Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Germany - Day 1, Baden-Baden

The Ryanair website is like quicksand; once you are in there it sucks you in deeper and deeper looking for bargain flight offers and it is difficult to get out. It is cleverly designed to work that way so that you visit more and more pages in a frenzied search for the best deals. I like the 1p deals with reduced Government taxes best so was delighted to find some all-inclusive flights for £23.00 to Baden-Baden. I imagine that Ryanair web surfing is not unlike being hooked on class A drugs and although I really had no idea where Baden-Baden is, except that I knew that it is in Germany, I really didn’t care. I was determined to have the flights so booked without giving the transaction a second thought.

After it had been confirmed I set out to discover where it was exactly and to learn something about the destination. I had made the assumption that it must be worth visiting because, as in the Frank Sinatra song, like New York they named it twice. I was delighted to discover that Baden-Baden is a town in Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany and located on the banks of the River Oos, a tributory of the mighty Rhine, at the northern foothills of the Black Forest. It is also only fifty kilometres away from the French border and close to the city of Strasbourg and only roughly the same distance from Speyer which is the twin town of Spalding. So planning an itinery was very straight forward indeed.

The airport was about fifteen kilometres away and with a cheap hire car and a good map purchased from a garage next to the airpark the journey into the town was relatively easy until that is it came to pinpointing the exact location of the hotel Merkur and this required a couple of circuits of the town and several requests for assistance. It was much too early for check-in so a visit to a local hostelry seemed appropriate to get a better understanding of the layout of the town. After refreshment in a typical German bar next to a statue of the German Chancellor who created Germany, Otto Von Bismarck and complete with Tyrolean music and waitresses in traditional black forest costumes a walk around the town revealed some wonderful buildings and adjacent parks with elevated walks that gave good views over the town and the surrounding countryside.

Baden-Baden is a spa town not unlike Harrogate in Yorkshire but with a distinctly mediterranean flair. Anyone who has visited Harrogate will know that this is probably the only town in England north of the M25 where the residents consider themselves posher than those in Surrey and I got the impression that it might be the same here in Baden-Baden. There was a smell of money about the place and the people, the buildings, the parks and the shops were all well turned out. There was even a cake shop that was a dead ringer for Betty’s tea Room!

The springs of Baden-Baden were known to the Romans, and the foundation of the town is attributed to the Emperor Hadrian but the town’s heyday was in the nineteenth century when the town became a favourite with the aristocracy of Europe and featured prominently on their annual itinerary of places to visit and in the centre of the town and outside the Kurhaus spa, is an impressive bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I who also rather liked this place. At that time it was called simply Baden as it always had been since the middle ages and it was only in 1931 that the town was officially given its double name which literally means Baden in the State of Baden, I suppose that would be a bit like Warwick-Warwick or Derby-Derby if the same principle was adopted in the UK. In both World Wars, the town was fortunate to escape damage or destruction which must have been a huge stroke of luck considering what happened to most of the Rhine towns and cities and after World-War-Two it became the headquarters of the French forces in occupied Germany who rather found the place to their liking.

It was time for lunch and a welcoming little restaurant was the perfect place. A glance at the menu confirmed my excellent judgement in earlier purchasing a German phrase book because the menu interpretation looked especially tricky with very few words that meant anything at all to me. I have become familiar with French and Spanish and even Italian menus and can order food with some certainty but there was room for serious gastro mistakes to be made here. My only real knowledge of the German language is what I learnt as a boy from the Victor, which was a jingoistic publication for boys that featured stories about British gallantry in the two world wars of the twentieth century, and as these were stories about British heroes the comics were restricted to a handful of often repeated German phrases; ‘Achtung’, ‘Luftwaffe’, “Hände Hoch!’ and my personal favourite ‘donnerwetter!’ that translates strictly as ‘thunder weather’. I am not at all sure if that is a real German word at all and I can’t find it in the dictionary but I suppose it was meant to be a curse and realistically this was a kids comic so I don’t suppose they could use the more appropriate ‘fücken hölle’ without getting a postbag full of complaints from angry parents.

Even this early in the visit I found that I was being forced into a reassessment of the German people. They were friendly and good mannered and even though there was a lot of mud in the moules marniere, which was the special of the day, and made me worry about an upset stomach, lunch was excellent. Here in their own country the people were so obliging and polite and not at all like the loud pushy archetypes that we had encountered before on holiday in Spain or Portugal where in the style of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland they notoriously blitzkrieg the hotels and commandeer the best pool side sun loungers. I have to say that it was a real pleasure to be here and not really what I was expecting at all, it felt relaxed, refined and cultured and I was glad of that and to have my national prejudices so quickly readjusted. In fact the overwhelming experience of hospitality made me think about just what is it that sets people against people and how was it that only sixty years or so ago we had such hatred for each other that resulted in a bloody and terrible war. I hope that we are all Europeans now and that it will forever remain that way.

Later that evening there was a second walk into the town to find somewhere for an evening meal and the choice and variety of restaurants was most surprising. There were the expensive ones of course in the vicinity of the casino but we were looking for was something more in our style, a simple place with an authentic menu and average prices and for this it meant going into the town centre. Here there was a French restaurant with a traditional menu but with a full house this meant another visit to the lively German bar opposite to wait for an available table. And it was worth it because the food was first class but my choice of cassoulet had a rather overly generous portion of beans that I feared, combined with the mud moules might have an unfortunate effect on my digestive system later on.

It was a fine evening and the walk back to the Merkur was down the Stiftskirche, a main street through the heart of the town where the finest buildings are situated. First the Kurhaus, which is Baden-Baden's most famous landmark, and is one of the most beautiful buildings in town. Originally it was a Promenade House and was the place to see and be seen, and even today is the hub of the town's social scene and contains beautiful spa gardens filled with shops, bars and reading rooms. Next the oldest casino in Germany that has been a favourite amongst people from all over Europe for two hundred years or so. The casino is built in the style of an elegant French chateau, and jackets and ties for men, as well as evening wear for women are mandatory. As we was travelling light we definitely did not have the appropriate dress and not nearly enough money either so entrance was not an option.

Interestingly the Russian writer Dostoevsky wrote ‘The Gambler’ in Baden-Baden while compulsively gambling at this famous Casino. Finally The Friedrichsbad, or Old Baths, which was built between 1869 and1877 under the order of Grand Duke Friedrich von Baden. They follow the Roman-Irish method, which takes around two hours to complete the whole program, which includes a shower; two saunas 55°c and 70°c; a brush massage, soaping, thermal steam baths and three freshwater baths.

It was late and it had been a long day so lacking the will for reading, the money for gambling or the energy for bathing the only thing left to do was to return to the hotel and look forward to a day in the Black Forest tomorrow.

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