Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Spring in Roulettenburg

It struck me that not much can have changed in Baden-Baden since Dostoyevsky lost a fortune at the gaming tables there and wrote about it in The Gambler with the spa town piquantly disguised as Roulettenburg. Shady and/or blingy Russians are still there in droves, many apparently buying houses and pushing prices up. Speciality brothels thrive, according to the ads in the posh free book I picked up - not that Russians are necessarily the main clients; there are a lot of sheikhs around too. And alongside that exist the well-off aged with their little diamond-collared doggies and the infirm, the parks and walks and still beautiful Black Forest hills around the town. We had the especially good luck to have got a deal at a large, not especially attractively designed but very spacious and comfortable hotel to the south of the centre, which meant walks back and forth either past elegant villas

or along the river Oos which threads through the valley. Magnolias were flourishing or incipient

and just a few trees, chiefly horse chestnuts, were leafing.

The Oos, hardly majestic but fast-flowing after torrential rains, made me think a bit of the grander scale in Inverness and its little bridges. In this case there are many more and they connect the still-elegant Lichtentaler Allee with the big hotels on the other side.

Inevitably most main paths and roads lead to the casino zone. Curiosity didn’t lead me into the casino at night to watch the hollow- or dead-eyed punters I remember so well from dining at one off the Edgware Road (courtesy of our resident Baden-Baden Ochs, Peter Rose, who used to be off in search of cheap eats), but I admired the entrance with its slabs of frieze above

from the rather beautiful foyer of the Kurhaus, which looks to me more deco than belle époque (this area and the concert hall were first developed in the betting-free early years of the First World War).

Retreating through the classically-friezed lobby

back to the main entrance

I found a Russian bride and groom being ostentatiously photographed just after a morning of rain

and I have to admit that the eight Corinthian columns, the paired-griffin frieze and the overall white-and-gold of Friedrich Weinbrenner‘s 1824 façade made a handsome backdrop. Of course the boom came slightly later than the first phase of Kurhaus building, with France’s ban on gambling prompting the enterprise of the Bénazets father and son, both intent on improving the culture and the amenities of the town with the profits from personal disasters. 

Further along the lawns and the green hill which rises behind them is the Trinkhalle, its central hall now the Tourist Information Centre – no drinking the water now – and its 90-metre colonnade frescoed with kitschy representations of local legends. A fine, cool place to rest in the summer, though.

Of course baths came before breaking the bank – the Emperor Caracalla encouraged the founding of Aquae Aureliae and there are fine remains in the basement of the still-thriving Friedrichsbad. I was hoping for a long session here moving from bath to bath, but lost my nerve on learning that the bathing is mixed and nude. The central bath with the big dome above it looked rather splendid in photographs, but I had to make do with a wander around the periphery.

The Friedrichsbad is a kind of symbolic new temple next to the Stiftskirche-Liebfrauen, dark and deserted when I visited. The spire takes you upward through history, from Romanesque square tower through Gothic to a Baroque cupola. 

The interior has little atmosphere and badly-executed 20th century glass, like most churches we visited on the trip, but there are quite a few treasures here. Nicholas Gerhaert von Leyden’s sandstone crucifix of 1467 was hidden behind its pre-Easter purple veil, but as walking around the sacristy seemed to be encouraged, I could catch it side on.

Flanking him are monuments of the Baden-Baden margraves good for a laugh. Ludwig Wilhelm, otherwise known as Türkenlouis from an obvious routing, the instruments of which are at the base with infidels (I presume) kept from his lofty presence among figures of Courage, Justice and Wisdom by Death and an eagle.

His uncle, Leopold Wilhelm, is semi-recumbent in the pose of a Roman tribune, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the nave and side chapels are more devout figures of the Virgin in wood and sandstone, an amazing carved tabernacle which didn’t photograph well and a late 15th century St Christopher.

For a more consistently interesting slice of ecclesiastical art, with a Russian orthodox church half way between the two, 

you have to head south to Lichtental, a mere quarter of an hour’s walk through the park from our hotel. We were lucky to hit the grounds of the old Kloster, still occupied by 30 nuns, in the middle of a Good Friday service. There were anthems and plainsong, and a reading of the Passion which sounded as if it were going to go on for a good deal longer than I wanted to stay; a tall young nun acting Pontius Pilate with nervy lack of conviction made me feel awkward for her and I headed out to the genteel cries of ‘Barabbas!’

I’d intended to walk up to a waterfall but got sidetracked by a very late lunch of pancakes and a turn in the weather, which had been glorious up until about 4. 

So I quickly nipped up to the very attractive villa where Brahms stayed between 1865 and 1874, composing his Deutsches Requiem as well as his Second and Third Symphonies here. 

 In the park by the Oos, there are busts of Brahms

and of his beloved Clara Schumann, who also lived for a while in Lichtental.

Not all profane, then, the Baden-Baden environs. The house is only open on Wednesday afternoons; I’d thought we’d be able to revisit if we came back from Weimar on the morning train, catching the similarly restricted tour of the Kloster’s Fürstenkapelle, but that didn’t happen. We did spend a last night back in Baden-Baden, in curious rooms above the Löwenbräu Biergarten, where Liszt had stayed (Gogol lodged opposite, with a sharp new Russian plaque to mark the spot). By this time spring was at last in full spate, and I got back to find the prunus over the wall of the back yard just about to flourish. Which it did last week

and then the blossoms quickly fell

and it's already over, along with the last flower of the camellia which has bloomed for precisely four months (remember the Christmas tree shot?It's at the foot of the 'Festive Oslo' entry) So now the lovely procession of wisteria and lilacs is under way. And tonight, since my Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of The Gambler has arrived – essential for knowing what’s in French in the dialogue – my soon-to-be spouse (not that I’ll use the name, or ‘husband’, for that matter) will have to put up with the first of many Dostoyevskyan bedtime readings.


David Damant said...

Did going to these spas ( I suppose that Karlsbad was the most famous up to 1914) do any good - I mean health-wise? I would suspect that the waters in these places could easily have been to a limited extent bad for one if drunk. Maybe the regime generally was helpful, rather like a health farm today

David said...

I suspect Baden-Baden always had the edge on Karlsbad, at least in terms in the breadth of its culture (remember Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict inaugurated Benazet Jr's new theatre). And yes, it would have been the general regime. Though steaming rituals are good for one, as I know. Anyway, the walk up and down the Lichtental Allee, as most residents do with dogs of all shapes and sizes, is good for the constitution, too, and the air is healthy.

Catriona said...

After my visit to Baden-Baden in the mid-Seventies, I did a fair bit of research and found out lots about the demi-monde as a result. Paris decamped to Baden-Baden for 'les folies a Bade' in September - horse-racing mainly - and the demi-monde, of course, went too. The memoirs of Marie Colombier, as I recall, had lots of interesting gossip. The Empress Augusta of Prussia had a house there, and Edward VII-to-be stayed there, while he was gallivanting and roistering at the casino. There's an anecdote about Bismark dancing on a table in the casino with his shirt-tail hanging out ...

David said...

How fascinating, Catriona, I'm sure there's an anthology of literature about Baden-Baden to be published. I've seen interesting snippets of Mark Twain's far from enchanted view of the place, so must get hold of the book in question.

Anyway, it's not a place I could love, but it does have the authenticity of being something of what it was in the 19th century.

Of course it's thanks to your wishes that I put together this photo travelogue...

David Damant said...

Crime and Punishment was one of the only two books that I could not stop reading till I had finished. (The other was Wuthering Heights) I gave a copy of Crime and Punishment in Dutch to a young Dutchman who said after he had read it that it was about him ( that is, about the young Dutchman). An insight into the fact that this book is not just a story about a young man who killed an old woman and stole her money, but about ( young) men generally, like Hamlet

Catriona said...

Have you read Leonid Tsypkin's 'Summer in Baden-Baden', described by James Wood in his review for the Guardian as a 'biographical-critical' novel?

David said...

David, yes, I remember you telling now. Now read The Gambler, please.

Catriona, I blush to say I have never even heard the name of Tsypkin, just as last night in Jurowski's superb Rachmaninov concert I had never heard of one of the arrangers, Soviet-era composer Yury Butsko. Now VJ enlightens me that I must hear a two-hour concerto for percussion instruments in a mostly dodecaphonic style... Anyway, I'll now hunt down this book.

Susan Scheid said...

Even though, from your description, it doesn't appear Baden-Baden is a "must visit" place, your photographs are enticing, as always. I do have this extremely vague recollection of a visit to a German spa town, I'm thinking perhaps Karlsbad--which seemed a bit uncomfortably posh to me at the time, but this was decades ago. Back at your homestead, there is something quite lovely about that carpet of prunus blossoms, if only they would stay that lovely for longer than fallen spring blossoms do. In your comments, I had to stand back in a bit of horror at the thought of a two-hour concerto for percussion instruments in a mostly dodecaphonic style. I hope you made it through that one OK. Last not least, if your experience is anything like ours, you may find that dealing with some of the institutional idiocracies gets a little easier once you've got the legal rights we should have had all along.

David said...

The changing parade helps one to adjust to the loss of prunus blossom. Was lunching with an old friend in the Chelsea Physic Garden yesterday - first time there this year - and the Judas trees, with the loveliest blossom of all, were in full bloom with a carpet of bluebells beneath. And on the way home from the city last night, I came across a row of houses in a Kensington back street with wistaria (as I remember it should be spelled), lilac and cyanothus all together.

Thanks for sound advice. Curiously we've never come up against any legal idiocies here, but it's nice that the European Commission acknowledged civil partnerships and now offers more to married couples. My friend Claire and her partner of over 20 years Howard are going to announce their banns on the same day: she's been dead against the institution, but a lawyer advise them it was worth it.

Haven't heard Butsko's magnum opus yet, though VJ has a copy so I could if I asked nicely...

David Damant said...

Susan - Posh should be seen as wonderful - not a reason for being uncomfortable......providing it is genuinely elegant and splendid and not a reflection of artificial pretensions as regretfully it so often is

When I was in Karlsbad ( Karlovy Vary ) 1968 it seemed to have the appearance of a century before - some streets and buildings could have been as Goethe saw them. One of the few advantages of Communist rule was that the tearing down of older buildings was so much slower than in the West. The Pupp Hotel ( then named the Moskva but now again the Pupp) was the only expensive place we found to eat in Czechoslovakia, and splendidly posh despite the regime.

David said...

There's uncomfortable posh, which depends on the beholder, David, and then there's comfortable posh. I would find the Garrick very comfortably posh if it weren't for some of its more bestial and anything but gentlemanly inhabitants (like the one quoted in The Guardian yesterday who said he'd feel uncomfortable with women members because he'd be addressing inferiors).

It's certainly been used as a term of abuse by an identifiable, libellous troll who's been needling me on The Arts Desk, namely in a criticism of a travel piece exclaiming 'you're not writing some pathetic blog for your posh friends' (she has a class hang up, but anyway I'm a lower middle class boy with a spouse and plenty of friends who made their way in life using their nous and not any connections).

Unlike Carlsbad and Marienbad, both places I'd be curious to visit, Baden-Baden has in some ways moved on, in others not. The vulgarity of many of the expensive shops, especially those with signs in Russian, tells you what you need to know about status merchandise today. Hideous, all of it.

Susan Scheid said...

David & David: Posh is probably not a helpful word to use for what I was trying to convey. It's really a question of whether one feels welcome vs. allowed at sufferance. It's when the folks around you (and this doesn't have to do just with money, but it can take that form) give that "down the nose 'what are YOU doing here'" look. I've had it happen once or twice from elegant dowager-type volunteers at the Met Museum, though, thankfully, most of the time, they're just delighted you're delighted with the Met. And I've had it happen when I have a seat amongst certain long-time subscribers at the NY Phil, often the very same who seem bored to death at the music on offer. It's a funny old world.

David said...

I can't imagine you and J have much in common with the Ladies Who Lunch. Least of all the fact that you take your art seriously and for them it's just cultural capital (to make a sweeping generalisation).

I find the term 'posh' is used here in a rather comical fashion by folk who have no concept of what they're talking about (watch a TV reality show like 'Come Dine With Me' and you'll see what I mean.

David Damant said...

I once was looked down upon at a smart cafe in Germany and arranged surreptitiously through a friend that when his sister came to collect me she curtsied. I graciously acquiesced. That showed them.

I also think of Satan's reply when he was not recognised - " Not to know me argues yourself unknown"

Susan Scheid said...

David N: Except, perhaps, Elaine Stritch! Thought of your prunus a bit today, as we were walking in in the glorious weather that's finally arrived, and seeing not only the blossoms on the the trees, but also carpeting the ground.

David D: I laughed out loud at the curtsy story!

wanderer said...

Lovely to read about and glimpse Baden-Baden into which my insights have been zip especially as it has been in local news the last few days since Skelton announced he's withdrawing from making his Tristan debut down here in June with the SSO and has delayed that (debut) till Baden-Baden before taking the role to the Met and then ENO. Bugger.

David said...

Stritch was a bitch, the speakers-ill-of-the-dead maintain. I don't care - she had performing genius and clearly didn't go out of her way to be 'nice'.

The curtsying anecdote is so Damantesque - and not an anecdote I'd heard before.

I imagine even Skelton's Tristan would be lost in the Festspielhaus air hangar, wanderer. You could build a trip around it - or come and see him in London. Gardner's conducting will be something, if his near-perfect Mastersingers was anything to go by. Nicely oblique way of getting round to SS, and 'zip' is new to me in that context.

Laurent said...

We never visited Baden-Baden but your photos are lovely it gives a good idea of the place.

David said...

Thanks, Laurent. For a more complete picture, I should have snapped the old ladies of both sexes with their jewel-collared wee dogs and the Russian grotesques. I'm glad to have gone but I wouldn't willingly go back.