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
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.
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.