘Neues Schloss’ on the way back down to town locked up and under scaffold, in the ownership of Arabs planning to open a luxury hotel (another one) in April 2013.
Like the drinking fountains, repair work seemed to have come to a halt some time ago.
Town however was bustling and busy in the lunchtime sunshine and today all the tables and chairs were full of diners tucking into huge plates of roasted pork and smoked ‘shinken’ as well of course, Black Forest Cake.
It was lovely to meander along the tree-lined walkway of the Lichenteller Allee and to enjoy the elegant sights one last time in the Autumnal sunshine.